April 5, 2020

Concerning Free and Fair Elections

The idea of universal suffrage entails a recognition that ordinary citizens even in fledgling democracies must have a say in the way that they are governed; and that the people have the right to choose among candidates who must represent their interest via regular elections for limited terms term limits on political office and periodic elections are constitutional measures designed specifically to discourage manipulations by incumbent politicians to extend their tenure, and thus, to erode the integrity of competitive democratic practice.

Institutions charged with the actual organization of elections are expected in principle to ensure that the electoral process itself is transparent and above reproach in practical terms, elections
must be free and fair, reflecting also the desires of citizens to produce accountable and representative governments

which are able and willing to fulfill popular welfare needs. But in many West African countries
elections are neither free nor fair and Voters are frequently coerced, intimated or forced by fractionalized political classes to vote in ways that compromise and negate their political will and material interests. Except for a few cases such as Mali, Benin, and Ghana that have shown steady improvements in the orderly conduct of regular elections, most other countries in the region are beset by perennial experiences of turbulent elections defined in terms of political assassinations and armed clashes between supporters of rival political parties.

Preparations for Presidential elections in Cote d’Ivoire, for example, have been postponed six times since 2005 because the Presidency and the country’s Independent Elections Commission have been in
sharp disagreements over the verification of the electoral list. Meanwhile street gangs and pro-government militias are terrorizing communities in provinces and obstructing normal democratic life in Abidjan. Nigeria is another unfortunate case. The last three elections (1999, 2003, and 2007) in that country have shown steady deterioration in the ability of

s u c c e s s i v e i n c u m b e n t governments to organize elections that are transparent and free of violence.

My assessments of electoral trends in Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria are meant to draw public attention to the fact that incidents of election-related violence can have human rights implications beyond the immediate significance of the losses in human lives in the countries. Indeed, instabilities in these two strategically significant c o u n t r i e s c a n g e n e r a t e considerable spill-over effects, with consequences for the p r o s p e c t s o f d e m o c r a t i c consolidation in the region. Therefore, in my view, it is imperative for normative leaders and security organizations in the region to initiate, establish, and operate rapid response systems capable of preventing or at least minimizing the impacts of inter-communal and electoral violence in the individual countries.

Okon Akiba

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