In the coming months, at least nine African countries are to conduct national elections or referendums. Even though elections are one of the most desirable avenues through which states express their desire for democracy, it comes with various challenges, especially in post-conflict states. Election contests often turn out to be a fierce rivalry, bordering on vendetta's, as the culture and lack of accommodative politics and peaceful transfer of governments characterise emerging democracies. Of primary concern to security agencies at such times is the challenge to restore and maintain order and the rule of law.
More often than not, electoral processes have been marked by irregularities and intimidation. Those who lose elections tend to complain that the process was not free and fair, thus leading to the refusal to accept results as the true outcome of the vote. For instance, recently held elections conducted in Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi and Guinea have widely been criticized and denounced by different players. This scenario in some counties resulted in electoral violence as was witnessed in Kenya in 2007/2008.
The maintenance of security and a conducive environment greatly supports electoral integrity by creating an atmosphere free of fear, intimidation or manipulation. This, however, relies on the neutrality and professionalism of security forces. Obviously, police assume primary responsibility for maintaining security. Particular duties of the police include protection of candidates, voters and election monitors; safeguarding of election materials and sites and maintaining law and order prior and during the polls. In some states, they also have to investigate allegations of criminal behaviour by candidates and parties.
It is standard practice for most democracies to expect law enforcement agencies, particularly the police, not to engage in electoral processes, considering their pertinent role of keeping the peace. Policing agencies are supposed to be neutral and non- partisan towards political affiliations. Indeed, they are expected to conduct their duties without fear or favour of the contesting parties. In addition, they should not belong to any political party neither promote partisan views.
However, the distressing fact is that police forces are accused of failure in almost all cases of disputed elections in immerging democracies. Above all, neutrality of police officers is always questioned as they act and are seen to be agents of the governments in power.
In disputed elections, police have time and again been accused of intimidation, unlawful arrests and detention. Worse still, accusations are directed at their refusal to provide protection and for hindering freedom of expression in exercising electoral related rights such as meetings and campaigns. Systematically, they are viewed as having a hand in influencing voters, accused of using excessive force on citizens and breach of the conventional procedures of law enforcement, particularly exercising patience while handling complaints.
Indeed, elections set the most difficult challenges in the career of police officers, and form a test case regarding the commitment of governments and police institutions for upholding democratic values. There are many reasons behind police failure. Some of them are deep-rooted in the history and socio-political state of the countries and seemingly sensible, while others are as a result of lack of professional ethics.
Democracy and democratic societies are associated with concepts like freedom and individual rights, whereas law enforcement and policing are often associated with concepts like control, restriction and force. Practically though, maintaining the proper balance among these diverging principles is not easily achievable, especially within a society of growing democracy. It is undeniable that incumbent governments direct police agencies. Unfortunately, in most cases the incumbent represents a single party. Therefore, in reality, it is the ruling party that governs the police force.
In some instances as in the case of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi, senior police officers and leaders could have had direct association to the ruling parties, even where the laws dictate otherwise. This being the case, there is some tendency for the governments and single parties in power, their affiliates and members of the police to manipulate policing in their favour.
The situation tends to worsen with the popular notion of the contesting parties being referred to as ‘opposition' and ‘government.' There is an obvious misconception and practice that the police belong to the government. This could imply that opposition parties are not good and, therefore, must be controlled and the incumbent government should be protected.
In view of ensuring neutrality, unprecedented commitment is required. Time and the necessary capacity is needed to transform the police. Building police institutions that meet the requirements of policing in a democratic society alongside the efforts of advancing civilized political culture is indeed a predominant solution. This involves reshaping of the conception, governance, norms and management of the police forces. It also requires a delicate balancing between exercising and advancing democratic values and maintaining secure and safe societies.
Police officers' level of professionalism has significant impact on maintaining a proper balance between the principles and requirements of democratic values and duties of enforcing the law. This process can only be achieved through institutional governance in police recruitment, education, training, leadership, remuneration, appraisal and promotion.
A well-motivated police force would ensure high level of professionalism, democratic values, and corresponding behavioral standards within the police forces. This also needs to be supported by normative and structural frameworks that enhance protection of police leaders and officers from direct interference and influence from political authorities.
From the recent polls conducted in Sudan, Ethiopia and Burundi, one could cite lack of preparedness on the part of police in handling challenging circumstances resulting in political violence. To redress such situations, police forces must be adequately equipped at all levels with information about the electoral laws, their role and that of other national players.
To a large extent, the police forces in most African countries have the potential to prevent electoral violence if they conduct intelligence gathering in a proactive manner. For this to be achieved, strict discipline within police force would be mandatory coupled with proper leadership, supervision and close monitoring of situations ahead of and during the polls and in the post-election period.
Police value system needs to be enhanced, particularly with regard to being impartial and maintaining neutrality at all times. At an individual level, the police must be bound to the rule of law, moral ethics and a personal commitment to separating self interests from those with the highest good and benefit to citizens.
Lessons learned from countries that experienced electoral violence in the recent years should be applied during the coming elections in view to avoiding pitfalls that lead to loss of life, destruction of property and retrogressive development.
Written by: Tsegaye Deda BAFFA, Senior Training Coordinator, MIFUGO-ISS Nairobi Office