Presidential polls in Cameroon were given a clean bill of health by a group of Transparency International election observers on Monday, a day after voters cast their ballot. The state broadcaster CRTV reported on a press conference with six international election monitors who described the 7 October polls as "extremely good". However, not all is what it seems and the verdict from credible observers who monitored the polls was considerably different.
"We felt the tense atmosphere, but outside of that, the most important thing was to see the polling stations were open that all the candidates were represented," said Salomon Benros, one of the observers, referring to voting in the Anglophone regions of the country.
It was "not intimidating" in the north west and south west regions, according to Nurit Greenger, another election monitor present at the press conference. "I think just to protect the area so everything goes smoothly," she said, referring to armed separatists and heavy presence of security forces in the Anglophone regions where less than half the polling stations opened, according to some sources.
The CRTV report reiterated several times that these observers were working for the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. The hotel conference room used for the press conference said "Transparency International" and the onscreen graphics for the observer's names also said "Transparency International".
Transparency International election monitoring?
However, accreditation badges for the observers shown during the television report did not refer to Transparency International, they instead indicated "Independent". Then the day after the CRTV report went to air, the international secretariat of Transparency International in Berlin put out a statement distancing themselves from the observers.
"Transparency International confirms that it has no international election observation mission in Cameroon," the statement read. "A recent television report featuring individuals described as working for Transparency International is false and untrue."
Transparency International is made up of local chapters and the statement said that the branch in Cameroon had "established a reporting mechanism for use by the general public". Nevertheless these activities were not part of an official election monitoring mission, according to the non-governmental organization.
The local Transparency International chapter in Cameroon also put out a statement, saying it had some 50 volunteers and a project entitled "Elections Corruption No Sissia" using technology to "promote transparency and accountability" for the polls. Sissia means to threaten or intimidate in Cameroonian pidgin.
The platform enabled citizens to anonymously report electoral fraud via SMS or WhatsApp messages, said Transparency International Cameroon. The statement signed by Charles Nguini, the president of the country's chapter, said the group of six international observers, "deployed by an unknown structure", had used the No Sissia platform, but neither the local chapter nor international secretariat had requested accreditation from the Ministry of Territorial Administration.
What did the 'observers' do?
The true nature of this election observation mission is even more confusing following conversations RFI had with one of the observers in question.
"It's ACP, Agence Cameroun Presse, in collaboration with Transparency International that made (sic) the project so that everything we reported was reported to Transparency International," said one of the election observers on condition of anonymity.
The individual said it was the first time they had visited sub-Saharan Africa and the first time they had monitored elections. They said all expenses had been taken care of including hotel and airfare, although they did not answer a question about remuneration for carrying out the observation.
It was not clear how they selected the polling stations that were observed, who the observers were accompanied by and why this group of six people was chosen in the first place. The individual election observer told RFI that they had visited some 50 polling stations.
The observer shared a photo depicting a leaflet with instructions for the Transparency International Cameroon No Sissia platform. They also shared an agenda for a meeting featuring a presentation with the local chapter's president outlining the No Sissia platform and the "I protect my vote" campaign.
Logos for Transparency International Cameroon and the US Embassy in Cameroon featured on the letterhead of the agenda seen by RFI, raising questions about the involvement of the US embassy in the country.
The US State Department through its African Regional Democracy Fund had given money to fund the Transparency International project, said a US State Department official. "No funds were used to pay this grantee for accredited or official observers."
So where does Agence Cameroun Presse fit into all of this and who are these observers? ACP said the "Independent" observers had come on their behalf to "bring their objectivity to the electoral process". The six monitors "had been invited to a conference with Transparency International to sensitise them and explain the workings of the electoral process in Cameroon".
ACP itself was created in 2018, according to its website, to provide the "facts and true news of the country". A recent Facebook post advertising vacancies for journalists describes the "fight against fake news". The domain name agencecamerounpresse.com was registered on 21 July, around three months before the elections. Jeune Afrique magazine has quoted Eli Dayan, described as the editor-in-chief of ACP, saying that these observers were "honest" volunteers.
Who are they?
The six observers themselves are French, Spanish, American and Tunisian, according to ACP. Nurit Greenger is a self-described Jewish-Zionist based in Los Angeles, according to her Twitter profile. She has blog posts on the Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel website.
Greenger is also the founder of the Western Civilization Heritage Program, which characterises itself as a non-profit that supports the education of young generations outside Israel about Western cultures and values. Filings with the US Internal Revenue Service say its non-profit status was revoked in May 2017 for not having filed the relevant forms for three consecutive years.
The Western Civilization Heritage Program boasts Mordechai Kedar as one of its directors, according to searches on business records at the Nevada Secretary of State website. Kedar was not one of the observers, but served for 25 years as a military intelligence chief for the Israeli Defense Forces.
Salomon Benros describes himself as a "consultant in organization and management" for "Ariel" based in Strasbourg, France, according to his LinkedIn profile. There is no indication as to what Ariel does.
Amanda Benzikri-Levy is an expert in human resources based in France, according to her website DéclicRH. She has also given presentations at the Limoud Forum on Jewish Life.
Raphael Kalfon lives in Ashdod, Israel and studied in Paris, his Facebook profile says. Kalfon is a representative for the French Les Républicains party in Israel, as cited by a 2016 article on the Actualité Juive website. His name also appears on the JSSNews website where he is described as the president of a Masonic lodge in Tel Aviv.
Yamina Thabet is the founder and president of the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities, a non-governmental organisation working to defend the rights of minorities, according to its website.
It is not immediately clear what Hubert Haddad does, searches for him yielded no definitive results.
International and observation missions
The appearance and pronouncements made by these six people described as election observers must be put in the context of the bigger picture of election monitoring for the 2018 presidential polls. Previous elections in Cameroon have been marred by accusations of fraud and voting irregularities.
A number of international observer groups were absent from the polls in which President Paul Biya was looking to extend his 35 year rule. The European Union, Commonwealth and Carter Center were all absent. These groups frequently deploy election monitors in sub-Saharan Africa.
The African Union bloc did deploy monitors for Cameroon's elections. A total of 33 election observers were sent by the AU covering 7 regions of the country with the exception of the north west and south west due to the security situation. They monitored 176 polling stations.
"The atmosphere on polling day was generally peaceful except some divisions in south west and north west regions," a preliminary statement by the AU mission said. Procedures for opening, voting, closing and counting at polling stations "were mostly complied with", however, there were unclaimed voter cards in most of the polling stations visited. AU observers noted 157 cards claimed from a total of 2229. Those who had not picked up their voters card before the polls were supposed to claim it from the polling station on election day itself, the electoral commission had said.
The AU mission noted "confusion" at polling stations over the ballots of opposition candidate Akere Muna following his withdrawal from the race and coalition with fellow opposition leader Maurice Kamto. Some polling stations gave Muna's ballots to voters and in other cases they were were not issued at all, the AU said. There was also a lack of political party agents at polling stations, the observation mission said.
Domestic observation not accredited
One of the most comprehensive domestic observer groups was run by Le Monde Avenir, a Douala-based civil society set up in 2003. However, their election observation was hamstrung by the authorities who refused to accredit the 1,200 election monitors they trained as part of a programme funded by the European Union and the National Endowment for Democracy.
The Cameroonian authorities instead offered Le Monde Avenir 47 accreditations, which it turned down on principle. The civil society group decided to go ahead with their observation and deployed election monitors with their own badges without being officially accredited.
"There so many cases where voters came with their cards, but could not find their names on the voter list," said Roland Tsapi, a consultant for Le Monde Avenir. "Elections were not as fair and just as some people are saying."
Tsapi recounted numerous irregularities based on their observations: voters who discovered that somebody had already voted on their behalf, envelopes with ballots already inside and polling stations with only Paul Biya's ballots available.
"We cannot neglect the impact of all those irregularities," said Tsapi. "The elections in Cameroon are still not free and fair for everybody." The vote counting continues in Cameroon and official results are expected within two weeks from the close of polling.