Printer Friendly



Democracy in Africa, as elsewhere, is in something of a crisis. This has prompted an agonizing reappraisal of the role elections play in the consolidation of democracy and, in particular, of the contribution of independent election observers to that process. This article assesses critically the performance of election monitors within the context of broader international efforts to promote democratic norms in Africa. It explores the evolution and operationalization of the practice, identifies and evaluates the functions undertaken, and analyses the deficiencies revealed in the light of current critiques. It concludes with some prescriptions as to how the process might be improved and the credibility of monitoring restored.

DEMOCRACY IN AFRICA, AS ELSEWHERE, is in something of a crisis. The extravagant expectations of the early 1990s have been only partially realized. Even in Benin, Mali and Zambia, the signal successes recorded earlier have not been sustained. This has prompted an agonizing reappraisal of the role elections play in the consolidation of democracy and, related to this, the contribution to that process of independent election observers from elsewhere in Africa and overseas. Yet, despite mounting criticism, the demand for international election monitoring remains strong. What, then, can be done to improve its performance, and perhaps restore its prestige?


One of the more striking developments of the 1990s has been the emergence of an international election monitoring industry. While, in its modern manifestation, it came into prominence first in Africa, it has spread to Central America, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East and South East Asia. What accounts for this phenomenon? The explanation is to be found in the dramatic changes in the political environment, domestically and globally.

Globally, with the winding down of the Cold War and the decline in Africa's perceived strategic importance to the outside world, the concerns of the international community have shifted to issues of democratic governance, respect for human rights, and the resolution of regional conflicts by peaceful means rather than by armed force. This trend has coincided with, and is in part a response to the rash of domestic power struggles, often with an ethnic dimension, which have scarred the continent in recent years. Many of these conflicts have escalated into fiercely-fought civil wars, sometimes culminating in the crippling of state structures, or even their complete collapse.

In most instances, rival warlords have eventually been compelled by physical or financial exhaustion to concede the utter futility of further internecine combat, and have settled for a more conventional mode of conflict resolution--an election campaign. Peace packages have typically included provisions for international monitoring of the process, on the assumption that neutral observers could be relied upon to report objectively on suspected departures from agreed norms of electoral behaviour. Moreover, their mere presence would exercise a restraining influence on anyone tempted to breach the rules. Certainly, the success of the UN Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia in 1989 powerfully influenced the pattern of subsequent reconciliation elections in Angola, South Africa, Mozambique and Liberia, and in the long-delayed referendum in the Western Sahara, now scheduled for December 1998.(1)

States in transition from military or single-party rule to democracy provide a second set of circumstances conducive to international participation in national elections. The momentum driving Africa's `second independence' was a widespread popular insistence on political accountability. To ensure that elections were demonstrably democratic, an international seal of approval was sought, especially on the occasion of a country's first pluralist election. Success in securing such an award served three important national purposes: it certified that the process of political transformation was acceptably free and fair; it conferred legitimacy on the newly-elected government; and it bestowed a badge of international respectability on the country, testifying to its ability to conduct democratic elections--a matter of no small interest to the donor community.

During the heyday of the democratic movement in the early 1990s, the presence of international election monitors came to be regarded as almost de rigueur, with the archetypal contests in Benin and Zambia in 1991 helping to set the pattern. By the mid-1990s, however, the great majority of African states had held `founding' elections.(2) and a round of `second' elections had begun. It soon became apparent that little in the way of democratic consolidation had taken place over the period of the first electoral mandate. A recent study points to a `trend of declining quality' in second generation elections, with Zambia the `clearest example'.(3) Moreover, the practice of routinely relying on international monitoring had become less consistent, suggesting a decline in the importance accorded world opinion.


One reason for this is growing nationalist resentment at what some see as external, especially Western donor tutelage. Also, in the case of `second' elections, the necessity to renew one's democratic credentials has appeared less compelling. Since 1980, when a Commonwealth Observer Group monitored Zimbabwe's first democratic election, Harare has not felt the need for an international presence. Nor has `democratic' Botswana at any election since independence in 1966. South Africa, too, which during its April 1994 election experienced a mass influx of foreign observers, is determined to go it alone in 1999.

A second, more suspect motive is concern to avoid outside observers prying too closely into electoral abuses. Political leaders, uncertain of their ability to win fairly, all-too-often have succumbed to the temptation to exploit nationalist sentiments to cover up their fraudulent intentions. Those swept aside by the democratic tide of the early 1990s had a special incentive to do so. While a few have chosen to retire quietly, others have sought a political comeback, often as born-again democrats.

Military officers have proven particularly adept at playing the election game. During 1996 alone, eight soldier-politicians who had previously seized power in coups d'etats managed to `elect' themselves president by fair means or (more often) foul ones.(4) All recognized the advantages of going through the motions of holding elections, if only to attract foreign aid. In most cases, it was also considered prudent to invite international monitors, as their presence added respectability to such occasions--without, however, posing too serious a threat.

The international community, too, has been experiencing gnawing doubts concerning the efficacy of monitoring operations in promoting free and fair elections. As the Economist has commented, with some exaggeration and subject to exceptions,
   African elections are now seldom genuine tests of popular opinion.... The
   government fixes the election; the opposition boycotts it or rejects the
   result; the government ignores the opposition.... Cynics call it `donor
   democracy': just enough to keep the aid-givers happy.

While much lip-service is paid to the norms of free elections, too often the reality is a travesty of democracy. This has led some critics to question the insistence on strict international standards of electoral propriety under African conditions. They have even contended that a flawed election may be preferable to no election at all--if it conditions the public to the idea that leaders ought to be held regularly accountable to the people.(5)

Also disturbing is the apparent ease with which the verdicts of observers can be manipulated by governments to further their partisan purposes. The Kenyan government's exploitation of an injudicious phrase taken out of context in a Commonwealth Observer Group press release did much to discredit its report of the 1992 election.(6) Similarly, an ecumenical church team which monitored the November 1996 elections in Zambia was embarrassed by the use made of its report.(7)

International sponsoring agencies have drawn two lessons from their reappraisals of the role of election monitoring in Africa. The first is the need to broaden substantially the scope of their participation in the electoral process, with a view to improving practice in advance of a vote rather than simply cataloguing observed shortcomings after the event. There is more to elections than election day. As a result, external support now often includes advising on election legislation and registration procedures, posting technical experts to electoral commissions, training polling station staff, and promoting voter education among the people.

One form of external assistance that African governments are eager to secure is financial support. Elections are costly affairs. Although donors much prefer to make contributions in kind, the provision of ballot boxes and the like, monetary grants to administer elections are by no means unknown. In exceptional circumstances, foreign funding has underwritten the greater part of the cost--in Mozambique, fully 92 percent of the $64.5 m bill.(8) Domestic monitoring groups also typically rely heavily on outside support. This exposes them to the risk, as in Zambia, of having any critical comments they might make interpreted (unfairly) by one party or other as echoing the views of their benefactors.(9)

A second lesson learned is that monitoring must be viewed within a broader context. Not only does democracy involve much more than elections, however free and fair they might be, but democratic governance is increasingly an integral part of peace-building. Donor and domestic concerns typically include support for a fair and efficient court system, a competent and uncorrupt public service, professional community policing, and a vibrant civil society in addition to a free and responsible press, respect for human rights and political freedoms, and a culture of tolerance, of diversity and dissent. These are among the principal benchmarks by which democratic performance is judged.

Significant as these developments are, they in no way minimize the role of elections as an indispensable step along the road to democracy. Nor have international monitors been sidelined. Fully two-thirds of the countries that conducted national elections during 1996 (and over half in 1997) felt it incumbent on them to provide for an international presence of some kind (Table 1). Election observers are far from being an endangered species.



A wide range of organizations are presently engaged in the business of election monitoring in Africa. Among intergovernmental institutions, the United Nations, since 1992 through its Electoral Assistance Division, holds the record for the number of operations it has participated in and the number of observers it has deployed. Nevertheless, current financial constraints have seriously curtailed its capacity to respond to requests. As a result, the UN has largely confined itself to two activities: electoral verification in the context of peacekeeping--most recently in Liberia and, likely soon, in the Central African Republic(10)--and `coordination and support of international observers'. The latter comprises both short-term logistical support geared to the actual voting for observers sponsored by governments and `comprehensive and long-term observation, beginning with registration and continuing through the campaign, election day and the announcement of the election results',(11) The UN no longer routinely deploys its own observers, though bowing to political pressure it may send a couple of officials simply to `follow and report' on an election (but not `observe' it), as in Ghana, Madagascar, Uganda and Zambia in 1996.

The Commonwealth and, more recently, la Francophonie are active within their linguistic areas,(12) as is the European Union (EU) in Lome convention countries. Within Africa, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has established its own election observation unit and, since 1990, has monitored over 70 elections of various kinds in some 40 African countries. According to its Secretary-General, the OAU sees its involvement as a way of encouraging member states in `their efforts towards democratization'. While acknowledging the `limitations and shortcomings' of the OAU's current contribution despite its `considerable experience and expertise', he urged that its role be `further enhanced'.(13) Also showing an interest in election monitoring are sub-regional bodies, notably the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Liberia and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Individual countries in Africa and overseas, especially the United States and France, not infrequently still deploy their own observer delegations. Most others now prefer the relative anonymity of participating through a multi-national body, particularly if the operation is potentially controversial. American practice is to contract monitoring out to specialist bodies, commonly the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the African-American Institute (AAI), or the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Each of these organizations routinely recruits its observers internationally.(14) Finally, almost invariably, there are independent observers from a range of overseas, African and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs)--among them, churches, development agencies, human rights bodies and trade unions. Happily, collaboration between outside groups and the (normally more numerous) local monitors is generally close and mutually supportive (see Table 1).(15)

International observers are understandably presumed to be competent, conscientious and credible, and most are. They do, however, come with different backgrounds, professional skills and linguistic abilities, especially in African languages. Several readily recognizable types can be identified. First and foremost are the eminences, typically (retired) political leaders, judges and ambassadors, appointed primarily for who they are rather than for what they know. They are, in the words of the Commonwealth guidelines, `individuals of high standing and proven integrity whose considered opinions would be likely to carry weight' locally and internationally. As such, they give a mission visibility, even if most can spare only a few days. Next come the pilgrims. They were much in evidence in South Africa, though not always observing, having flocked there in vast numbers just to be `there' at the creation.

Thirdly, there are the professionals: typically election officials and politicians with relevant expertise. More recently, the trend has been to include specialists on policing, the media, voter education and even human rights.(16) A fourth category comprises the area specialists, academics, aid personnel and resident diplomats among others, who bring with them a wealth of knowledge of the country. In some situations where security is a concern, there may also be (unarmed) military observers. Finally come the troops: a corps of dedicated and hard-working individuals, frequently United Nations Volunteers (UNVs), who sign up to do a job, often in trying conditions. The actual mix in any particular operation depends on the emphasis the monitoring body places on credibility, experience, knowledge, numbers, cost and availability over an extended period.

Deployment (see Table 1)

Whereas at one time sponsoring bodies appeared eager to undertake monitoring assignments whatever the circumstances, the acceptance of invitations is no longer automatic. Care is now taken to investigate fully conditions on the ground first. The most circumspect is the Commonwealth, which has formal guidelines governing participation.(17) Since 1996, following earlier unhappy experiences in Kenya and Tanzania (and Zanzibar), it has mounted observer missions for only five of the 14 elections held in Commonwealth Africa: Cameroon (legislative), Ghana, Lesotho, Seychelles and Sierra Leone. In five cases, it declined the invitation on grounds that conditions for free and fair elections did not exist: Cameroon (presidential), Gambia, Zambia, and Uganda (presidential and legislative). For the remaining four elections, the Commonwealth received no invitations.(18)

Similarly, the EU, the USA and most other states boycotted the `elections' in Equatorial Guinea and Sudan as hopelessly flawed. Commendable as this is, failure to monitor potentially fraudulent elections is not without its costs. For regimes prepared to forego international approval, the absence of observers makes the task of `winning' the election all that much easier, especially if, as is often the case, the penalty is purely nominal. The UN, too, is increasingly discriminating, though for somewhat different reasons. Of 18 requests in 1996, none received a positive response. In half of the cases, the official explanation given was that the invitation was received too late.(19) Nevertheless, concerns over costs and the absence of an acceptable `enabling environment' often proved the crucial considerations.(20)

Before agreeing to participate, most organizations insist on three conditions being met. The bottom line is receipt of a formal invitation. Kenya, for example, decided in 1997 to exclude all foreign observers, other than those resident in the country. For most sponsors, a government request suffices. The Commonwealth, however, follows this up with a Secretariat planning mission to seek assurances directly from opposition parties that they, too, support the presence of a Commonwealth observer group. In addition, the mission reports on whether `the election process as a whole' is `in general conformity with internationally accepted norms'.

This is the second prerequite: there must be some reasonable prospect that the election will be substantially free and fair, and that all parties can compete on a more or less level playing field. As the Zimbabwean Foreign Minister stated, following the banning of the major political parties in the Gambia, the Commonwealth `cannot be expected to endorse a process which is so obviously flawed'.(21) Finally, observers need the assurance that they will be accorded the freedom to carry out their responsibilities effectively, subject only to such formal requirements as that they register with the national electoral commission and comply with any code of conduct.(22)

In the case of the May 1997 legislative elections in the Cameroon, the Commonwealth did depart from its previous practice and agree to monitor them, knowing full well that the government had no intention of permitting a free and fair vote. However, to have stayed away would have left the field to an overly-cautious la Francophonie team. In the event, co-operation between the two organizations contributed to ensuring a considerably stronger statement than is usual in comments on a fellow member state. According to one account, the `violence, intimidation and ballot-stuffing' was so blatant that even la Francophonie mission members spoke openly of `fraud'.(23) As for the report of the Commonwealth Observer Group, it proved particularly damning.(24) It subsequently served as a checklist of required reforms. When the Cameroon government ignored most of them, the Commonwealth (and every other credible organization, including la Francophonie) pointedly boycotted the October presidential election.

The number and diversity of observer groups covering any one election pose problems of co-ordination. Some groups are more disposed than others to operate on their own. Co-operation between governmental and NGO delegations, while generally good, can on occasion prove a sensitive matter, with each tending to regard the other as less than adequately qualified or motivated. A positive development, actively fostered by Canada, has been the new spirit of collaboration between the Commonwealth and la Francophonie in countries that are members of both organizations. What began as a close working relationship in Cameroon in May 1997 blossomed into a Joint Observer Group to monitor the Seychelles election in March 1998.(25)

As the broadest-based organization, the UN has increasingly assumed leadership in establishing Joint International Observer Groups (JIOGs), and manning their secretariats. This has enabled it to retain a high profile, even while no longer able to afford observer teams of its own. The role of a JIOG is three-fold. Its primary task is to co-ordinate the deployment of observers throughout the country as well as organize the necessary logistical support, with a view to optimizing coverage of all critical areas. It may also undertake to mount an orientation programme to familiarize observers upon arrival with their responsibilities, the electoral environment and the administrative arrangements.

Finally, following the election, the JIOG provides a forum for observers to compare notes and draw up a consensus document acceptable to as many groups as possible. Certain delegations have routinely felt uncomfortable subscribing to a joint statement, especially one critical of a government. In the past, the OAU has been notably reluctant to commit itself publicly, though recently it has appeared less reticent. Many organizations that do sign on also issue separate statements of their own setting forth their positions more fully and precisely.


The role played by international election monitors has evolved over time. It is now much more than passive `observation' of voting procedures on election day. Currently, observers may perform up to eight identifiable functions.(26) These are:

1. Confidence-building (or international solidarity). The overt demonstration of moral support by the international community, symbolized by the visible presence of election observers, can `inspire voter and opposition confidence in the integrity of the process',(27) contribute to an easing of tensions between the political parties and among the public, and increase the voter participation rate. The importance of this aspect of their role should not be underestimated, though its impact on society depends on how early, how widely and in what numbers observers are deployed throughout the country.

2. Deterrence (or conflict prevention). The mere presence of observers on the spot is widely, and not unreasonably, assumed to cause persons predisposed to coercive or fraudulent behaviour to pause to reconsider their actions. Experience, however, suggests that, while observers have an initial cautionary effect in deterring petty offenders, the impact may diminish over time as prospective trouble-makers devise ways of circumventing the new constraints.

3. Dispute resolution. On occasion, observers are in a position to assist in defusing potentially explosive local disputes by proffering advice to the parties or mediating discreetly between them. Nevertheless, helpful as such initiatives may be, they are fraught with difficulties. Admittedly, for observers to stand idly by as passive witnesses to an escalating conflict hardly accords with host country expectations. At the same time, any intervention in local altercations, even by invitation, needs to be undertaken judiciously, with great caution, and in a manner that preserves observer integrity and impartiality.(28)

4. Observation. The core responsibility of observers is still to monitor every relevant aspect of the organization and conduct of an election, including the functioning of the national electoral commission, the registration of voters, the course of the campaign, the poll itself, the counting of the ballots, and the compilation of the results. In practice, teams have typically arrived a week or so in advance of polling day and, to cut costs, often leave prior to the announcement of the outcome.

5. Reporting. Practice in respect of reporting has varied over time and teams. A number of sponsoring bodies, including the OAU until recently, normally made no public statement, except perhaps to endorse the JIOG's conclusions. Most groups, however, issue one or more press releases of their own. In addition, the Commonwealth and some overseas (and local) NGOs customarily publish monographs (some months later) analyzing the process in detail.

6. Verification (or legitimation). For observer groups so mandated, the culmination of their mission has been pronouncing a verdict on the validity of the exercise overall. Often, this responsibility is formally assigned to some individual or body. For the 1989 liberation election in Namibia, it was Martti Ahtisaari, the UN Special Representative, who certified that the election process had `at each stage been free and fair' and `conducted to my satisfaction'. In South Africa, the Independent Electoral Commission (despite some qualms over a possible conflict of interest) had the constitutional duty to determine definitively whether the 1994 elections were `substantially free and fair'. Then, following the Liberian election in July 1997, the UN Secretary-General and General Abacha of Nigeria as ECOWAS Chairman issued a Joint Certification Statement declaring the electoral process `free, fair and credible'.(29) In the case of the Commonwealth,
   each team is enjoined to consider the various factors impinging on the
   credibility of the electoral process as a whole and to determine in its own
   judgment whether the conditions exist for a free expression of will by the
   electors and if the result of the election reflects the wishes of the

This routinely takes the form of an interim press statement shortly after the polls close, and a second one on the eve of the group's departure, by which time the results have usually, but not always, been announced. The rationale for the initial release, which is often the only one to attract the attention of the media is to avoid being accused of allowing the judgment of the group on the conduct of the election up to that point to be influenced by the outcome of the count.(31)

Not every delegation favours taking a public stand on the legitimacy of an election, as the reality is generally more complex than a simple `yes' or `no' allows. Until recently, la Francophonie observers have preferred simply to lay out the facts as they found them, and leave it to the public to reach their own conclusions. The US National Democratic Institute, while priding itself in `telling it as it is', stops short of formally certifying the outcome. It claims that ultimately the `people will determine the legitimacy of the electoral process'.(32)

7. Advice. The Commonwealth is careful to caution its observers that they have `no executive role'; their function is `not to supervise but to observe'. Yet, opportunities often do exist to tender advice before as well as after elections. Accordingly, they are left `free to propose to the government and other concerned authorities such action on institutional, procedural and other matters as would assist the holding of the elections'.(33) Post-election, the comprehensive reports that the Commonwealth and others publish are intended as more than historical records. The hope is that they will serve as reference sources for those entrusted with organizing and conducting subsequent elections. There is little evidence that this happens, as the unhappy example of Cameroon following its May 1997 election demonstrates.

8. Insurance Certificate. Certification of an election as free and fair may, in time, also offer some insurance against coups. At its annual summit in Harare in June 1997, the OAU decreed that democratically-elected governments can only be changed constitutionally. Accordingly, the deposed government of Sierra Leone was assured of continued OAU recognition and support. By implication, such support would be denied any government not duly certified as democratic.


Despite some decline in the prestige of international observers, popular perceptions of their presence are still positive, not least among the ultimate stakeholders, the ordinary African voter. Nevertheless, monitoring is no panacea for all the ills of democracy. What, then, is its contribution to democratic consolidation, and what lessons have been learned? Assessments of the role of observers vary considerably. At least four distinct expressions of concern have emerged.


The most radical critique dismisses the entire enterprise as, at best, misguided. International observers are depicted as an integral element in liberalism's global agenda to impose an inappropriate model of Western democracy on African societies. Central to this alleged strategy is a determination to erode traditional communal values as incompatible with liberal norms. As one exponent has contended:
   The great apparatus of both public and `private' monitoring institutions
   that has now been set up in the West (and is busily finding local allies
   for itself within African countries) is part of a common effort to sustain
   this process.(34)

This portrayal of the perceived sinister significance of international monitoring understandably evokes a ready response in certain nationalist and traditionalist quarters. Its `exposure' of the observer industry may also appeal to those whose ambitions are best served by perverting democracy in their quest for political power and privilege.

A second view sees monitoring efforts, not as misguided, but as misplaced, even superficial. As the Economist explains, `The ways in which [tyrants control elections] are rarely picked up by foreign monitors, who often arrive only to observe the actual polling'.(35) As one study reports, polling procedures are not `principal sources of electoral malfeasance in Africa. If "rigging" occurs, it does so ... long before polling day.' It adds that observers
   increasingly distinguish between the growing efficiency and effectiveness
   of polling administration ... and persistent problems with election rules
   or campaign conduct.... Incumbents who are intent on retaining office have
   found `wholesale' rule changes (concerning who competes) to be a far more
   effective means of controlling outcomes than seeking to influence votes
   individually at the `retail' level (i.e., who participates).(36)

This observation is consistent with an evaluation of the elections held during 1996, using data generated on a judgmental basis (see Table 1). The analysis reveals that, in a majority of cases, 12 out of 21, the quality of the campaign during the run-up to the election was inferior to the conduct of the balloting. On only two occasions, in Sierra Leone and in Chad, was the reverse the case. Moreover, the discrepancy was more marked in parliamentary elections than in presidential contests, and more common in anglophone than in francophone Africa.(37)

Although the crucial importance of the pre-election period is now more widely acknowledged, in practice efforts at monitoring it have tended to be sporadic. Frequently neglected is any systematic scrutiny of the organization, operation and independence of the national electoral commission,(38) the inclusiveness of the registration process, the accuracy of voters' lists, the freedom of parties to campaign, their equitable access to the media, and the diversion of state resources for partisan purposes. Even when these concerns are targeted, the tendency is to focus on legaland technical criteria and to pay less attention to the cultural and historical context.(39) While these shortcomings persist, they constitute a serious indictment of the methodology, operationalization and credibility of the election observation process. It commonly results in a verdict that commends the `freeness' of the actual balloting, while failing to probe into the `fairness' of the preceding campaign or, at most, dismisses its deficiencies as inconsequential for the outcome.(40)

A third judgment on international monitoring groups questions their competence to evaluate adequately (or consistently) even the process of voting on election day. The three principal concerns related to the quality of the work performed are: the lack of professionalism of some observers, the varying standards of freeness and fairness applied, and the inadequate (and dwindling) numbers of observers deployed.

With respect to standards, there is still no consensus on appropriate criteria. Particularly problematical is reliance on the term `free and fair' as indicating a `measurable, verifiable, uniform, and wen-established international standard'.(41) More serious is the continuing reluctance openly to call a flawed election flawed. OAU observers in particular are constrained by considerations of African solidarity, while the UN and la Francophonie are anxious to avoid any diplomatic repercussions. Even Commonwealth observers have on occasion hesitated to speak out boldly, choosing to tone down their strictures in the interests of amicable relations and political stability. In some cases, the level of professional competence displayed has also been open to question.(42)

With anything up to 10,000 polling stations to monitor and vast distances to travel as well as steadily tightening budgets, mobilizing fully credible observer forces is proving increasingly difficult. Although no ready formula exists to determine the ideal number `needed', at times teams have provided little more than a token presence. Moreover, with the decline in the number (and changing nature) of peacekeeping operations, so too has the scale of UN election observation missions. Whereas the UN deployed a thousand election observers in Namibia in 1989, and some two thousand in each of South Africa and Mozambique in 1994, since then the largest contingents of international observers fielded were in Sierra Leone in February 1996 (with 130 observers) and in Liberia in July 1997 (with 300).

One way of augmenting the slim human resources available internationally is to enlist monitors locally (see Table 1). Critics have even contended--this is the fourth claim--that the time has come for indigenous observer organizations (and party agents) to assume full responsibility for their own monitoring.(43) Local teams are deemed more cost-effective, more knowledgeable, linguistically more mobile, available for longer periods, and perhaps more observant of what really matters. As a Ghanaian proverb suggests, `A stranger to a place has big eyes but cannot see'. Besides, the skills acquired by domestic observers remain in the country.

Yet, indispensable as these assets are, outsiders have yet to be rendered redundant. Compared with local recruits, they are still viewed as more impartial, prestigious and professional, and less vulnerable to partisan pressures. Domestic monitors depend on them for support, while host governments often prefer them to their own citizens. As one analyst has explained, in Ghana
   the [Rawlings] government was happy to invite international election
   observers, but objected vehemently to the presence of domestic observers.
   Its agents attempted to compromise the domestic election groups, especially
   NEDEO. They opposed the Electoral Commission`s decision to grant
   accreditation to domestic election groups, and made outrageous demands that
   NEDEO change its name and drop key members....(44)

The case for relying on domestic monitors is argued most cogently with respect to second elections. Yet, a Swedish commission has contended that, to promote sustainable democracy, the `timespan of international involvement should be much longer' than currently envisaged. `The real test of democracy is generally the second and third election in a transition period, not always the first one, which today gets most of the international attention.'(45) As recent experience confirms, it takes more than a single symbolic success to institutionalize the right of `periodic and genuine elections' enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Rights. A prerequisite of democratic consolidation is the willingness of parties, in both government and opposition, to put their right to rule to the test of free and fair elections, and accept the verdict.


International election monitoring, in some form and in some situations, appears destined to remain a permanent, if never prominent feature of the African electoral scene. What can be done to ensure that it contributes constructively to meeting the challenges of a continent in radical transformation? To begin with, anything that raises the level of professionalism, either by more rigorous training or by the recruitment of specialists on, for example, voter registration and human rights, will assist.(46) Secondly, if as seems likely, most monitors are unable to stay the full course of an election campaign, greater use should be made of pre-election (and post-election) missions, such as NDI and the Commonwealth regularly (and the UN increasingly) employ.(47) As Amnesty International reiterated in a familiar refrain six months before the 1997 Kenyan elections:
   What we want the world to do is to deploy human rights monitors now....
   What we don't want to see are election monitors being sent into the country
   a few days or a couple of weeks before the election takes place. The real
   problems are happening now in Kenya.(48)

A promising initiative adapted to Kenyan circumstances was the Donor Democratic Development Group (DDDG) comprising 22 diplomatic missions in Nairobi. It monitored the political scene closely for more than a year prior to the December 1997 elections.(49)

In addition, in an era of fiscal restraint, effective co-ordination in the deployment of available national and international observer teams becomes critical. Finally, greater care should be taken in clarifying and operationalizing the term `internationally acceptable standards' (or values) to ensure their relevance. At the same time, it is desirable to avoid the platitudinous pronouncements still heard. The seriousness of the election game merits a considerably greater measure of openness and frankness in reporting the `wishes of the people' than is often the case.

A more fundamental concern is the extent to which monitoring contributes, not just to improved electoral performance, but to the consolidation of democracy. This is not easy to assess. Much depends on the outcome of an election, and monitors have little control over that. Their role is to ensure that voters are able to vote for the candidate of their choice, not to influence what that choice is. Moreover, in societies in transition, entrenched political practices inherited from the past are commonly perpetuated, especially in the absence of a regime change--a rare event. Although attitudes have improved, military authoritarian habits persist in Ghana, as does the virtual fusion of party and state in Tanzania. In Cameroon, the October 1997 presidential election was conducted much as in the past, despite the catalogue of essential reforms the Commonwealth observers had drawn up following the legislative elections the previous May. Once international monitors depart, their ongoing influence in strengthening democratic observance is limited. Clearly, the international community needs to devise more imaginative ways of sustaining the process of consolidating democracy.

Over the longer term, the best hope may lie in developing indigenous capacity. Three aspects have implications for election monitoring. The first is the institution of an effective national electoral commission (NEC). Frequently, its establishment has been left almost to the last moment, with administrative chaos the inevitable and all too familiar result. Even more pernicious is the practice of appointing blatantly partisan commission members. What is required is a permanent, independent, non-partisan, and professional NEC prepared to assume firm control. Here, outside observers as well as experts have a role to play.

A related issue is the financing of elections. Certain countries may simply be unable to meet the cost of mounting elections, with Mozambique and Liberia prime examples. In the case of Tanzania, the donors undertook to meet half the administrative costs, though they are reluctant to repeat the offer without satisfactory assurances that conditions will not again degenerate into chaos. Even more problematical is the response to other monetary demands. One unresolved problem is how best to ensure that political parties compete financially on a reasonably level playing field. Also critical is equitable access to state media and government transport.

A further sensitive area of involvement for the international community is the fostering of a vibrant (and genuinely indigenous) civil society, as part of an ongoing process of strengthening the sinews of democracy. Particularly important are efforts to encourage strong national election monitoring movements. Their active presence would, among other things, help to engender among voters a greater sense of `owning' elections. Unless the people feel a commitment, mentally and emotionally, to the democratic process, its prospects are problematical.

There is much that the global community can do to promote free and fair elections and consolidate democracy. This includes developing a comprehensive and credible election monitoring service. Yet, realistically there are limits to what outsiders may be able and (increasingly) willing to undertake. To begin with, they are dependent on the goodwill of host governments and parties; international observers and technical advisers cannot function in a hostile environment. If countries are to receive full benefit from the presence of outside observers, the ready cooperation of all concerned is imperative.(50) More serious, the resources the international community is prepared to invest are steadily shrinking. Market reform continues to command a higher priority than democratic governance as a goal of donor policy. In this and other respects, the weakening sense of commitment globally is taking its toll.

(1.) Sierra Leone was a special case. The election in February 1996, restoring civilian rule, was held nine months prior to the formal conclusion of the peace agreement. When a civil war ends in outright victory for one side (as in Rwanda), it is rare for elections to follow. If held, the international presence may be limited, as in Ethiopia in 1994.

(2.) `Reconciliation' and `transitional' elections are both embraced within the term `founding' election. The hope is that `second' elections will become `normal' elections.

(3.) Michael Bratton, `Second elections in Africa', Journal of Democracy 9 (1998), p. 60.

(4.) Benin, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Madagascar, Niger and Sudan, with Mauretania a 1997 addition and Nigeria a future possibility. The Zimbabwean Foreign Minister characterized the electoral process in Gambia as `consolidation of military rule in another form'. See Commonwealth News Release 96/37, 20 August 1996.

(5.) Economist, 23 November 1996, p. 23, and 7 September 1996, p. 6.

(6.) 1 January 1993. The statement asserted that `the whole electoral process cannot be given an unqualified rating as `free and fair', but added that the election `constitutes a giant step on the road to multiparty democracy'. See Commonwealth Secretariat, The Presidential, Parliamentary and Civic Elections in Kenya, 29 December 1992, London, 1993, p. 63. Elsewhere in the report, `giant step' was revised to read `first step' (p. xi).

(7.) The `Statement from the Christian Council of Zambia International, Regional and Local Ecumenical Partners' Team' confined itself to observations in Lusaka Province on election day. It concluded that the polling there was carried out in `a free, fair and transparent way'. The local Committee for a Clean Campaign declared that overall `the elections cannot be said to have been free and fair', for which its chairman was promptly arrested.

(8.) National Election Commission, Final Report (AWEPA, Maputo, 1995), p. 59. This sum excludes the cost of financing the political parties. In October 1996, the UN turned down a request to finance Burkina Faso's forthcoming elections.

(9.) The Chiluba regime accused the Foundation for a Democratic Process of distorting the facts `to appease the organisation's sponsors who were bent on fomenting chaos in the nation'; Times of Zambia, 23 November 1996, p. 1; SouthScan, 29 November 1996, p. 238. Kaunda and UNIP voiced similar criticisms in 1991. See Julius O. Ihonvbere, Economic Crisis, Civil Society and Democratization: The case of Zambia (Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, 1996), pp. 135-40.

(10.) UN Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) and UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINURCA). The UN Secretary-General's draft mandate for MINURCA has yet to receive formal Security Council approval. It provides for MINURCA to `observe the election [announced for 11 October] and verify the results', UN doc. S/1998/148, 23 February 1998, p. 7.

(11.) UN doc. A/52/474, 10 October 1997, p. 9. The UN had previously identified seven possible roles for itself: organization and conduct of elections, election supervision, verification, coordination and support for international observers, support for national election observers, technical assistance, and election observation. UN doc. A/50/332, 7 August 1995, pp. 17-25.

(12.) La Francophonie observers are deployed by the Agence de la Francophonie, formerly the Agence de cooperation culturelle et technique (ACCT).

(13.) OAU, Introductory Note to the Report of the Secretary-General, Harare, 26 May-4 June 1997, pp. 53-54.

(14.) The NDI delegation monitoring Ghana's December 1996 election comprised 8 Americans, 8 Africans and 7 other non-Americans.

(15.) For example, the Zambian Committee for a Clean Campaign (CCC) was a consortium of 19 NGOs, including the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT) and the Foundation for a Democratic Process (FODEP). The rival Patriotic Rescue Monitors (PAREMO) was a barely disguised creation of the governing MMD party.

(16.) Many non-governmental human rights groups, such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organisation, the Kenya churches and, internationally, Amnesty International have long monitored election processes. The UN and other inter-governmental organizations have tended to neglect the human rights dimension of democracy, though the three human rights monitors in UNO/MIL joined 300 others in observing the July 1997 Liberian elections. See also Taylor Westgas, `Third Generation Electoral Observation', Canadian Foreign Policy 4, 3 (1997), pp. 51-55, 60-63.

(17.) `Guidelines for the Establishment of Commonwealth Groups to Observe Elections in Member Countries', Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Harare, October 1991.

(18.) Gambia (legislative), Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

(19.) Benin, Burkina Faso Comoros, (legislative), Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Niger, Sao Tome e Principe, Togo and Sudan. An intermediate position was to send one or two officials to assist in co-ordinating the international observers, as in Chad, Comoros (presidential), and Sierra Leone (and Algeria and Mall in 1997), or simply to `follow and report' back on the elections as in Ghana, Madagascar, Uganda and Zambia.

(20.) UN and UNDP, Guidelines for Electoral Assistance, June 1996. The UN Electoral Assistance Division strongly opposed lending any credibility to the elections in Gambia and Zambia, only to be overruled at higher levels. In the Gambia case, it proved too late to participate, but two persons were despatched to Lusaka.

(21.) Commonwealth News Release, 96/37, 20 August 1996.

(22.) A consensus among 17 sponsoring agencies on the preconditions for participating in election observation listed: sufficient lead time to conduct a pre-assessment mission; unequivocal signs of impartiality by the electoral authority; support for the presence of international observers by the main contesting parties; basic freedoms of organization, movement, assembly and expression; fair access by all contestants to the mass media, particularly publically-owned media. International IDEA, Lessons Learnt: International Electoral Observation, Stockholm, October 1995, pp. 11, 23-24. For the UN's two preconditions, see its Guidelines for Electoral Assistance. pp. 4-5.

(23.) Africa Analysis 273, 30 May 1997, p. 3. Some previous reports by la Francophonie missions, notably that on the July 1996 presidential `election' in Niger, have been so weak as to undermine their credibility.

(24.) `Confidence in the conduct of the 1997 National Assembly elections has suffered from a flawed base'; The Parliamentary Election in Cameroon, 17 May 1997 (Commonwealth Secretariat, London, 1997), p. 33. Cameroon was admitted to the Commonwealth in 1995 on condition that it subscribed to the 1991 Harare Declaration on fundamental Commonwealth political values.

(25.) Commonwealth Secretariat, News Release 98/13, 10 March 1998. The Joint Commonwealth/la Francophonie Observer Group was preceded by a Joint Assessment Mission in February.

(26.) IDEA, Lessons Learnt, p. 8, lists five `goals' of election observation: to provide legitimization or delegitimization of a process; to enhance respect for political, civil and other fundamental human rights; to enhance the meaningful nature of the electoral process itself; to improve prospects for the long-term building of democracy; and to contribute to conflict resolution.

(27.) Canada, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, `Framework for Electoral Assistance', Ottawa, June 1996.

(28.) Douglas G. Anglin, `International Monitoring of the Transition to Democracy in South Africa, 1992-1994', African Affairs 94 (1995), pp. 536-37; IDEA, Lessons Learnt, pp. 8, 26.

(29.) UNTAG Press Release, 14 November 1989; South Africa, Independent Electoral Commission Act, 1993, sec. 18; UN doc. S/PRST/1997/41, 30 July 1997.

(30.) Parliamentary Election in Cameroon, p. 2. The Group confined its remarks to the `electoral processes and structures', and eschewed `political judgments' as outside its mandate (p. 33).

(31.) During the 1989 election in Namibia, some NGOs delayed their verdict on it until they were assured that SWAPO had won, thus avoiding the embarrassment experienced in 1980 when some NGO observers prematurely rejected the Zimbabwe election as not free and fair, only to have ZANU win unexpectedly.

(32.) `Preliminary Statement by the NDI International Observer Delegation to the December 7 Elections in Ghana', 10 December 1996.

(33.) Parliamentary Election in Cameroon, p. 2.

(34.) Tom Young, `"A Project to be Realized": Global liberalism and contemporary Africa', Millenium 24 (1995), p. 544. He adds that clearly `the West is prepared to pay dearly for the theatre of democracy. Putting on elections may come to rival converting to Christianity as a way of securing material aid.'

(35.) Economist, 23 November 1996, p. 20. It is not unusual for teams to depart before the crucial counting stage is concluded. Sponsoring bodies often cannot afford the cost of staying on for a few extra days. Nor can all observers, especially eminences, spare the time.

(36.) Bratton `Second Elections', p. 63.

(37.) Pre-election performance was below voting day standards in seven out of eight `anglophone' elections, but in only four out of nine `francophone' ones. Although, pre-election, the average level was equally low in both linguistic areas, the quality on election day was distinctly better in anglophone Africa. The three countries with the best overall records were islands: Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe, and Madagascar. Presumably relative isolation contributes to a sense of community and lessens the intrusive effect of external influences.

(38.) The partisanship of the electoral authority was the single most contentious electoral issue for opposition parties in Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Kenya, Niger, and Senegal.

(39.) Westgas, `Third Generation Electoral Observation', p. 53.

(40.) Gisela Geisler, `Fair? What has fairness got to do with it? Vagaries of election observations and democratic standards', Journal of Modern African Studies 31 (1993), pp. 613-37.

(41.) International IDEA, Democracy Forum, Stockholm, 1996, pp. 18-19, and Lessons Learnt, pp. 13, 14, 24. The Commonwealth, as well as the OSCE in Bosnia, avoids the term `free and fair'. Instead, it focuses on conditions that permit `a free expression of will by the electors' and on a result that reflects `the wishes of the people'. See Parliamentary Election in Cameroon, p. 2, and also, Jorgen Elklit and Palle Svensson, `What makes elections free and fair?' Journal of Democracy 8 (1997), pp. 32-46.

(42.) For example, the judgment calls of the Commonwealth Observer Groups monitoring the 1992 Ghanaian and 1980 Ugandan elections are difficult to justify.

(43.) Geisler, `Fair?', pp. 633-36. The Madagascar National Committee on Electoral Observation (CNOE) fielded 13,000 monitors for the November 1996 elections and, in Ghana, the Network of Domestic Election Observers (NEDEO) employed 5,500 local poll-watchers during the December elections; Jeune Afrique, 11-17 December 1996, p. 334; Africa Confidential, 13 December 1996 p. 2.

(44.) E. Gyimah-Boadi, `Ghana's Encouraging Elections: The Challenges Ahead', Journal of Democracy 8 (1997), p. 89. Some 500 observers were barred from monitoring Togo's rigged presidential election in June 1998.

(45.) The report urged that outside election observers be `accepted and institutionalized' as `a normal feature of the international scene'--worldwide; International Electoral Institute Commission, Stockholm, `Free and fair: towards democratic governance', 10 March 1993, p. 3 and Annex 3.

(46.) `Electoral rolls have long been a major contested issue in Africa.... Yet members of most international observer groups, who rarely have any special electoral "know-how", are expected to decide if the registers are acceptable enough so as not to influence the outcome of the elections'; Geisler, `Fair?', p. 622.

(47.) The Commonwealth Observer Group visited Namibia, 24 September to 10 October 1989, two months ahead of the elections, 7-10 November. This enabled it to identify the critical problems, speak out forcefully, and press for remedial action before it was too late. See Commonwealth Secretariat, Preparing for a Free Namibia: Elections and Independence, 1989.

(48.) South African Broadcasting Corporation, `Dateline Africa', 13 June 1997.

(49.) The origins of the Group go back to the 1992 election. Though moribund for several years, it was revitalized in late 1996. Since renamed the Democratic Development Group, it has an active membership of 25.

(50.) In Gambia, Jammeh `made monkeys of the foreign ministries of western governments and confounded their promise to promote and support democracy in Africa. If they can do nothing about the tiny Gambia, what can they achieve in Nigeria?' Economist, 21 September 1996, p. 45.

The author is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Conference on `Democracy and Zanzibar's Political Development', Zanzibar, Tanzania, 5-7 July 1997.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Oxford University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:African Affairs
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Oct 1, 1998

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters