Women’s Situation Room: Africa’s unique approach to reducing electoral violence

Violence during an election cycle is an all-too-frequent phenomenon in most African countries where it may be triggered by political or ethnic tensions, or flawed electoral processes. Tragically, those most affected by the violence are women and girls. As governments grapple with the problem, women in Africa have invented a new mechanism to help reduce violence during elections – the Women’s Situation Room (WSR).

The WSR is a peace-building project that empowers women to be the leading force for democratic and peaceful elections. The concept was first introduced by Yvette Chesson-Wureh, the coordinator for the Liberia-based Angie Brooks International Centre, an NGO on women’s empowerment. 

“The [WSR] is a real-time and progressive process that works with communities in advocating, mediating and intervening in violent and tense situations during elections in countries where it’s situated,” says Ms. Chesson-Wureh. 

The process was first used during the 2011 elections in Liberia and has since been successfully replicated in Kenya, Senegal and Sierra Leone. There are also plans to use it in this year’s elections in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Togo. According to WSR organizers, situations could differ in individual countries, so the concept is adaptable to suit local conditions.

As a result of its demonstrated effectiveness in preventing and mitigating election-related violence in Liberia, the WSR was adopted as a best practice in Africa at the Africa Union summit in January 2012. 

The situation room at work

Since the advent of multi-party politics in 1991, violence has marred Kenyan elections. However, the 2007 post-election violence was the worst the country has ever seen. It affected all but two of the country’s eight provinces. More than 1,500 people died in the violence and another 600,000 were forced to flee, according to the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence, which was set up by the government to investigate the causes of violence and the conduct of security agencies and to come up with recommendations. The post-election violence prompted activists to propose several initiatives that would ensure a peaceful electoral process during the run-up to the March 2013 elections.  Because of its track record in other African countries as an effective tool in preventing and minimising electoral violence, the WSR was among the selected initiatives. 

With technical support from the Angie Brooks International Centre and funding from UN Women and the UNDP, WSR Kenya was born. The structure was simple – consisting of a secretariat, election observers, a call centre, a team of eminent women leaders and a pool of experts. Operating from its offices in the capital Nairobi, the secretariat organized the day-to-day activities of the WSR and rolled out strategies that were implemented before, during and after the 2013 elections.    

It recruited and trained 500 women and youths as special election observers in areas that were identified as potential hotspots for violence, which included Nairobi, Naivasha and Mombasa. Using a toll-free, well-publicized telephone number, the election observers reported to the Situation Room all incidents of violence or threats to peace that were happening across the country.

Inside the Situation Room, a team of Kenyan leaders and eminent persons from other African countries sat in one corner.  In another room, telephone operators took calls from election observers deployed across the country to monitor the hotspots. The operators recorded the time of the call and its nature, and then passed on the information to technical experts in law, media and political science. 

The three technical experts then verified and analyzed the information before passing it on to a team of Kenyan women leaders who had influence with local politicians. The eminent women were Phoebe Asiyo, Zipporah Kittony, Betty Maina, Wanjiku Kabira, Rahab Muhiu, Tegla Loroupe and Jane Kiano.  They were supported by their counterparts drawn from the region, including Gertrude Mongella, a former Tanzanian minister and expert on gender issues, Miria Matembe (Uganda), Elizabeth Lwanga (Uganda), Turrie Akerele-Ismail (Nigeria) and Ms. Chesson-Wureh. The only man in the team was Kiprono Kittony, a prominent media owner in Kenya who helped mobilize media support. Additionally, there were high-profile representatives from the Kenya Police Service and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the body charged with managing elections in Kenya. 

After receiving situation reports of real or potential trouble on the ground, the eminent persons used their status and influence with police authorities, the electoral body or political leaders to reduce brewing tensions or acts of violence from getting out of control. They also conducted behind-the-scenes diplomacy, arbitrated and mediated between rival groups and political parties. Meanwhile, in the Situation Room itself, visitors wrote peace messages and signed their names to a piece of white cloth symbolizing their support for peaceful polls. 

Real-time solutions

At the end of the observation process, the WSR had recorded more than 1,200 reports that were received and resolved in real time. The incidence categories included voting complaints, gender-based violence, electoral offences and obstruction of observers. There were also cases of spontaneous violence following the announcement of results. 

At one point, there was tension nationwide when the IEBC delayed announcing the election results. The WSR, through the team of eminent persons, successfully reached out to the electoral commission to fast-track the process. The team also prevailed upon the two leading presidential contenders to appeal to their supporters to refrain from violence. In the end, the importance of WSR’s work was acknowledged by various stakeholders in the Kenyan election.

“Women are usually the victims of the election violence and are rarely involved in observing or mitigating the violence. In terms of real-time observations, [WSR] was very successful,” said Deborah Okumu, the executive director of the Caucus for Women’s Leadership, a national network that works to empower women leaders. “There were top notch interventions from the team of eminent persons who were able to calm down situations.”

Among the high profile personalities, diplomats and election observers who visited the Situation Room office were Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, and former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, the head of the AU Observer Mission.

Lessons learned

According to Ms. Chesson-Wureh, the Women’s Situation Room succeeded in training and deploying more than 500 election observers to hotspots. They resolved reported electoral violence incidents or threats in real time, and held fruitful meetings with the major political players including then Prime Minister Raila Odinga and media stakeholders on the need for peaceful electioneering. However, the organizers conceded that there was need for more time to train volunteers on the peace process, particularly the peer-to-peer dialogue against violence among youth. 

Daisy Amdany, the co-convener of the National Women Steering Committee, a consortium of women’s advocacy groups, said she felt that the set-up of the WSR in Kenya was good for women but it should have been brought in earlier than a month before the elections. 

“It was a good platform to enforce women’s rights and give women a voice because it was able to get the attention of the police and the elections body,” said Ms. Amdany, adding, “It can be useful if put in place once again for the 2017 general election.”