/ 10 May 2021

Why the polls still need watching

Kenya Vote
Observers monitor the official closure of polls at a polling station in Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya in 2017. Photo: Luis Tato/AFP

The core value of election observation lies in the recommendations offered in observer reports, which serve as the basis for post-election reforms and long-term strengthening of democracy. Observers also contribute by building confidence in democratic practices and in deterring irregularities, particularly in transition and post-conflict contexts. However recent court annulments of presidential elections in Kenya (2017) and Malawi (2019), that were initially deemed satisfactory by international and citizen observer groups, have led to questions about the credibility and relevance of their assessments. 

A recent academic paper by Khabele Matlosa described international election observation as “wounded” and noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has added salt to this wound. Pandemic restrictions have prevented international groups from fully observing critical elections on the continent in the past year. As the electoral landscape in Africa continues to evolve, technical and political developments over the past decade, coupled with the new reality of the pandemic, call for a shift in the focus and practices of election observation.

Are observers still required?

Observers are still needed in the African context, but election observation has reached a point where its relevance and credibility are dependent on a review of the methodological approach used and enhanced collaboration between domestic, regional and international actors. 

Over the past two decades, elections have become the accepted means of ascendance to power in most African countries, many of which welcome observers deployed by African intergovernmental bodies (IGBs) such as the African Union (AU) and African regional economic communities; non-African IGBs including the European Union, the Commonwealth, and the International Organisation of La Francophonie; and representatives of international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and The Carter Center (TCC). 

Politics in Africa remains ethnicised and divisive, with the widespread distrust of electoral institutions and processes contributing to contested electoral outcomes and, in some cases, electoral violence. In the 21 elections held in Africa between March 2020 and March 2021, the opposition rejected the outcome in nine countries and boycotted in two, with post-election clashes in several. In these contexts, African IGBs in their election assessments face the dilemma of promoting peace and stability at the expense of democracy. This tension was exemplified in the Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) mission’s statement on Guinea’s 2020 election. 

The fact that the AU did not issue statements during controversial polls in Tanzania (2020) and Uganda (2021) and recalled its observers from Guinea could suggest a subtle shift, but African IGBs struggle to balance their role as election observers with their political and diplomatic commitments as regional authorities. 

Although IGBs have expanded their observation methodology to create a stronger link between observation, conflict prevention and mediation and technical assistance, they still face challenges linked to budgetary constraints, political interference and weak technical capacity that undermines their ability to undertake a robust assessment of electoral processes within member states. 

The deployment of observers by international NGOs provides a more balanced outlook and assessment of elections in Africa, as they are less constrained by regional politics.

But all election observer groups are increasingly challenged by their limited access and insufficient technical capacity to assess more digitised electoral processes. Technology is used by almost half of the election management bodies on the continent for voter registration and identification, voting machines and results management systems. Observer groups in their methodological approaches are struggling to effectively assess the emerging digital threats to electoral integrity caused by social media and online campaigning. They are also limited in their ability to assess party and campaign financing, which is crucial to their conclusions on the fairness of the electoral playing field.

These gaps have led to criticism of election observation missions (EOM) as electoral tourists, whose methodology does not match the rapid pace of technological developments and new trends in electoral manipulation. 

Evolving approaches 

In the last decade, there has been a gradual shift away from the narrow focus on election day to more robust assessments of electoral processes across the electoral cycle; from the pre-election context to the adjudication of appeals. This methodological evolution has incorporated the longer-term deployment of observers and deployment of post-election follow-up missions to advocate for the implementation of mission recommendations. 

The community of international observers is also leading efforts to develop methodologies for assessing thematic issues such as social media, disinformation, online campaigning and reform advocacy and facilitating knowledge transfer to citizen observers on these issues. 

There is also progress in efforts to improve the working relationship between citizen observer groups and their regional and international counterparts. The value of citizen observation lies in their presence in-country throughout the electoral cycle; their work on electoral reform advocacy; the strength of their geographical coverage offered by large deployments; and their robust assessment of different thematic aspects of the electoral cycle. But while citizen observers serve a watchdog role to keep authorities accountable, they are also more constrained by the political context in which they operate. 

Over the past decade, 11 African countries passed restrictive laws to constrain the civic space for civil society organisations (CSOs). During elections, clampdowns are more common. In Kenya in 2017 police raided CSO offices; others were threatened by the government with deregistration. Here, international observers are better positioned to hold states accountable and mediate conflicts. 

While international observation is an expression of the international community’s support for the promotion of democratic norms and an assessment of compliance with international human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), for citizens, it is an expression of their right to participate in the public affairs of their countries as enshrined in Article 21 of the UDHR and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Closer collaboration 

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, closer collaboration between regional, international and citizen observers has gained more prominence. As international EMBs have adjusted their methodology to the current realities — by reducing the length of their deployment and employing alternative methodologies such as virtual pre-election assessments, recruitment of in-country diplomats as analysts, and using smaller technical teams — they have also sought greater collaboration with citizen observers. This is mainly done by international NGO observer groups, and involves providing technical support to citizen groups. 

Ultimately, the core value of observation lies in the recommendations offered in observer reports, which should align with and feed into post-election reforms agenda and long-term democracy strengthening efforts. The publication of AU Election Observation Mission final reports since 2012 is a welcome development and should be emulated by regional bodies. 

Published reports serve as the basis for post-election reform advocacy, which is the first point of collaboration with citizen groups. 

Informing reform

To achieve its goal of promoting democracy, election observation must do more to ensure its recommendations inform wider reform processes.

National groups should lead reform initiatives in the post-election period, with support from regional and international observation missions through their follow-up and electoral support initiatives. There is a need to strengthen exchanges between the observation community and the electoral management community. This can be achieved through the continental and regional networks of EMBs, to facilitate dialogue on the issue of full access throughout the electoral process for observers. 

Recent developments point to the need to refocus observation methodology to embrace an electoral cycle-based approach that promotes greater complementarity between international and citizen observers; both groups are working towards the same goal.

Election support providers should invest in strengthening the capacity of citizen observers to look beyond large election day deployments and towards longer term, in-depth analysis of key thematic issues throughout the electoral cycle. These issues require in-depth analysis and familiarity with the context that international groups struggle to obtain in short stints in the country. 

Olufunto Akinduro is a senior programme officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. This is part of a series of essays exploring the state of electoral democracy in Africa that is being run in conjunction with the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development