Interview with Dr. Abiodun Williams

Dr. Abiodun Williams, Vice President of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute for Peace, talked with IPI Senior Policy Analyst Mireille Affa’a-Mindzie on July 19th.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript:

Mireille Affa’a-Mindzie (MA): Thank you very much, Dr. Abiodun Williams, for granting us this interview. My first question will  be about elections in Africa that have produced mixed results. Some countries like Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, or Mali have shown a certain degree of democracy and stability in the recent years. Others, like Côte D’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, or Kenya have witnessed violence following elections.

Let’s focus on the success cases first. What conditions, from your point of view, have facilitated the emergence of democratic governance in those countries?

Dr. Abiodun Williams (AW): Well, I think understanding the causes of electoral violence is the first step to understanding why some governments have done better than others when it comes to managing elections. I think some of the countries you mentioned, which have had fairly successful and violence-free elections, have had electoral systems which are seen as fair and not flawed, and by-and-large have had elections which have not been the result of real or perceived manipulation. I think the countries which have witnessed electoral violence have had electoral systems which have had a number of deficiencies, and the elections themselves had not been well organized and well structured.

But beyond that, I think that if you are going to deal with the problem of electoral violence you need to address the underlying and the structural problems which lead to electoral violence, because the elections themselves are just triggers for conflict and for violence. That means dealing with economic inequality, trying to address issues of land reform and unfair land tenure laws, and, finally, trying to make sure that you don’t have the marginalization of groups on the basis of ethnicity, of language, or geography and having unscrupulous politicians who exploit those differences at the time of the election.

MA: You have almost already answered my second question, but I will ask it again. Then there are those cases where elections only serve as window-dressing to autocratic regimes. What will it take to extend democratic governance to those countries?

AW: Well, I think it is really, absolutely true that competitive elections are only one step, albeit an indispensable step, towards building democracy. If you are going to have genuine democracy, you not only need free, fair, open elections, but you have to have a free, fair, and effective judiciary system which works for everybody in the country. You have to have strong democratic institutions which can outlast political leaders. You also need sound public administration including a functioning, effective civil service and a robust civil society which can also help to hold leaders to account. Because elections raise expectations that national and local institutions will be responsive to the needs and concerns of all citizens, and in order to do that, you have to have all the other pillars of democracy in place.

MA: With the recent case of post-election violence in Côte D’Ivoire in mind, what can be done to facilitate that acceptance of election results by incumbents who lose but yet do not want to leave power?

AW:  I think this is a very important question. We have some examples in Africa, the most notable example being Nelson Mandela, who actually gave up power voluntarily. And we need more Nelson Mandelas on the continent, not less.

The difficulty is that many African leaders do not see a future for themselves after leaving office. In the United States, for example, you have presidents who set up foundations of their own and some of our best presidents in the United States have done their greatest work after leaving the White House, so we have to begin to create opportunities for African leaders – whether it’s setting up their own foundations, whether it’s being involved in universities as university presidents, to give them an incentive, to know that there is a life after leaving office. I think that would be critical.

MA: African leaders preside over mostly young populations whose hopes that elections will pave the way for democratic alternation have often been dashed. What will you say to them?

AW: What I would say, first, is that young people in Africa now are living in an Africa which, despite the problems and the difficulties which we know of so well–political instability, economic challenges–they are living in a continent which has seen enormous improvements since a generation ago. For example, a generation ago, the military coup d’état was the most predominant instrument for changing political leaders in the majority of African countries. Now this is really the exception, rather than the rule and many African countries are now having elections. They are not perfect, they are contentious, but that is a significant advance over a generation ago. So, I would say on the political side at least things have certainly improved.

They should not give up hope. Education is the key so I would say to them, make sure to take advantage of all the opportunities that are open to them, to make a change, because without sound and a good education, it is very difficult to play an effective role in society. And as observed many years ago, if there are eyes to see, they are the eyes of youth, for they do not see the future as an enemy but as a friend, for the young shall inherit the Earth. So they have to have an optimistic view about the future and believe that despite the challenges, the future will be better than the past and they can play a constructive and practical part in bringing about that kind of future.

MA: Electoral assistance has become an important activity for the UN and other multilateral organizations. However, it shows mixed results. How can it be improved? Is it just about technical assistance? Can it be extended to support political processes for transition to more democratic governance?

AW: Well, the United Nations has assisted many African countries with elections, ranging from the organization of elections and, as you say, to the provision of technical support. It has emphasized strengthening administrative capacity, such as the training of electoral officials, and assessing the costs of registration and balloting. And, in fact, about five years ago, the complicated electoral situation in Cote D’Ivoire led to a new form of United Nations electoral support, which was the appointment of a High Representative for Elections to help resolve electoral disputes.

However, I think over the medium- and long-term, the UN’s assistance needs to go beyond the administrative and the technical, and to take a more comprehensive approach to preventing electoral violence. Because it’s more than an administrative and technical issues–it is, essentially, a political process. And the United Nations also needs a more coherent strategy for preventing electoral violence which should be a part of the UN’s broader conflict preventive strategies.

MA: At regional level, what should the African Union and sub-regional organizations do differently to facilitate free and fair elections on the continent and thus reinforce democratic practices without duplicating electoral assistance?

AW: I think the support the African Union and sub-regional organizations such as ECOWAS can give is three-fold. The first is on the normative front. Establishing the underlying norms which are essential for free and fair elections. For example, the Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance of the African Union needs greater ratification by members of the African Union. I think there about eight countries which have ratified this Charter. That’s a fraction of the number of countries belonging to the AU. So the greater number of ratifications that we have will help to underline and strengthen the normative framework and the normative standards which are essential for free and fair elections.

Second, I also think that on the institutional level, organizations like the AU, sub-regional organizations have to do a better way coordinating the various parts of their secretariats, whether in the case of the AU it is the Department of Political Affairs or the Department of Peace and Security, so that all the different parts of the institutions are working together on the difficult business of having free and fair elections.

The third area has to be on the operational side, the kind of practical, focused advice and assistance which these organizations can give both in the run-up, during, and in the post-election phase. Because after all, one of the strengths of regional and sub-regional organizations, unlike international institutions, they are more familiar with these countries and closer to the problems. So they need to give more focused, practical advice at the operational level. And finally, they have to make better use, in the case of the AU, of the conflict early warning system, which can help to draw attention to potential countries at risk.