Africa is experiencing a busy electoral year. Two important polls took place in February, in Nigeria and Senegal, both under the watchful eye of the African Union (AU). Tasked with ensuring its member states abide by the democratic principles of free and fair elections, the AU deployed electoral observer missions to both countries.
Ideally the missions assess the transparency and fairness of electoral processes to ensure credible results. The observer missions' reports should appraise the outcomes and propose areas of improvement. However AU observer missions have often lacked preparation and capacity, which diminishes their credibility.
At the request of the Nigerian government and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the AU deployed a short-term observer mission to Nigeria from 9 to 28 February. Just hours before the election was due to start on 16 February, INEC announced that it had been postponed by a week. This cast doubt on the credibility of the electoral process.
The AU observers appeared as surprised by the postponement as other observers in Nigeria. Had the AU been collaborating with the INEC as per its mandate, such a significant event would not have come as a surprise. This points to the shortcomings of AU observer missions, both in their working methods and in the timing of their deployment.
AU observer missions have often lacked preparation and capacity, which affects their credibility
The preliminary statement by the AU observers in Nigeria was criticised for apparent inaccuracies and contradictions. It talks of election-related violence, including bomb blasts and the destruction of election material. Despite these incidents and reports that over 50 people died, the statement concluded that the electoral process was generally 'violence-free'.
Another contradiction in the report concerns voters' rights. The observer mission claimed that 'fundamental rights of association, free speech and assembly' were observed, but then asserted that political opponents were intimidated during the campaign period. The report attempts to satisfy all stakeholders who can interpret it in any way they want - as an endorsement for some or condemnation for others.
The AU typically deploys long-term and short-term missions a month and a half, and a week before elections, respectively. This is not enough time for observers to become well acquainted with realities on the ground. Incumbents, opposition parties and electoral bodies often start election preparations a year or two before the election date. An earlier, perhaps year-long, monitoring and action plan could have alerted the observers to the challenges the INEC said it faced in the run-up to Nigeria's polls.
Election monitoring by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, for example, is based on a year's tracking of the political situation and is more extensive and detailed. Those observers have a thorough understanding of political dynamics and potential hot spots, as well as access to remote areas, through civil society networks on the ground.
The statement by AU observers in Nigeria was criticised for its inaccuracies and contradictions
This contrasts with AU observers, who come from across Africa and participate as their country's permanent representative to the AU or as a representative of one of the AU's many different organs (the Pan African Parliament or AU staff, for example). Despite receiving pre-deployment training, they may not understand the nuances of the political space and situation. Observers don't have much time on the ground and the mission can typically amount to merely ticking the boxes.
Election observers also struggle to fully scrutinise digitalised voting systems. This was cause for concern in Nigeria, as technical challenges arose where polling staff had limited understanding of the technology. And it appears that even though ECOWAS and AU observer missions issued a joint statement on the postponement of Nigeria's elections, the two bodies worked independently of one another.
In Senegal, beyond the conduct of the polls, more than a year before the election, many complained that the political environment had been 'sanitised' to favour incumbent Macky Sall. Two of his major opponents were sentenced on charges of corruption and prevented from contesting the election. ECOWAS and the UN deemed the trials to have violated due process. Sall won the first round with 58% of the votes.
The measures Sall took before the elections, including amending the electoral law, also heightened tensions. This could not be addressed by the AU observer mission, as it was deployed only after these events had taken place. AU observer mission reports strive to be conflict-sensitive so they don't trigger further violence. But they must also ensure political parties don't stir violence before and after the announcement of results.
The AU must hold political actors accountable for tampering with electoral processes and causing violence
AU observer missions have come a long way since the first assignment in Namibia in 1989, but they can be improved. The AU should help enhance the capacity and transparency of electoral bodies and improve electoral laws in member states by engaging earlier in the electoral process. This will allow for a level playing field and enhance the credibility of polls.
Another lesson from the Nigerian and Senegal elections is that the AU should collaborate closely with regional bodies, especially those such as ECOWAS that have greater capacity to observe elections. The AU could also involve local civil society organisations that can serve as reliable expert partners. Finally, the AU must find ways to hold political actors accountable for tampering with the electoral process and causing violence.
Much of this could be achieved by implementing observer missions' recommendations following elections. This could be done in collaboration with the African Peer Review Mechanism or other AU organs that have the capacity to follow up.
Mohamed Diatta and Shewit Woldemichael, Researchers, PSC Report, ISS Addis Ababa
This article was first published by the ISS PSC Report.