Missing in Action: How Regional Insecurity Is Disenfranchising Voters in Sub-Saharan Africa

If Ethiopia conducts its thrice-delayed elections on Monday, June 21, it will become the seventh sub-Saharan African presidential or general poll since 2018 where parts of the electorate can’t vote. The Ethiopian government—entangled in a civil war in its Tigray region and enmeshed in broader communal and insurgent violence across the country—has declared that there will be no voting in the Tigray, Harari, and Somali regions, as well as numerous other constituencies. In total, over 100 constituencies (of Ethiopia’s 547) across eight regions of the country will not be voting on June 21. A virtual preelection assessment by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) indicated that widespread insecurity “is undermining the ability of Ethiopians to engage in the electoral process and threatens to undermine voting on election day.” While the reasons for Ethiopia’s predicament are unique, the outcome has become disturbingly common. Recurrent security challenges are likely to plague future elections in other regional hotspots and exacerbate the perilous state of democracy and freedom in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Incredible Shrinking Electorate

Ethiopia is the latest in a series of African elections where polling stations have been preemptively or unexpectedly closed due to the threat of violence, and in one example, the presence of armed groups and the Ebola virus. In the most extreme cases, more than 10 percent of the electorate has been blocked from voting.

  • Central African Republic (2020). In the Central African Republic’s (CAR) first round of voting in December 2020, rebel violence necessitated the closure of about 14 percent of polling stations (about 800 out of a total 5,408). An electoral commission official briefed that there were “localities where voters were brutalized, [and] threatened with death. The electoral staff were forbidden to deploy on the ground.”

  • Burkina Faso (2020). Ahead of the general elections in November 2020, the Burkinabe government ruled that it was unsafe for registration to take place in 17.4 percent of its electoral communes. The country’s legislature amended the Electoral Code to introduce a force majeure clause, enabling the government to preemptively cancel election activities in areas afflicted by violence.
  • Nigeria (2019). While the electoral commission failed to release a list of the canceled polls during the presential election in February 2019, some 3 percent of the electorate (2.9 million people) was unable to vote in violence-affected areas. According to the final report of IRI and NDI’s Nigeria International Election Observation Mission, these closed polling stations represented a significant increase compared to 2015, when only 1 percent of registered voters were blocked from casting their ballot.

  • Democratic Republic of Congo (2018). The election commission canceled presidential voting in the cities of Beni and Butembo in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the town of Yumbi in western Congo due to the presence of armed groups and an Ebola outbreak. Some 3.3 percent of the electorate (about 1.2 million people) was unable to vote as a result. Election authorities defended their decision, saying, “elections lead to important movements of voters towards polling places, thus . . . raising the risk of propagation of this disease (Ebola) and providing the conditions for terrorist attacks.”

  • Mali (2018). Extremist violence forced some 600 polling stations to close in the first and second rounds of Mali’s presidential election. Approximately 2.2 percent of the electorate (about 173,125 people), mostly located in central and northern Mali, could not participate in the election. Mali’s 2020 legislative election had similar issues with poll closure due to insecurity.

  • Cameroon (2018). A raging civil war in Cameroon’s anglophone regions prohibited around 40 percent of polling stations in the southwest region and up to 60 percent in the northwest region from opening, according to a local nongovernmental organization.

Fear and Loathing at the Ballot Box

This trend of closed polling stations in part corresponds to an uptick in extremist violence and insecurity in the region. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, there was a 43 percent spike in militant Islamist group violence in Africa in 2020. It represents a record level of violence, the report said, “continuing an upward pattern seen since 2016.” This increase in conflict coincided with the busiest years of the region’s election cycles, in which 31 countries held presidential or general elections between January 2018 and May 2021, including in all Sahelian and Lake Chad Basin states.

The problem of closed polling stations was less acute in previous decades, as conflict was a more acceptable reason for delaying elections. In Liberia, there was a gap in elections from 1985 to 1997 and again from 1997 until 2005 following the conclusion of the country’s civil war. Similarly, in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire, the poll was delayed for a decade because of conflict and peace negotiations. In Burundi, Rwanda, and the DRC, there was a pause in elections until the mid-2000s. Since insecurity—rightly or wrongly—is no longer permissible as an excuse for an election postponement, the region’s governments and their international partners have decided to proceed, even with a percentage of the electorate shut out of the process.

A Never-Ending Story

There are several consequences of closed polling stations. First, they may fuel protests and more violence. In DRC, there were public demonstrations and an attack on an Ebola treatment center to protest citizens’ exclusion from the presidential election. Beni and Butembo residents even staged symbolic elections to illustrate that the cancelation was unwarranted. Second, they risk undermining voter confidence and trust in the democratic process. In Burkina Faso, for example, voter turnout (for voters who had access to voting stations) dropped from approximately 60 percent in 2015 to 49 percent in 2020 due to a combination of fear and lack of trust. Third, they contribute to a vicious cycle where voters who want leaders to combat insecurity are unable to participate in the election due to insecurity, and increasingly feel that their concerns over the issue are swept under the rug. In Mali, rising insecurity and the routine closing of polling stations during both the 2018 and 2020 elections were notable contributors to growing citizen discontent, resulting in multiple coups over the last two years. Finally, they establish a precedent for further disenfranchisement. Future elections—from Sudan and Nigeria in 2023 to South Sudan in 2023—will almost certainly pose similar challenges and incumbents may point to past polls to justify the absence of voting in conflict-riddled areas.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

While there are no clear-cut answers to this challenge, there are some best practices to minimize disenfranchisement and voter disaffection, as well as preserve an election’s credibility.

  • Interparty consensus. It is ideal to reach an agreement across the political spectrum and garner institutional support to cancel elections in certain regions. This ensures there is some buy-in, even if a percentage of the population is barred from voting. In Burkina Faso, the government and opposition negotiated an amendment to the electoral code that stipulated that the election would be validated even if it was not possible to organize the election in some regions due to “exceptional circumstances.”

  • Transparency. Election commissions should publish a list of closed stations before the vote. While the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has released the names of the affected constituencies, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Nigeria failed to do so in 2019. This contributed to a perception by many voters that the election was fraudulent, even if the polls were closed for legitimate concerns. The European Union Election Observation Mission noted that the polling was canceled without “sufficient accountability” and that the lack of transparency undermined public confidence in the democratic process.

  • IDP voting. While it is logistically difficult and politically sensitive, it is possible to arrange for internally displaced persons (IDP) voting during elections. In 2016, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) recommended that decisions on provisions for IDP participation be worked out well in advance of an election or referendum, and that special measures be considered to facilitate equality of opportunity and representation. The report added that IDPs should be given the choice of whether to vote for constituencies of origin, or current constituencies, without any consequence for their IDP status or access to humanitarian assistance.

  • Runoffs. Depending on the electoral system, it may be possible to include disenfranchised voters in runoff elections. During CAR’s second round in February 2021, there was runoff voting in 49 electoral districts and first-round voting in 69 districts where violence had closed polls in December. While those who still were not able to vote in the second round felt they could not trust the results, it did resolve many of the issues with disenfranchisement for those who missed the first round but voted in the second.

  • Post-election Processes. It is important to view voting as only part of the election and democratic process. The upcoming poll in Ethiopia almost certainly will be flawed and marked by boycotts and violence. However, in a U.S. Institute of Peace interview, Terrence Lyons explained that “the vote will not determine the potential for future reforms or provide meaningful legitimacy to the incumbent.” He underscored that it will be vital to support longer-term processes and political dialogue to “develop a new road map to sustain the political opening, decrease polarization and end political violence.”

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Elena Mieszczanski is an intern with the CSIS Africa Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont

Elena Mieszczanski

Intern, Africa Program