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Explaining Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Role of Institutions

Jalele Erega Defa, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Since the beginning of the 1990s, the majority of the Sub-Saharan African countries have started holding elections. About 20% of these elections have experienced high levels of electoral violence involving deaths and displacements of thousands of people while more than a third of the countries have not experienced violence. In countries that experience violence, some regions are more prone to violence than others. The central objective of the dissertation is to explain the variation in electoral violence in Sub-Saharan Africa between and within countries. To this end, I ask two interrelated questions: "why do some countries experience electoral violence while others do not?" and "what explains the variation at the sub-national level?" To answer the first question, I use a structured, focused comparison of Kenya's 2007 and Ghana's 2008 elections followed by a preliminary cross-national statistical analysis for the Sub-Saharan Africa region. To answer the question about sub-national level variation, I compare the dynamics of conflict and peace in Kenya's Rift Valley Province in the 2007 and 2013 elections. The findings suggest that rival explanations of ethnic diversity, economic development, colonial history, or electoral systems do not sufficiently explain variation in the occurrence of electoral violence in African democracies. Rather at national level, when Election Management Bodies are autonomous, they help decrease the chances of violence by limiting fraud and guaranteeing losers a fair chance in future elections. Institutionalized parties also help limit the chances of violence by promoting stability, legitimacy and trust among voters. Civil society organizations, when capable and independent, also serve as mediators between the competing parties. The impact of international election observation is mixed at its best. However, the international community can support democratic consolidation better by assisting initiatives that aim at strengthening domestic institutions and civil society. Findings from the sub-national level analysis highlight the centrality of local players and localized expressions of violence.

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Defa, Jalele Erega, "Explaining Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Role of Institutions" (2019). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI13865808.