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Ending election violence will take leadership

Last year, AFSC helped convene people from across Africa to discuss ways to prevent election violence. Photo: George Mimano 
By: Kennedy Akolo

As one of the world’s longest continuing democracies, the United States is a global symbol of democratic principles and processes. In my home country of Kenya and many other places in Africa, people look to the U.S. for indicators of what a democracy should aspire to—and what political behavior is acceptable. 

So when Donald Trump, acting as president and chief spokesperson for the United States, dismisses Africa with an expletive, and when he calls journalists “fake news” and shows little concern for free, fair, and accurate elections, that ripples around the world.  

I’ll give you an example. We had elections last year in Kenya. The initial results were nullified by the Supreme Court, and a second round of elections were held a couple of months later. During that upheaval, the Kenyan government shut down three mainstream media outlets. When the opposition leader swore himself in as the people’s president, the media were not there to report on it. When disproportionate force was used against people protesting in the streets, and people died as a result, no journalists were present. In fact, the media was shut down precisely to avoid coverage of those events. 

In the past, the U.S. would have immediately called on Kenya to lift its media ban. This time, it took two weeks. Clearly, people in positions of power made a calculation that a president who is obsessed with “fake news” would not call them out for interfering with press freedoms—at least not with speed or credibility. 

And that makes AFSC’s ongoing work to prevent electoral violence in countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Somalia all the more important. Like a lot of our international programs, these programs stand up for principles of nonviolence, equality, and the common good—and offer a practical way forward for improving conditions with community involvement.  

Of course, every country has its own unique culture and circumstances. As AFSC’s regional director in Africa, I help ensure that our programs are shaped appropriately for different contexts and needs. But I also see some common threads—for example that when enough underlying issues are swept under the carpet, it only takes a small spark to ignite a conflict, even in relatively peaceful countries.  

That’s why AFSC commissioned a study, released in July, called “Shared security, shared elections: Best practices for the prevention of electoral violence.” Through a review of existing research and interviews with peace practitioners, we set out to identify what makes violence more likely in some electoral processes—and what facilitates peaceful elections. 

We found that people are more willing to perpetrate violence in support of their preferred candidates when resources are distributed as a reward for political loyalty instead of through nonpartisan institutions. Weak electoral management bodies can prime people to question the credibility of elections. And unresolved societal issues contribute, too—especially when politicians exploit divisions by framing those issues along ethnic lines.   

AFSC supports programs that stand up for principles of nonviolence, equality, and the common good—and offer a practical way forward for improving conditions with community involvement.

But we also discovered ways to make elections safer. Organizations like ours can do more by working in strong coalitions—something AFSC excels at. Those coalitions do well to share information, such as where violence is erupting and which successful interventions could be replicated. Engaging politicians and state agencies in maintaining peace is important, too, including asking them to train police forces to de-escalate—and not respond with force to—tensions among protestors or rival parties.  

Young people are key leaders in working to end election violence in Africa. Photo: George Mimano

Most importantly, we can tie our efforts to long-term peacebuilding strategies that address underlying tensions and needs, including programming specifically designed for youth and others most at risk when elections become violent.  

AFSC works to set the stage for peaceful elections when we offer ongoing vocational training to more than 3,000 unemployed youth in Somalia and Zimbabwe, as we did last year. We contribute further with shorter term peacebuilding activities that reach more than 4,000 young people annually—some of whom followed up by helping warring parties nonviolently resolve a boundary dispute in one small town in Somalia a couple of years ago.   

We support post-conflict healing and reconciliation among refugees in camps where whole generations have grown up without knowing their country from which their parents came. We work with people displaced by past election violence learning to live together for the first time. We have even helped ex-combatants reintegrate into communities.  

Beyond all of that, we routinely host international Dialogue and Exchange Programs that bring people together to share perspectives and develop their capacities to strengthen institutions and mitigate conflict. President Trump might be interested to know that we even held one last year for members of the media, to help them consider best practices for reporting truthfully without contributing to conflict escalation. 

The AFSC community, by supporting our programs in Africa, is doing its part to uphold democratic principles, support nonviolent conflict resolution, and work for free and fair elections. It’s time for more politicians to do the same.

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