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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Electoral processes


This programme comprises a series of studies of electoral processes and politics in Eastern and Central Africa. It aims to provide those involved in elections—electoral officials, civil society organisations, election monitors, donor agencies and others working in the field of democratisation—with an understanding of the historical, administrative and political context of specific electoral processes in the region, their potentials and their pitfalls.

Historical Background

Since the early 1990s, multi-party elections by secret ballot have been held across much of Eastern and Central Africa. The reintroduction of such elections was driven by a popular hope for more accountable and effective government, as well as by donor expectation that elected governments would offer a new level of legitimacy and a check on corruption. But many of the consequent elections have seen incumbent presidents and parties retain office or at best have seen the circulation of offices among a limited political elite, despite evidence of widespread public distrust of such elites, and scepticism as to their fitness for office.

Few attempts by external actors to support electoral processes have been based on in-depth understanding of the political cultures of the countries in questions and the obstacles hindering democratisation and free and fair elections. Donor assistance has tended to focus on supporting the organisation of elections as events and not on longer-term institutional capacity building, aimed at supporting the work of electoral commissions, political parties, and of civil society organisations involved in civic education and election monitoring.


Over the past decade the Rift Valley Institute has published six studies of electoral processes in Eastern Africa, focusing on the Sudans and Somaliland. The findings of these studies stress the importance of learning from previous electoral experiences and the malpractices they have engendered.

In Disputed Votes, Deficient Observation Aly Verjee analysed deficiencies in the work of international observers of the 2011 elections in South Kordofan that preceded the renewal of conflict there.  The same author’s Race Against Time: The countdown to the Referenda in Southern Sudan and Abyei (2010), published on the eve of voter registration for the referendum in South Sudan, addressed unresolved procedural problems, technical difficulties, and disputes that threatened the self-determination process, offering last-minute policy recommendations for the conduct of the referendum 

In Electoral Designs, which was published on the eve of national elections in Sudan (2010), Marc Gustafson explained the highly complex Sudanese electoral system and its effects on the distribution of power. And in Elections in Sudan: Learning from Experience (2009), by Justin Willis, Atta al-Battahani and Peter Woodward, provided a field-research based history of earlier Sudanese elections, and the various forms of malpractice that have discredited them. These reports are available for download in Arabic and in English.)

Other projects include two field-based studies of recent elections in Somaliland. The first, Securing the Peace in Somaliland, examines the impact of the 2010 presidential elections on peace and stability in the country. The second study evaluates the efficacy of donor assistance to the Somaliland democratisation programme.

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