Election Violence and the Need to Thaw the Frozen Ice

Election Violence and the Need to Thaw the Frozen Ice



The dawn of December 2016 presents another opportunity for Ghana’s fledgling democratic development. Indeed, as an island of peace in the West African sub-region, Ghana is set to raise the bar higher once more. Nevertheless, one critical issue of utmost concern to most Ghanaians is the level of anxiety and the threat to the relative peace anytime the election vehicle turns a full cycle. The contest for power in Ghana’s fourth republic through multi-party democracy has been adversarial either between supporters of political parties or supporters against the key institution organizing the elections. This adversarial position normally comes before, during and after the elections. In trying to balance up the relative importance of addressing the menace of election violence, it is important for one to understand the tenets of democracy, the way Ghanaian society is organized politically, people’s independent or collective motives, grievance redressal mechanisms and proffered solutions.


Elections in Democratic Governance and Conflicts  

Elections as a selective process ensure the initiation of governments into office, holding key administrators of governance accountable for their actions and inactions, keeping the leaders focused on the felt needs of the masses and above all keep the fire of democracy ablaze. The primary function is to select and remove certain political leaders. By the simplest definition of democratic governance, the process of electing leaders is premised on a healthy competitive atmosphere where leaders canvass for votes from the citizens. In fact, the three major attributes of democratic governance: representation, participation and accountability is given a meaning through elections. Overtly, the greatest source of oxygen for democracy is election.


In mature democracies such as Iceland, the U.S and U.K, the choices made by most voters in any election are conditioned by social and economic transformation. Indeed, elections in such areas provide an avenue for citizens to scrutinize their leaders, find out if progress has been made and above all make an informed decision about who to vote for in a peaceful atmosphere. Nonetheless, historical antecedents in Ghana’s multiparty elections have coincided with violent confrontations and ethnically targeted innuendos that have left the country polarized. The entire electoral violence is captured in thuggery where people are maimed, beaten, murdered and in some cases arson.



Triggers of Election Violence

One of the key determinants of election violence is social cleavage. The fluctuations in the electoral fortunes of political parties in Ghana suggest the dynamism of Ghanaian cleavage social structures. Social cleavages in political science are assumed to connect with the multiparty system. In the political space of Ghana, many voters cluster around parties based on existing cleavages’ formation. Critical issues such as the perceived collapsed of National Health Insurance Scheme, judgment debt, the troubled economy and the President’s massive infrastructure have frequently evoked primordial sentiments along partisan fault lines with religious cleavages, regional cleavages, rural-urban cleavages and chieftaincy connections. Undeniably, the social plurality of Ghana always brings opposing views to such issues with passionate arguments. More often than not, the convergence on the objective truth in these arguments is lost in the midst of entrenched positions. These identity based cleavages fuel misunderstanding that become latent gunpowder kegs waiting for the least opportunity to explode.


Countries with a fractionalized ethnic structure have a large number of ethnic groups in which each makes up a politically relevant proportion of the total population. Ghana has a fragmented ethnic structure where there are 6 major ethnic groups with the largest making up 47.5% (GSS, 2012) of the total population. Ethnicity is less important in a closed political system. However, it becomes a critical ingredient especially in Africa and for that matter Ghana once the political environment becomes competitive where patronage and popular support is important. Interestingly, ethnic groups in Ghana have regional blocks that are affiliated to political parties along which they vote. Underpinning these regional block formation are historical issues, perceived animosity and stereotypes along which ethnic groups discriminate against one another. Nevertheless, Ghana does not have bimodal ethnic grouping, however, polarization along historical issues, perceived animosity and stereotype discrimination has given rise to the approximation of a bipolar grouping along the two major parties. This approximation creates quasi-natural fractionalization along which politicians do subtle competitive ethnic mobilization. This trajectory of canvassing for votes is a sure recipe for conflict at the least provocation. 


As documented by Ake (1985) the freebies associated with political office have raised the stakes to dizzy heights in terms of competition for political power such that rules and regulations are disregarded and key stakeholders become ruthless. Political parties invest a lot of resources in the campaign process believing that election is the most singular opportunity to realize material gain. Therefore, a lost is associated with wasted investment. In such a circumstance coupled with the grim prospect of not winning future elections, violent action to the politician is more preferable. However, where losers can recoup loses through winning future elections, the prospect of violence is less.


The excessive desire for power has led the politician and political parties to mobilize their supporters at political rallies, voter registration and on polling day by promising large gains or exaggerating pre-election hardship, or by constructing the specter of catastrophic consequences should the party lose. Election campaigning may also push political leaders to inflate the size of electoral losses, or create vigilante groups within the party that places a low premium on accepting election results. Conversely, the need to hold on to political power may lead incumbent leaders to “play the ethnic card” and incite hostility toward other groups under increasing political competitiveness. The end product of this unconscionable desire is the possibility of electoral violence. In fact, violence may arise over the outcome of elections, either because of actual or perceived irregularities or if some contenders reject the official election results.


Thawing the Ice of Election Violence

Collier (2009) argues that elections will only help ensure peaceful competition over political power if the rule of law is credibly guaranteed. When it is not, conflict becomes more likely since electoral outcomes are unlikely to be accepted by the losing parties. In this direction, the codified laws guiding the election must be strictly adhered to irrespective of the individual or the collective group who has broken the law.  Combine with the law, a suitable grievance redressal mechanism has to be put in place to resolve grievances of the stakeholders in the presence of strong institutions capable of enforcing electoral integrity and leadership turnover. The directive by the Chief Justice to set up courts with the specific focus on redressing election grievances expeditiously is a step in the right direction.  


When people through rightful means worked for something and it is within grasp, expectations automatically rise. However, when it appears that someone is deliberately thwarting their efforts to attain this goal, frustrations set in which might lead to aggressive behaviour and the consequence is violence.  Legitimacy and impartiality of downstream polling station officers and the Electoral Commission is very crucial in preventing election violence. Election officers from the electoral commissioners right down to the downstream returning officer at the polling station need capacity building on social cleavages, ethnic fractionalization, hotspots associated with violence, the rules of engagement, placing elections in a political context and historical perspective, so that issues could be pre-empted and responded to pro-actively.


The Electoral Commission and the Police Service have identified over 5000 flash points and their associated electoral violence as a threat to Ghana’s nascent democracy and overall development. Most of these flashpoints identified have nothing to do directly with the electoral process but rivalry between the contesting parties and their affiliated candidates and supporters. These supporters are normally fed with half-truths and false information through social media outlets which has become “the fifth estate of the realm” and the fastest mode of sending text and audiovisual information. Such agitated supporters disturb public peace, maim people and cause acts of vandalism. The presence of mainstream media in most of the hotspots is very crucial in two ways: report the objective truth and act as a check on the tyranny of this fifth estate of the realm (social media).


Election policing is different from normal policing therefore special skills are needed. In this direction, the Police should demarcate existing hotspots and potential ones (polling stations and collation centers) in each constituency into manageable nodes and connect them by arcs in a network. The Police in collaboration with the military can work jointly to mount surveillance and link up with each patrol team. In fact, it has been established that there is a negative relationship between increase in the number of patrolling vehicles and the reduction of crime in a volatile hotspot. This notwithstanding, there are inherent challenges in police patrolling on Election Day. Firstly, the node routing problem of the shortest cycle that goes round all the hotspots once. Secondly, the arc routing problem of visiting every hotspot in the network at least once and finally, the perpetrators trying to determine the schedule and patrolling paths of the patrol vehicles. It is therefore important for the Police to know the history of each hotspot. This will help the Police to assign value/weight, which is proportional to the degree of threat posed by each hotspot. Consequently, this should determine the choice of random routes for patrolling cars and timeliness of police response.  Random routes in times of emergency, however, cannot be determined offhand. The Police therefore must use algorithm to draw suitable cycles for patrolling vehicles, which will ensure safety and efficiency. In addition, Election Day and the immediate two days after should be divided into several shifts by stationing police officers at notable hotspots while the military is made part of rapid response patrol teams in the network.


The political actors are mindful of the capacity of the international election observers to report ‘electoral infraction, clarify its source, extent and effect and, most importantly, attribute blame to specific perpetrators’ (Kelley, 2012). Increasing and deploying expert international observers with knowledge about Ghana for longer periods in our constituencies will reduce electoral violence. This comes against the backdrop of observers facilitating international punishment and increase of media coverage of perpetrators. This notwithstanding, the focus of such observers should be on both incumbent government and the opposition parties so that none can avoid blame for violent deeds.



One inescapable fact about election violence is that it destroys democracy. Initiation and sustenance of election violence is disregard for democracy, rule of law and a clear violation of the rights of law-abiding citizens. The notion that politics is the surest investment that brings quick material returns for which reason election must be won at any cost must be condemn and discarded. The law must apply equally especially to political office holders who secretly connive to divert state resources to enrich themselves. The Police must adopt innovative ways of policing especially on Election Day and few days thereafter. Election must not be seen as a periodic activity for which any problem related to it is forgotten once the elections are over. It should be a continuous process of active engagement of all stakeholders.



This publication on Ghana elections was made possible with support from the American Embassy






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