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 not 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.”



Zimbabwe’s Democracy and the African Union’s Legitimacy

This year, over 20 African countries will hold presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. At a time where democracy is on the decline, these elections matter significantly insofar as what they mean for the consolidation of democracy in African countries. Each of these elections raise concerns as to whether the process will be peaceful or plagued by violence. Of these elections, eight (Egypt, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Mali, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya) have been highlighted as ones to watch as they mark critical political shifts in these countries.

In Libya’s case, the African Union (AU) has already expressed its concern regarding the country’s preparedness to hold elections this year. Despite also acknowledging the “complex political, security and legislative challenges to holding such a vote”, the United Nations (UN) expressed its willingness to assist with the process due to the “support for elections among Libyans”. For Zimbabwe, this will be the first election in 37 years in which Robert Mugabe will not be participating following his resignation in November 2017. Though his resignation was not considered a coup by the AU, Mugabe has claimed that his removal from the presidency was “unconstitutional” and that the upcoming election would not be free and fair. The irony of this escapes no one. Here is a man that sat in office for 37 years and systematically destroyed his opposition where the only one willing to stand up to him was, the now late, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe reiterated his claim that he was ousted by unconstitutional means when he met with AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in Harare. He called Mnangagwa’s government illegal and for the AU to help “restore normalcy and democracy in Zimbabwe” which he later reiterated at his 94th birthday party. According to Mugabe, the issues surrounding Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections, given the illegitimacy of the government, along with the presence of the military in politics, will undermine the freedom and fairness of the process. This is the tense political background against which the 2018 election will take place.

Still, the African Union (AU) remains firm in its position that what occurred in November was not a coup and has promised to provide assistance in preparation for Zimbabwe’s election. The AU has assured the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) that it will “send a team to work with ZEC before and after the elections” and “mobilize partners to finance the process and give technical assistance to help prepare and run the elections between 30 and 45”. Mahamat stated that he was encouraged by the fact that the Mnangagwa has expressed the country’s commitment to holding ‘free and fair’ elections. Keeping in mind the AU’s role, it seeks to take the lead on this process indicating its continued commitment to rebuilding Zimbabwe’s democracy. However, the reliance on external partners harkens back to the question of the AU’s capacity to do so.

The AU’s Election Observation Manual establishes that all elections on the continent, in response to Kenya’s experience in 2008, would be subject to election monitoring, regardless of whether a formal invitation from the member state was received. Given this mandate, the continental body has regularly monitored elections in Zimbabwe. What makes this election even more unique is that President Emmerson Mnangagwa has welcomed the monitoring by Western election observers: The European Union, Commonwealth, and the United Nations. This position is a direct challenge to Mugabe’s longstanding ban of western election observers who he called “imperialists”. Concerns regarding Mugabe’s government were met with strong reactions by his regime where, in 2008, spokesperson George Charamba went as far to say that “[The Western countries] can go and hang a thousand times, they have no basis, they have no claim on Zimbabwe politics at all”.  Last year, in reference to west-funded non-governmental organizations monitoring the 2018 elections, Mugabe told journalists: “We don’t need them. We are saying no. We are going have elections in 2018 and we are going to say no to the whites”. In addition to welcoming observers, Mnangagwa mentioned the country’s willingness to rejoin the Commonwealth following Mugabe’s departure in 2003 after the organization suspended Zimbabwe following its problematic elections in 2002.

What this situation calls into question is whether the AU will take a position on this after lauding Mugabe’s departure as “an act of statesmanship that can only bolster President Mugabe’s political legacy” and welcoming Mnangagwa as having been chosen by the people. For an organization that is clear on its position towards non-constitutional transitions of power, the lack of forthrightness on this issue raises many questions and reminds us to pay careful attention to the other elections being held in difficult states and how this reflects upon the AU’s expressed commitments. In preparation for the 2018 elections, there is considerable pressure on the AU to maintain an objective stance on Zimbabwe. The organization’s verdict on the election will be critical in establishing Zimbabwe’s democratic trajectory and as an indicator of the AU’s relevance and resilience.