July 7, 2021

Peace campaigns in sub-Saharan Africa result from five inter-related factors: the ideal of orderly elections and potential to instrumentalise peace encourages a diverse range of actors to invest their time and energy in such campaigns; a fear that elections will descend into violence guarantees a responsive public; the difficulty of addressing the underlying drivers of violence encourages an individualisation of responsibility; and donor funding helps to ensure the pervasiveness of peace campaigns. In this way, peace campaigns have been so durable precisely because they have been driven both from within and from without, are communicated through multiple channels including religious leaders and the mass media, and resonate with the concerns of individual citizens as well as with the self-interest of politicians. This is not to say that such narratives are present everywhere—but especially where elections are keenly contested they are remarkably common.

There is much that is positive about this trend. Peace messaging appears to have contributed to lower levels of violence around elections in Kenya in 2013,, Nigeria in 2015, and the peaceful transfer of power in Ghana in 2016.  However, an emphasis on peace may strengthen the hand of authoritarian governments and so facilitate the emergence of a peaceocracy , in which the fear of conflict is used to prioritise stability and order to the detriment of democracy.

It is difficult and often dangerous for individuals to publicly set themselves against peace, reconciliation and order;  As a result, pro-democracy activists and engaged academics have often struggled to challenge the emergence of peaceocracy.

Significantly, most of the factors that drive an emphasis on peace have been features of African politics for some time, and radical change seems unlikely any time soon. Given this, it is worrying that peace messaging has worked to silence dissent in countries such as Uganda and Kenya, where democracy is already relatively weak. In these competitive-authoritarian states—of which there are many on the continent—the promise of peace is interwoven with the threat of repression. Under these conditions, peace campaigns become less likely to genuinely resolve existing disputes and societal tensions, and more likely to store up further grievances and problems for the future. It is therefore imperative that academics, activists and domestic and international players re-think how best to promote peace without eroding democracy.

(Guest Editorial)

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