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Preventing election violence: Seven strategies for peace

Photo: / AFSC

By Theresa Kirby

The wind of change blows through every country,” says Moses Chasieh, AFSC’s country representative in Bu­rundi. “No leader can stay in power forever, and non­violence should be a prime value in bringing change.” Across Africa, tensions sometimes escalate between those trying to stay in power and those trying to come into power. When norms that support free and fair elections are not respected, citizens pay the price.

A legacy of colonialism contributes to ethnic and politi­cal conflict. Despite the continent’s rich natural resources, ex­treme inequality leaves too many people struggling to survive. Against this backdrop, politicians incite violence with hate speech tied to historical injustices or by offering young people money to disrupt competing candidates. In Kenya, more than 1,100 people were killed and over 500,000 displaced following its 2007 elections—just one example of the devastating toll such violence can take.

What can be done to reduce the likelihood of violence at election time? AFSC’s programs in Africa have begun to find out. Here are a few key findings and examples of the lessons in action.

1. Commit to the long haul.

“International aid agencies normally fund peace building efforts starting just six months before an election,” says Pauline Kamau, AFSC’s Quaker international affairs representative based in Nairobi, Kenya. “But we need to look at elections as a process and make funding available throughout the whole cycle. It cannot be touch and go. This doesn’t help, because even if people quiet down after an election, the same issues will come back four or five years down the line.”

In Burundi and Kenya, AFSC forges long-term partnerships with religious leaders and others with deep community ties. These partnerships combined with other kinds of outreach and dialogue bring continuity to violence prevention efforts, broadening popular commitment to nonviolence long before election campaigns begin.

2. Recognize that change must be locally led.

Organizations like AFSC can help by sharing ideas and resources, but ultimately it is the people of the country who bring about the change.

When outsiders get involved without a commitment to listening, things often get worse, says Pauline. “Leaders say, ‘Don’t come here to lecture us. You have enough problems to sort out in your own country. We are a sovereign state. We can sort ourselves out.’”

3. Find partners who share your values and develop a plan together.

“Certain institutions have a mandate to work on elections,” says Moses. “We map out who has that mandate, and we look for ones with similar values.”

In Burundi, AFSC partners with Norwegian Church Aid and International Christian Service for Peace (EIRENE), headquartered in Germany. A joint 2016–2020 Action Plan for Peace is serving as a roadmap for supporting Burundi religious leaders in peace work within the country and beyond. The plan provides for the development of common training materials and tools as well as strategies for reaching politicians and the public.

4. Invite people in positions of influence to join you.

“We identify key people within the country,” says Pauline. “People others listen to.” These include eminent personalities, United Nations officials, religious and regional leaders, media personalities, celebrities admired by youth, mediators, and even politicians themselves.

Religious leaders can play a particularly important role. “Burundi has about 600 religious groups,” says Moses. “But instead of looking at it as a challenge, we see it as an opportunity. Everyone comes from a religious background. Religious leaders can easily speak and have people listen. So, we work to build their capacities to preach the message of peace and nonviolence.”

5. Have a clear message.

When partners, community leaders, and others share a common message that clearly speaks to the issues at hand, they can have a larger impact.

Candidates who see elections as their only avenue for exerting influence are more apt to incite violence, so our message is that there is no need for violence because the election is not an all or nothing prospect. Other avenues are available for leading and being influential, regardless of election outcomes.

We also promote the concept of shared security—the idea that peace is only possible when it is achieved collectively. This concept has been adopted for peace conferences in Somalia and East Africa and has spurred the interest of regional bodies such as the African Union. The idea has caught on in local contexts, as well. “I am because you are,” says Pauline. “When I am at peace you are at peace. That is our motto.”

6. Involve youth.

Youth are especially affected by election violence, in part because very high unemployment rates make them more susceptible to candidates offering to pay them to disrupt an election.

Pauline finds that direct outreach to youth is effective. “We talk to them and say, ‘you do not have to do this,’” she says. “You can see them changing and influencing others.” This outreach can take the form of one-on-one conversations—or large convenings like one that brought 100 youth leaders from across Africa together for a Dialogue and Exchange Program in 2017 in Nairobi.

She adds that outreach to women is also important. “They talk to their sons and daughters and we see a change.”

7. Share successful strategies.

Bringing key groups together to share their experiences and ideas helps to lay foundations for peace more broadly.

In addition to convening youth, AFSC’s Dialogue and Exchange Program brought members of the media together last year to consider how to cover elections without magnifying calls for violence. And a series of convenings for religious leaders has opened the door to multi-faith efforts to promote peace.

These exchanges facilitate the spread of successful strategies. More importantly, they help set the stage for peaceful elections.