The history of elections in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda: what we can learn from these “national exercises”

Justin Willis, Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch

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A large literature has described the years after independence from colonial rule as a period of ‘departicipation’: Africa’s new rulers – whether driven by personal venality or a sincere commitment to nation-building – swiftly gave up on elections, or at best held elections that, by denying choice, left violence as the central dynamic of African politics. This article draws on the cases of Kenya, Ghana and Uganda in the late 1960s to argue that the emphasis often placed on the ‘speed and ease’ of this process has been overstated. Instead, Africa’s politicians and civil servants valued elections as a means to educate and discipline the public, even as they feared their possible outcomes. Building on a literature that focuses on the individual experience of elections rather than the presence or absence of parties, we argue that the rhetoric of politicians and civil servants shows that they saw elections as ‘exercises’ – a revealing term – that would train and test their new citizens. Yet this is not the whole story: voters understood their participation in their own terms and played a role in how early experiments with elections played out. The political closures of these years were real, but their course was unplanned and contingent, shaped partly by popular involvement. These points are not only of historical value, but also provide important insights into the extent to which contemporary elections are instruments of elite power or the drivers of democratisation.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberv20i2a1
JournalJournal of African Elections
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021


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