A case for continued election observation in Africa

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 COVID-19 pandemic, call for a shift in the focus and practices of election observation.

Are observers still relevant within the rapidly evolving electoral context in Africa?

Observers are still needed within the African context, but election observation has reached an inflection 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 like the European Union, the Commonwealth, and the International Organisation of La Francophonie; and representatives of international non-governmental organisations like the Electoral Institute for Southern Africa (EISA), National Democratic Institute (NDI) and The Carter Center (TCC). However, the increased regularity of elections is not commensurate with increased credibility of polls.

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 protests sparking 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 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 its recall of AU observers from Guinea’s controversial legislative elections and referendum in 2020 could suggest a subtle shift, but overall African IGBs struggle to balance their role as election observers – a largely technical endeavour – with their political and diplomatic commitments as regional authorities. Although these groups 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. Here, the deployment of observers by international NGOs like EISA, NDI and TCC, drawing on same principles as the African IGBs, provides a more balanced outlook and assessment of elections on the continent as they are less constrained by regional politics.

But election observer groups across the board 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 (EMBs) on the continent – for voter registration and identification, to voting machines and results management systems – but observer access to these processes remain restricted. Observer groups in their methodological approaches are also struggling to effectively assess the emerging digital threats to electoral integrity exacerbated by the increased use of social media and online campaigning. They are also limited in their ability to assess party and campaign finance, which is crucial to their conclusions on the fairness of the electoral playing field. These gaps have led to criticism of election observation missions as electoral tourists whose methodology does not match up to the rapid pace of technological and political developments and emerging 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 like  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. Whilst 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, eleven 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, whilst others were threatened by the government with deregistration. Here, international observers have a comparative advantage, in that they are positioned to hold states accountable and mediate conflicts, which is beyond the remit of citizen observers. While international observation is an expression of 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) and other international instruments, 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 election observation missions have adjusted their methodology to the current realities – by reducing the length of their deployment and employing alternative methodologies like virtual pre-election assessments, recruitment of in-country diplomats and in some cases nationals as analysts, and with the deployment of smaller technical teams – they have also sought greater collaboration with citizen observers. This collaboration, predominantly done by international non-governmental organisation observer groups, involves providing technical support to citizen groups. The NDI’s deployment of virtual long-term thematic analysts is one example of adaptation of methodology and collaboration.

Improved collaboration will not only strengthen the credibility of election observation assessments, by drawing on citizen observer’s longer-term thematic analysis and their familiarity with the context, but also strengthen the recommendations of observer 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 EOM final reports since 2012 is a welcome development in this regard 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. The AU and regional bodies should also streamline their mediation and observation efforts within the framework of the principle of subsidiarity.

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. Beyond collaboration within the election observation community of practice, there is 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.

Rather than highlight the irrelevance of election observation, 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. Collaboration that is cognisant that the purpose and objectives of citizen and international observers differ, though both groups work towards the same goal, and that one group may not ultimately replace the other.

Election support providers should recognise this by investing 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 – such as the digital information eco-system and campaign finance – 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.