8. Big Man Politics and Electoral Violence in (West) Africa

E-mail of panel organiser: mimmi.soderberg-kovacs@nai.uu.se

In 2010, Guinea’s first democratic election in decades saw widespread intimidation of voters, and violent clashes between rival supporters of the two competing presidential candidates. In the wake of excessive use of force by the military and the security forces, thousands of people were displaced and many killed. In neighbouring Sierra Leone, the post-war elections have generally been considered a success for the advancement of both peace and democracy. Yet, at the same time, they have also witnessed a number of violent incidents ranging from riots, arson, clashes between party supporters and security elements and attacks on both candidates and voters. These cases do not illustrate isolated events, but are representative of a larger trend that we have witnessed across the globe – but particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa – in new democracies that have emerged from authoritarian or military regimes, sometimes in the aftermath of civil wars. Democratic elections intended to mark the very shift from brutal and autocratic rule to democratic governance become both the causes and the victims of violence.

How can we explain this trend? What are the causes of election-related violence? What are the more dynamics of these processes, at local, national and regional level? What are some of its most important effects for the development and establishment of both peace and democracy? Although there appear to a near consensus among scholars regarding the relevance of paying closer attention to the logic of the political system in many new democracies – pointing particularly to the pervasiveness of patronage or so called Big Man politics – in order to better understand why elections in these countries oftentimes become marred in violence, we still know very little about how such processes effect the outcome under scrutiny and the more detailed causal mechanisms at work in these processes.  This panel holds papers that address these pertinent research questions in the (West) African* context.

Panel Discussant: Liisa Laakso, University of Helsinki, Finland



Author: Victor Adetula (University of Jos, Nigeria)


The 1999 elections marked the return to electoral democracy in Nigeria after nearly four decades of military rule. Historically elections in Nigerian have been marred by violence ranging from verbal attacks to outright killings and the four national elections held in the country since 1999 had their share of violent conflicts based on the testimonies of members of the general public in the media, and also the reports by domestic and international observers. Also of concern is the irregular use of money by 'money bags' politicians and 'godfathers' who use their benefits from state-sponsored patronage politics to engage the voters in 'carrots and sticks' politics with the attendant results of vote buying, intimidation and electoral violence. Using data from the Afrobarometer surveys and also some anecdotal evidences, this paper establishes current trends and patterns of election related violence in Nigeria as well as the links with the activities of 'money bags' and 'godfathers'. The paper argues that the political environment in Nigeria is characterized by underdeveloped structures and institutions, which presents extraordinarily high opportunities for political corruption, patronage politics, and electoral violence. Nigeria's democratic institutions remain largely weak and undeveloped. The weakness of the legal framework to control the use of money in politics, the long-time indifference of Nigerians to the problem of party finance, and the rent-seeing behaviour of the political elites and their parties constitute major challenges to the Nigerian electoral system. Media and civil society are often as weak, if not more, as before under authoritarian regimes, and are hardly equipped to engage other stakeholders notably the government head-on in the struggle for transparency and accountability in governance procedures. Looking at the events of the past few years, one can argue reasonably that the democratic system in Nigeria is still in its infancy, and forces are always at work that could undermine the foundations of a new democracy.

2. ‘Politics is a dirty game’ - Election Communication and the Negotiation of Conflict in Northern Ghana

Author: Afra Schmitz ( Johannes Gutenberg University, Germany)


While African elections are generally perceived as strongly contested attempts to make use of weak or still emerging democratic structures, Ghana is hailed as a role model for successful democratisation. Consequently, outbreaks of violence and minor clashes between the parties’ supporters during the 2012 general elections were shrugged off as side-effects – rather irrelevant, it seems, compared to other African countries like Guinea or Nigeria, where recent elections were characterised by instability, insecurity, and political turmoil.

Democratic culture is deeply entangled with various ways and means of conflict negotiation. I therefore argue that in order to gain substantial insights into processes of election-related violence, the diverse expressions of political culture on the national, regional and local level need to be studied extensively instead of falling prey to uphold Ghana’s reputation. Explanatory approaches such as clientelism, ethnic diversity or patronage networks are by themselves insufficient when focusing on the causes of violent outbreaks during election season. Often, they equally fail to explain why simmering conflicts are politicised by ‘traditional’ authorities and politicians but finally wouldn’t escalate.

This paper is based on a long-term field study in north-western Ghana during the 2008 and 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections. It outlines the relevance of political communication strategies deployed by politicians and other big men, who - in order to catch votes - activate longstanding conflicts and aim at evoking loyalties and occasionally violent support. Image-building strategies and negative campaigning e.g. draw on political rumours, which when put in circulation hover around unexplained accidents and unresolved problems, effectively polarising the electorate in the highly tensed election season.

My paper shows that election communication provides the missing link between politics, election campaigns and strategies of conflict negotiation on various levels of society, and therefore offers considerable insights into the dynamics of political processes and election-related violence.

3. Regimes of (In)Security in Guinea-Conakry. Contextualising Electoral Violence in the Post-Conté Era

Author: jesper Bjarnesen (The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden)


The paper analyses Guinea’s political landscape in the post-Conté era with a focus on past, current, and potential nodes of access to formal and informal power. This approach suggests a compromise between a focus on Big Men in African politics and an institutional approach to identifying the locations of power and influence. The paper uses the 2010 presidential elections as a case study for exploring the dynamics of the distribution of political power in Guinea. The analysis thereby outlines the basic, and more enduring, nodes of socio-political dominance based on the available analyses of the tumultuous contestations over state power since 2006 as well as on historically and culturally deeper analyses of the dynamics of power and security in Guinean society.

The analytical strategy of the paper is thereby to focus on the main positions that enable actors to access resources (such as the bauxite and minerals, arms, drugs, and oil industries as well as state revenues) and influence (i.e. political power, bargaining power, religious following, or the ability to mobilise parts of the general population through top positions in government, opposition, civil society, trade unions, or the military, as well as possible power positions in more localised social institutions), whether within, outside, or in the shadows of the structures of the state.

Such an approach is deemed necessary in a socio-political scenario where individual actors have been replaced so many times within the last few years that it is almost impossible to keep track of which individuals are ‘Big’ and who are yesterday’s news at any given moment. At the same time, it seems that the basic structures, or nodes, of influence outlive the individual actors that have occupied these central positions, thereby enabling an assessment of which nodes of influence – and which dynamics between these nodes – may continue to influence issues of national and sub-national (in)security and political (in)stability. The emphasis on structural focal points is thus based on the empirical specificity of the developments in the political landscape in the case of contemporary Guinea.

At the same time, the importance of acknowledging the charismatic authority of individual Big Men and Women, which is brought out in the works on Big Men and informal regimes of power, rings no less true for the Guinean case. In this sense, the most public figures of the Guinean political landscape since independence have, firstly, employed their personal abilities to persuade and control others in order to rise to central nodal positions and, secondly, significantly shaped the structures around them in their own image during their reign. This goes most notably for the country’s two despots, but applies equally well to individuals in other parts of Guinea’s political landscape – and to future leaders and men and women of influence in the years to come.

4. Silencing Violence: Ex-militias as reserve armies and the ambiguities of debt

Authors: Mats Utas (The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden) & Maya Mynster Christensen (Danish Defence College)


In this paper we explore the tensions between risk, profit and debt circulation that shaped ex-militias manoeuvres during the 2012 elections in Sierra Leone. With point of departure in the emic notion of ‘silencing violence’ we illuminate how ex-militias simultaneously sought to displace and deploy violent action. Such apparently contradictory manoeuvres, we argue, are to be understood as a response to a political environment of peace influenced by ongoing processes of securitisation. In order to benefit from the emerging opportunities for profit in such a political environment, ex-militias drew on various, and at times discrepant tactics, on divergent legitimacies based on extended forms of political debt originating from both the civil war and the previous presidential election.

5. Uncertainty, Competition, and Big Man Politics: Electoral Violence in Sierra Leone

Author: Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs (The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden)


In contrast to many other countries across the Africa continent, notably Kenya, Zimbabwe, Guinea or the Ivory Coast, the post-war elections in Sierra Leone have generally been considered a success. International and domestic election observers alike agree that the elections have marked a significant step towards the consolidation of both peace and democracy.
Yet, at the same time, the general elections in both 2007 and 2012, as well as many of the bye elections across the country in the last few years, have also bore witness to a number of violent incidents ranging from riots, arson, clashes between party supporters and security elements and attacks on both candidates and voters during the campaign period, on the day of the election and in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the election results. Importantly, there has been a clear geographical pattern to this trend, where some areas have experienced a significantly higher level of violence compared to other. How can this trend be explained? What are the causes of such incidents of electoral violence, and why are we more likely to see more election-related violence in some regions but not in others within the same country?
Based on a comparative analysis of several elections in Sierra Leone in the post-war period, this article argues that when there is a strong political competition for votes on the national level, we are more likely to see violence occurring in potential swing areas. In these areas, there is a higher degree of uncertainty about the electoral outcome, which raises the stakes of the electoral contest, and politicians are more likely to resort to violent strategies to mobilise their own supporters and intimidating those of its opponents.

6. Commercial Motor Drivers in Governance: Democratization, Transport Unions and Violence Southwestern Nigeria

Authors: Ayokule Olumuyiwa Omobowale and Olatokunbo Oritshewehinmi Fayiga
(University of Ibadan, Nigeria)


Democratization process in Southwestern Nigeria presents a unique case of politicking which involves transport unions in patronage politics and the electoral process. With members drawn predominantly from the lower class, transport unions are strategic partners to politicians and political patrons who utilize commercial drivers as foot-soldiers during election periods. Hence, every government in power takes special interest in the leadership of the transport unions as the unions somewhat play vital roles in who gets to power and the maintenance of social order. This paper is specially focused on the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and governance in Southwestern Nigeria. The research examined the (1) the structure of the transport union, (2) the network between political elite and the transport union leadership and (3) the relevance of the transport union to electoral conflict. Empirical data were collected through indepth interview and key informant interview with drivers and politicians in Ibadan, Nigeria.

7. Land Grievances and Electoral Violence in Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya

Authors: Kathleen F. Klaus and Matthew I. Mitchell (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA) mimitchell@wisc.edu


A growing literature examines the logics that motivate elites to resort to violence during elections. What many studies overlook is the local-level process and dynamics of election-time mobilization. How and when are elites able to convince followers to fight? When is collective participation thinkable, necessary, and feasible? This paper provides a framework for theorizing the sources of violent mobilization during election campaigns. In environments where access to land and property is highly contentious and deeply politicized, we argue that land grievances can provide office-seeking elites a powerful discursive and ideological device to frame the logic of electoral violence. Yet counter to many arguments that view electoral violence as the product of elite logics or institutional factors, we argue that the escalation of electoral violence is a joint production of the strategic interests of elites and ordinary citizens. In theorizing the relationship between land grievances and electoral violence, the paper draws on the recent post-electoral crises in Kenya (2007-2008) and Côte d’Ivoire (2010-2011). Using insights from in-depth field work in both countries, the paper examines a range of cases at the sub-national level where land grievances produced high levels of electoral violence and where sources of restraint prevented the escalation of violence. This approach allows us to examine the micro-level dynamics and causal mechanisms linking contested claims over land with electoral violence and to determine why land grievances give rise to electoral violence in certain contexts but not others.

To the top