Critical Elections, Election Observers, and Bias

2018 has been a year of challenging elections across the African continent with much at stake for all political stakeholders. Considering how critical these elections are/will be the role of election observers becomes even more central. One such election was Zimbabwe’s in July. The European Union (EU) published its long-awaited report in October for these Zimbabwe election. This election was considered to be “watershed” election marking a change in guard with the ouster of former President Robert Mugabe in November 2017. However, this EU election observer report paints a different picture and highlights the shortcomings of the process. Even more concerning is the reaction, or lack thereof, of the EU’s counterpart the African Union (AU). According to the AU’s preliminary statement, “by and large, the process was peaceful and well-administered.” While the AU has made strides in its commitment to election observation as a tool for democracy promotion on the continent, we continually observe a lack of follow through when it comes to tackling critical elections demonstrated by its handling of the elections in Kenya, Zimbabwe and the recently held Cameroonian elections. This perceived lack of commitment stems from the AU’s emphasis on maintaining Africa’s “common position” at the global level.

In Cameroon, despite the concerns raised during the electoral process, the AU election observer mission noted that it was satisfied with the process with Kwesi Ahoomey-Zunu, former Prime Minister of Togo and Head of the AU Observation Mission, stating that “…we can agree that it (the polling) went well and we are satisfied…I do not have an exact evaluation of how things unfolded but by information I obtained, we can say the situation was too good (in the Anglophone regions)…In spite of that I think my appraisal is positive.” By “not too good”, Ahoomey-Zunu is referring to the Cameroon Anglophone crisis that has been spiraling out of control over the last year when separatists made the symbolic proclamation of independence for “Ambazonia” which led to the deployment of the army and clampdown by Paul Biya’s government. Biya has referred to these separatists as criminals and terrorists with Cameroon as “the victim of repeated attacks by a band of terrorists claiming to be part of a secessionist movement.” These tensions were only worsened by the elections amid allegations of fraud, the Anglophone rebels boycotting the election, many English-speakers unable to vote, and the stifling of protests against Biya’s reelection.

To further complicate matters, voter turnout was 54% and only 10% in English-speaking regions. Aware of this difficult situation, the AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, issued a statement on October 9thurging “all political stakeholders to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from any statement or action that could heighten tensions.” Still, Paul Biya, at 85 years old and having ruled the country for 36 years, pronounced the winner on October 23rd, with over 71% of the votes. With this election, he marks the start of his seventh term in office. The AU has yet to make a formal pronouncement following the announcement of these results but one can assume it will not be as critical as it should.

As I write this, Madagascar has begun the vote count after holding its high-stakes election marred by high poverty rates and allegations of corruption. We can only wait to see what outcomes are and how various opposition groups react. But, for now, everything appears to be going rather smoothly.

Outcomes such as this raise questions not only regarding the AU’s impartiality as an election observer but the implications of the organization taking a more prominent role in election observation in relation to its traditional counterparts and not being able to successfully execute its mandate. Considering that African leaders have suggested that non-African observers cease monitoring African elections as to not undermine the position of African observers, one would expect these same leaders are able to undertake role. However, this has not been the case, with mixed reactions on the part of political stakeholders at both the national and international level in regards to their ability to meet this goal of self-observation.

Therefore, the apprehension with all observers, African or not, remains. For example, the reactions to the EU’s observer mission report on Zimbabwe garnered mixed results. With some lauding it for its objectivity while others challenged it for being “a child of the US”. According to political and legal analyst, Mr. Tinomudaishe Chinyoka, the EU trashed the polls because its preferred candidate Mr. Nelson Chamisa and the MDC-Alliance lost. Furthermore, ZANU-PF legal secretary. Paul Mangwana, made it clear that all that mattered was the country has met AU and Southern African Development Community (SADC) standards. According to him, “It is their [EU] opinion and it remains so. We are measured by SADC and AU standards and we met those standards. The AU and SADC said so. We cannot be measured by standards we know nothing about”. However, during my fieldwork in Malawi, similar challenges have been raised towards the AU in terms of its ability to be truly impartial. One can argue that these various positions depend on whether or not one is the “loser” or “winner”.

Basically, when it comes to election observation, all international organizations have their respective biases. However, the African Union has guidelines to which it claims to adhere to and, if it is able to channel political will of its leaders, the potential for improving election management in Africa is there. The organization needs to focus less on its call for “African unity” but on its mandate to protect its citizens and not simply the head of state.  Given the important role it plays in democracy efforts on the continent this is an area that should be prioritized by organization.

Election observation remains a critical component of democracy assistance efforts but it needs to be done in a way that helps rather than hinders the electoral process. Rather than single out African observers for being partial, all parties need to ensure that they are truly committed to strengthening the electoral process in these emerging democracies or election observers will continually be challenged for not “doing their job.”