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Watching the Watchmen: The Role of Election Observers in Africa

International election monitors are far from perfect, but African observers are not yet ready to take over.
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Polling staff in Liberia contemplate how to prepare to count the ballots as an election monitor looks on. Photograph by Brittany Danisch.

In the 1980s, few elections had outside observers, but their presence has grown steadily since then, and today most have at least a few delegations and some have many.

This year alone, the European Union (EU), African Union (AU) and Commonwealth Secretariat were all in Kenya, and the EU is planning to head to Mali and Madagascar later this year. The AU was also in Cameroon in April, and South African Development Community (SADC) observed the constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe.

Election monitors are usually accepted as being a positive sign of a free and fair election, but is all this observer activity actually a good idea?

Watching the watchmen

The presence of observers usually translates into a short press announcement, which is often boiled down to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Few people question this outside activity or consider the differences among organisations.

One group that does pay a lot of attention, however, is politicians. After being criticised in earlier years, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe barred international observers from multiple elections, most recently those this year. A number of other African politicians seem to agree with him. In March, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo suggested outright that non-African election observers should no longer be present in African elections.

Obasanjo’s claim seems to rest on three ideas: that outside observers sometimes conduct themselves in a less than wholesome manner; that they undermine the sovereignty of the nations they operate in; and that African election observers have matured and developed enough capacity to do the job themselves.

He is partly right on one account, but wholly wrong on the others.

Let’s take the easy one first: that monitors violate the sovereignty of host nations. This is not case. Most African nations have signed international and regional agreements to uphold democracy and hold clean elections. More importantly, international observer organisations only operate in countries based on invitations from the host governments. To enter polling booths and conduct their work, they generally need access, and access usually comes with formal registration. Monitoring missions operate in the open, holding press conferences and issuing reports. Host governments are aware of and have normally consented to their presence.

Now to Obasanjo’s second argument. Here, critics may have a point. There are certainly sometimes questions about the conduct of outside observers.

Elections in Kenya unfortunately often provide a case in point and the latest is no exception. The EU monitors have been dragging their feet, with their final report now overdue. EU observer mission spokesman, Peter Visnovitz, reportedly promised the report would be made public by 4 May, but we are still waiting. Furthermore, in its initial press release (before the counting was complete), the EU was positive despite noting that the biometric voting process disenfranchised more than 3 million voters.

Why is the EU taking so long for its final assessment? The Kenyan Star claims that an internal report revealed strong reservations about the processing of the results. Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted numerous problems and criticised the swiftness with which international observer groups pronounced all well in Kenya’s vote.

Earlier commotion around international observers in Kenya includes their muted response to the problems in the 1992 election; the mission was eager to send positive signals to calm fears of upheavals and resume aid. Their conduct in Kenya’s 2007 election also drew criticism from the UN Independent Review Commission; the body reported that monitors had at times based their claims on misunderstandings.

Time for an African solution?

International observers are clearly not perfect. But the final part of Obasanjo’s argument – that cure for the problem is for African monitoring groups to take over from international missions – rests on equally shaky grounds.

It is true that African groups have become more active. The AU, SADC, ECOWAS, and the electoral Institute of South Africa (EISA), among others, all now feature election observer missions. The AU started as far back as 1989, and the other groups have joined in the last 10 years or so.

That, however, is where the argument stalls. By and large, these groups are not ready to take over as the sole option for election observation on the continent. They have limited resources and experience, their sponsors or member-states are often not particularly democratic themselves, and most importantly, because these organisations are even more embroiled in politics on the continent, they are often more biased than non-African observers.

Exhibit number one is the 2011 election in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The disparity between African and other international observer missions was startling. The Carter Centre called the elections problematic, while the National Democratic Institute, International Foundation for Electoral Systems and EU were also highly critical. Even citizen observers and local media called the process highly flawed. Yet by contrast, the African Union and four other African observer missions including SADC declared the polls "successful" and urged both sides to show restraint. Some suggest the African bodies’ positive reports stemmed from economic and political interests within South Africa.

Exhibit number two is the recent referendum in Zimbabwe. Mugabe had barred Western observer organisations, but the ICG had already issued a report claiming that there were so many problems with the upcoming vote that there was no way it could be legitimate. Still, SADC sent its mission and, although it noted some problems, issued a largely positive report – just as Mugabe had desired, and just as the rest of southern Africa would have hoped.

Exhibit number three is the African Union more generally. It should be the flagship monitoring organisation, but, being hamstrung by many undemocratic members fearful of being the targets of effective election monitoring, it is seldom critical and it rarely releases substantial reports. If it has a page dedicated to transparency on its election monitoring activities on its website, it is well hidden. Despite having released a set of guidelines for observers, it is less than a model for other organisations.

All in all, it is not quite the time to boot out the observer organisations from the wider international community. Despite their problems, they have made important contributions, particular where they’ve worked with local officials to improve voter registries, implement other institutional reforms to bolster election processes, improve the legitimacy of competitive elections, and train domestic observer groups.

Furthermore, whatever legitimate concerns there are around the role of international observers, African organisations have the same problems, only worse. With so many autocratic states and tentative democracies still on the continent, African monitoring organisations still have some way to go before they are ready to hold each other accountable. Keeping the company of other international observers for some time yet is wise. Equally wise is to question any politician who bars observers from any group, and to examine observer reports critically, no matter their source.

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