The recent outbreak of post-election violence in Kenya in which about 600 people were reported dead while several others got injured and properties destroyed, brought to the fore the problem of election-related violence in Africa, particularly its destructive side effects on the social, political and economic development of the affected states.
The violence in Kenya has sparked off debates in the Ghanaian media about election-related violence. Public interest in the topic appears to be driven by the fact that Ghana is preparing for a general election in December 2008.
While some people see the possibility of election-related violence during the forthcoming elections in Ghana, others argue that there is a remote possibility of this happening because Ghana has gone through four successful general elections since the return to multi-party democracy in 1992.
Electoral-related violence is political violence that aims at the electoral process. It is usually geared towards winning political competition or power through violence, subverting the ends of the electoral and democratic process.
The causes of election-related violence include the lack of independence of electoral bodies, lack of confidence in the electoral process, abuse of incumbency, political repression, ethno-religious politics and misguided media reports.
Election-related violence manifests itself in various forms: Threat of violence; violent street protest; disruption of public meetings and rallies; destruction of electoral material and the voting process; torture and battery; killings; and harassment, among others.
Election violence can take place before, during or after elections. No matter when it happens, election-related violence has a negative impact on the electoral process and democratisation.
In countries with histories of ethnic conflict, election-related violence can exacerbate it and reduce political contest to ethnic or sectional contest.
As in the case of Kenya, while it cannot be said that the cause of the post-elections violence is entirely ethnic, the fact that it has taken ethnic dimensions is worrying.
The Kikuyu are reported to be supporting President Mwai Kibaki while the Luo are supporting Raila Odinga, the opposition leader.
The situation in Kenya is possible in multi-ethnic societies. Election-related violence with ethnic dimensions polarises society further and destroys the values of peaceful co-existence needed to develop a nation.
Ethnic divisions take time to mend. Ethnic conflict following elections will take a longer time to resolve and there is a possibility of its resurgence.
Election violence leads to the destruction of economic infrastructure and scares away the much needed foreign investment.
Once a country is engulfed in violence, not only will investors shy away from the country but those already in the country are most likely to relocate to safer environment.
Even the possibility that a pending election is likely to turn violent can influence potential investors to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, possibly to invest only after peaceful elections, or those who cannot wait will seek investment opportunities elsewhere.
With this in mind, political actors in Ghana and the rest of Africa must be careful about beating war drums prior to elections.
Another negative effect of election-related violence is that it leads to the reversal of public confidence in the democratic process.
One argument in favour of promoting democracy in Africa is that it will reduce conflict on the continent by promoting good governance and economic development thereby lifting people out of poverty.
In a situation where democracy through elections becomes a destabilising factor, people will lose confidence in its merits and pave the way for the resurgence of military dictatorship, although not a better option.
Finally, and in the worse case scenario, election-related violence can serve as a prelude to violent conflict through the formation of rebel groups.
It appears quite obvious that Kenya is on the verge of civil conflict unless diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the dispute over election results is stepped up.
Whose responsibility is it, then, to prevent election-related violence? The government? The election management body? Political parties and their supporters? Or voters?
It is the responsibility of all political actors to ensure that the rules of the electoral game are respected to ensure violence-free elections.
First, the government (the ruling government) has the responsibility to ensure that all suspicion that it can manipulate the electoral process in its favour is removed.
This responsibility includes refraining from abuse of incumbency and attempts to exercise control over the election management body.
Second, the election management body also has the responsibility to assert its independence by resisting attempts by either the government or political parties to influence it unduly.
The independence of the election management body must go beyond legislation to include the ability to carry out its work in an independent manner that is obvious to the public.
It is important that the public has confidence that the election management body cannot be manipulated by political actors.
Third, much of the responsibility to ensure violence free election also rests with political parties and their supporters.
Political parties have the responsibility to educate their members against lawless acts that will disturb the peace, before, during and after an election.
There is the need for political parties to work hard to strengthen their support base instead of seeking opportunities to rig elections through intimidation and vote buying.
It will also be usual for political parties to commit themselves to a binding code of conduct backed by strong sanction regime which commits them and their support to 'good behaviour' during elections.
One must bear in mind that both the ruling and the challenging parties can rig an election. That is the more reason why the prevention of election violence is a joint responsibility.
Fourth, the media also has a responsibility by refraining from hyping baseless allegations that will heighten political tension before, during and after an election.
The responsibility of the media should include educating the public against acts of violence during elections.
Civil society groups and research centres must increase inter-party dialogue and help parties to assess their true strength before elections so that they will gracefully accept defeat in elections.
Finally, the voting public and society as a whole has the responsibility to say no to attempts by political parties to buy their votes, take part in vote rigging or participate in street protests that have no basis.
There is the need to cultivate a constant dialogue among the key stakeholders in the electoral process to deal with all real or perceived issues likely to cause violence during elections.
The Inter-Party Advisory Committee (IPAC) should continue to serve as a forum for political parties in Ghana to address their grievances in relation to the general election in December 2008.
By Samuel M. Atuobi
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."
Reproduction is authorised provided the author's permission is granted.