African organisations need to take on the task of election observation across the continent. But, as Anna Kapambwe Mwaba writes, simply having African observers is not a panacea to the problems faced by other international organisations.
International election observation holds countries accountable to international and domestic democratic principles and norms. However, it is not without its challenges and has faced criticism since its inception. Election observers have in the past been accused of being biased, neocolonial, and, overall, not critical enough of fraudulent electoral processes. These criticisms were amplified after the nullifications of elections in Kenya and Malawi which observers had declared were fair.
Kenya’s National Super Alliance deputy chief agent, James Orengo, said of election observers: “Some of them just have big names but have nothing to offer on matters of observing the elections”. Following the Malawian Court’s court verdict, Vice President Saulos Chilima said that election observation “should not be a tick-the-box exercise” and needed to be “redefined”.
But, despite these criticisms, African observers are increasingly involved in election observation. Recent elections on the continent highlight the evolution of these African missions and how they demonstrate African agency in election observation, but also the challenges that remain.
On 23 August 2023, Zimbabwe held its presidential, legislative and council elections amid intense domestic and international scrutiny. Given the tight race between incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ZANU-PF and opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, head of the MDC, there were concerns that the election process would not be an accurate representation of the voters will. These concerns were amplified by fraud allegations before and during the polling process.
As the process unfolded the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has long been challenged as ineffective in addressing regional politics, especially in dealing with Zimbabwe, challenged the process. The organisation pointed out the various areas in which the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) had fallen short in this management of the elections, the mission’s preliminary statement wrote that “some aspects of the Harmonised Elections, fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021)”.
The Zimbabwean government was not in agreement with the mission’s findings. ZANU-PF spokesperson, Chris Mutsvangwa, addressed the Head of Mission, Dr. Nevers Mumba, former Vice-President of Zambia, directly stating “Mr. Nevers Mumba from Zambia, we call you to order. Don’t delve into the laws of Zimbabwe. If you have issues tell your relevant institutions to take it up with the SADC secretariat.”
But Mumba was steadfast in the mission’s pronouncement. In an interview with ZNBC, he stressed the role of SADC’s mission to ensure that elections are in line with established protocols and guidelines. He stressed that “When we [observers] go into a country, we do not observe elections as individuals but as representatives of SADC…The task of the SADC observer mission was to audit the election”. Emphasizing that election observation is a neutral activity.
The African Union (AU) and Common Market for East and Southern Africa’s (COMESA) joint statement was less critical though it signalled that the polling process was not without fault and acknowledged “logistical challenges”.
Mnangagwa pronounced in his inauguration speech that the election was a signal of Zimbabwe’s “mature democracy”, and that Zimbabweans would not be told what to do by puppets of the international system.
SADC’s calling out of Zimbabwe’s fraudulent election was reminiscent of December 2018 when it suggested that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recount the votes to ensure stakeholder trust in the electoral process. Both occurrences were rare and unprecedented. And, in both cases, SADC received pushback from the national government. As did the African Union when it made a similar statement regarding the DRC.
Unfortunately, though we see reports by African election observers taking a more critical tone overall, these explicit challenges are the exception and not the norm.
Election observers need to be more vocal about the challenges that elections face and hold leaders who seek to undermine the electoral process accountable as evidenced by the statements on the elections in Nigeria, Eswatini, and others. Without this commitment to holding all elections to the same standard, election observers will continue to be viewed as “not doing their job” and “too often helping undemocratic leaders stay in power”. However, as African election observer missions become more established, their reports are increasingly critical, and this should be acknowledged.