On Oct. 25, Ivorians head to the polls for their first presidential election since the disputed 2010 election that left more than 3,000 dead and more than 500,000 displaced. Despite the previous electoral violence and a decade of civil war and political turmoil from 2000-2010, most discussion before this election has been about the country’s remarkable economic resurgence.
Once known as the “Paris of West Africa,” the commercial capital Abidjan and the country more generally are again benefiting from high cocoa prices and investor-friendly policies. The World Bank estimates a growth rate of approximately 8.7 percent over the last two years.
Many analysts and Ivorian citizens believe (or hope) that the economic boom will help defuse political hostilities between the opposition parties, led by the Front Populaire Ivoirien, and President Alassane Ouattara’s ruling party, Rassemblement des Républicains. The underlying assumption is that with a growing economy, the ruling party can consolidate political support and reduce the likelihood of a closely contested election. And it does appear that the incumbent president Alassane Ouattara will win big.
Political scientists suggest that it is only when vote margins are very narrow that candidates and their supporters may resort to violence to prevent competitors from voting. Violence provides a way of “redistricting” by eliminating opposition supporters from competitive areas. After voting day, violence can escalate if politicians or supporters protest the poll results.
But can we expect economic growth to yield violence-free elections?
Electoral violence in Kenya in 2007-2008 suggests otherwise. The Kenyan economy was considered one of the strongest in the region, but violence escalated following the country’s disputed elections, leaving an estimated 1,500 dead. If Kenya suffered violence despite economic growth, what else might destabilize the electoral process?
Land grievances and electoral violence
Our article in the Journal of Peace Research, “Land grievances and the mobilization of electoral violence,” was a close comparative study of the recent post-electoral crises in Kenya (2007-2008) and Côte d’Ivoire (2010-2011). By land grievances, we mean the beliefs and narratives that groups use to talk about their fears of losing land and their rights to claim land and territory, when groups of different ethnic, regional, or national origin claim the same piece of land. We find that the electoral violence in these two elections was rooted in local grievances over access and rights to land.
Our research in Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya finds that land grievances can—under certain conditions—provide political leaders with a powerful tool to organize violence in various forms: targeted assassinations, attacks on rival neighborhoods or villages, and violent protests.
In the western cocoa regions of Côte d’Ivoire, for example, “migrants” from the north and neighboring countries compete with Ivorians who see themselves as the original inhabitants of the land and the legitimate “sons of the soil.” Land grievances between these groups can be particularly dangerous because they overlap with debates about migrants’ entitlements to both land and citizenship. In the most extreme cases, residents can be evicted and dispossessed of their properties—and even killed.
Land grievances alone don’t necessarily escalate to violence
Land grievances alone do not make electoral violence inevitable. Rather, individuals will act violently if they believe that elections threaten their land rights or offer a chance to reclaim land from rivals.
In fact, our research suggests that politicians can only use land grievances to organize violence if they have the power to distribute land to their constituents. Politicians must control large plots of land in relevant electoral districts. Otherwise citizens probably won’t see elections as opportunities for land grabs and will be far less likely to fight.
Our finding can help explain today’s Côte d’Ivoire. Political elites in the opposition party of the deposed Laurent Gbagbo once had the power to redistribute land and enforce their constituents’ land claims, but they no longer have the money or power to do so. That suggests opposition supporters have less motive for violence.
The land question in the 2015 elections and beyond
And yet land remains a source of political tension, in three main ways.
1. Many long-standing land conflicts between local and migrant populations in the western cocoa regions have not been resolved.
The current Ivorian government has passed new land tenure and nationality laws, but have not implemented and enforced land reforms aimed at resolving ownership disputes. Grievances continue to simmer below the surface.
2. The post-electoral crisis of 2010-2011 displaced hundreds of thousands of people, adding to the civilians who had already been displaced during the civil war.
In early 2015, there were still 300,000 people who could not return to their land that has been re-claimed by others. In Côte d’Ivoire, displacement has become a tactic in war and election violence. Armed groups supporting President Ouattara and Gbagbo have consistently used intimidation and forced evictions to seize and occupy land and property from political opponents.
The government has formed a commission to restore land and property that has been illegally seized and occupied. But adjudication is slow, and tens of thousands of people wait impatiently for the return of their bank accounts, their homes, and their land.
3. President Ouattara’s efforts to consolidate political support have hampered peacebuilding.
That’s because the government has sidestepped serious land reforms and avoided prosecuting crimes associated with the post-election violence. And the government isn’t doing much to disarm the former pro-Gbagbo militias, and even less to disarm those that supported Ouattara.
Add those up: enduring grievances over land, a lack of post-conflict justice, de facto amnesty for elites involved in 2010-2011 electoral violence, and well-armed partisan militias. That makes for an unstable and dangerous political environment.
When scholars and policymakers look only at national prosperity, they are neglecting the local grievances that could lead to violence, whether in 2015 or within the next few years. Looking at local grievances about security, justice, jobs, and land will help more accurately explain and anticipate election violence.
Okay, so should we expect violence in the coming election?
So let’s return to our main question: Will land grievances spark electoral violence in 2015? Probably not. This time around, the incumbent has a significant political advantage over a divided opposition. Opposition leaders don’t have much ability to exploit land grievances and encourage violence. And Ouattara has no incentive to do so.
But as the economy weakens—especially in the cocoa industry, which supports so many Ivorians—watch for Ouattara’s credibility and authority to be challenged. If or when this happens, there are few safeguards. Future politicians may once again exploit land grievances to incite violence against both rivals and those who live on contested land.
Kathleen Klaus is a Buffett Institute postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. Matthew I. Mitchell is assistant professor in the School of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada.