Observation of African elections put to the test

COVID-19 travel restrictions contribute to the increasing pressure on observer missions to prove their worth.

Africa has had very important elections in recent months and more are planned before the end of the year. Presidential polls took place in October in Seychelles, Guinea, Tanzania and Ivory Coast. Upcoming elections are planned in Burkina Faso (November 22), Ghana (December 7), Central African Republic and Niger (December 27).

Several have taken place amid controversy and a narrowing political space and will occur. In many countries, however, the travel restrictions associated with COVID-19 make it difficult for the African Union (AU) and others to organize large-scale international election observation sessions. This comes at a time when the usefulness and credibility of election monitoring is increasingly being questioned.

Some opposition parties and civil society organizations say that local observatories are sufficient. They believe short-term missions that enter the country for several days to observe some polling stations are a waste of time. These missions also commit it wrong and play into the hands of the current governments.

Election experts, however, say international observers have provided a lot of information on election management. The teams play an important role in supporting democratic processes and should be used to improve the quality of the African polls, rather than giving a stamp of approval to the fairness of the election.

Some believe that short-term external missions that observe some polling stations are a waste of time

To make this happen, the mood as well as the electoral field must be followed over a long period of time. Follow-up missions between polls are also crucial to ensure that the recommendations of election observers are followed.

Restrictions on COVID-19 made the task more difficult. While most countries in Africa have lifted exclusions, travel in several countries is still limited. The AU, which has an election observation unit, has been forced to move many of its activities online due to the pandemic.

However, the AU has sent small observation teams to some countries such as Tanzania, Guinea and Ivory Coast. Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire have experienced political upheaval following the third term bid of Presidents Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Condé. Both presidents won the election by an overwhelming majority amid fierce criticism and boycotts by the opposition.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was also active in the run-up to these polls. A joint team AU-UN (UN) visited Ivory Coast and an ECOWAS-AU UN group went on a solidarity mission to Guinea. Both initiatives aimed to prevent political violence before and after the vote in these countries.

Follow-up missions between polls are crucial to ensure that observers’ recommendations are implemented

It bore little fruit. In fact, the AU has been criticized for sending an observer mission to Ivory Coast, thus allegedly approving Ouattara’s third term acceptance. Former South African President Thabo Mbeki was candid about the issue in a letter to AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Mbeki said the observer missions were “dissatisfied” given the circumstances.

Meanwhile, restrictions on opposition political activities and civic organizations in Tanzania have raised tensions ahead of the October 28 presidential polls. President John Magufuli has offered and won for a second term, but according to critics, the political playing field is far from equal.

Despite the narrowing of the political space, the AU, as well as numerous smaller outside observer teams, were admitted to Tanzania. Civil society organizations have also tried alternative monitoring methods via social media. It is considered by traditional observers to be something of an experiment, but could provide interesting lessons for future elections in Africa. Authoritarian regimes mainly find it more difficult to prevent opposition activities in a digital age.

Criticism of international observers’ missions dates back to the events in Kenya in 2017 and Malawi in 2018. In both cases, the election results were approved by observers from the AU, and the European Union in the case of Malawi, but local courts overturned the results, saying the polls were not free and fair.

Reports on AU observer missions must be published in a timely manner to provide lessons for other countries

In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory is confirmed by the second round of voting, two months after the courts rejected the first election result on August 8, 2017. In Malawi, however, the second repeat of the presidential election in early 2020 reversed the victory by the incumbent and elected opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera.

This has created a degree of reconciliation between local and international observers. International experts believe the repeat in Malawi did not necessarily confirm that the result of the first round was flawed, as the second round was presented on a completely different basis.

They say international observers bring a continental or global perspective and can provide lessons and comparisons with the way elections are presented elsewhere. COVID-19 travel restrictions largely hinder this process. And it is clear that these lessons are only useful if there is political will to implement them.

The numerous presidential elections in the last quarter of 2020 will be a test for democratic systems. Whether large-scale election observation takes place or not, the AU and regional bodies such as ECOWAS will have to remain involved. They must ensure that the polls are credible and manage any political struggle related to elections.

In the future, the AU must sharpen its observer missions to show their relevance. Detailed mission reports should be published in a timely manner to serve as learning tools for countries with genuine political will to hold free and fair elections.

Where there is a deliberate attempt to sabotage the electoral process, democratic institutions and international observers have a duty to highlight these shortcomings to ensure credible and transparent polls. The AU’s charter on democracy, elections and government is a good measure for use by both citizens and outside observers.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher and project leader, Southern Africa, ISS Pretoria

This article was first published in the ISS’s PSC report.

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