Lessons from AU election observation in Nigeria and Senegal

Africa is experiencing a busy electoral year. Two important polls took place last month, in Nigeria and Senegal, both under the watchful eye of the African Union election observer missions (AUEOM).

The AU, tasked with ensuring that its member states abide by the democratic principles of free and fair elections – as per the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance – deployed electoral observer missions to both countries.

Ideally, the AUEOM assesses the transparency and fairness of electoral processes, with the view to ensure that the election results are credible. The reports produced by the observer missions should confirm the results and propose areas of improvement. However, AU observer missions have often lacked credibility.

Ideally, the AUEOM assesses the fairness of electoral processes, with the view to ensure that the election results are credible

Surprise postponement in Nigeria

Responding to a request from the Nigerian government and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the AU deployed a short-term observer mission to Nigeria from 9–28 February. The AUEOM was led by Hailemariam Desalegn, former prime minister of Ethiopia, and assisted by Minata Samate Cessouma, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs. Four core team members as well as 50 short-term observers from AU member states and institutions took part in the AUEOM.

INEC announced, just hours before the election was scheduled to take place on 16 February, that it had been postponed by a week – a surprising move that cast doubt on the credibility of the electoral process. INEC itself said it was postponing the election to ensure it remained credible.

The AUEOM appeared as surprised by the postponement of the election as all the other observer missions present in Nigeria. This should not have been the case, had the AU ensured – as per its mandate – that it was closely collaborating with INEC.

INEC did well in reassuring the AUEOM and others that the polls were to be conducted as planned. However, this move points to the shortcomings of AUEOMs, both in their working methods and in the timing of their deployment.

The preliminary statement on Nigeria has been criticised for its apparent inaccuracies and contradictions

Contradictions in the preliminary report

The preliminary statement produced by the AUEOM has been criticised for its apparent inaccuracies and contradictions. The preliminary report talks of election-related violence, including bomb blasts in regions such as the North East, South-South and Middle Belt and the destruction of election material. However, it concluded that it was generally a ‘violence-free’ electoral process, even though it was reported that over 50 people had died as a result of election-related violence.

The question, then, is how much violence constitutes a ‘violent electoral process’. In the 2011 Nigerian elections, post-election violence caused the death of 800 people, while in 2015 the lower estimate was 160 casualties.

It is also clear that election observers can do little to prevent electoral violence as it occurs; they can only observe and report incidents. The mandates of the AUEOM as agreed by the AU and member states in most cases do not allow for AU intervention unless laws are severely violated. Again, the significance of the violation is subject to interpretation. AU intervention in cases of electoral violence has, in any case, been limited to releasing statements and, in rare instances, sending an envoy to deal with a post-election crisis. 

Another contradiction in the report concerns the rights of voters. The AUEOM states that ‘fundamental rights of association, free speech and assembly’ were observed. The report, however, negates this statement by saying that there was intimidation of political opponents during the campaign period. The report seems to try to cater to the concerns of all stakeholders who can interpret it in any way they want, as an endorsement for some or condemnation for others.

Timing of deployments

AU long-term and short-term missions are typically deployed a month and half or a week before elections, respectively. This raises questions about how well acquainted AUEOMs are with the realities on the ground, when incumbents, opposition parties and electoral bodies often start preparing for elections a year or two before the election date. An earlier, perhaps year-long monitoring and action plan might be more appropriate and could have helped them to pick up on the challenges INEC said it faced in Nigeria in the run-up to February 16.   

A year-long monitoring and action plan might be more appropriate

In fact, election monitoring by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), for example, is based on a year-round monitoring of the political situation in these countries and is more extensive and detailed. Those election observers also have a thorough understanding of the political situation and potential hot spots, as well as access to remote areas, through civil society networks on the ground.

This contrast with AU observers, who are from all over Africa and can participate in their capacity as their country’s permanent representative to the AU or as a representative of one of the AU’s many different organs (Pan African Parliament, AU staff etc.). Despite receiving pre-deployment training, they may not have an understanding of the nuances of the relevant political space and situation. Their mission does not give the observers a lot of time on the ground (including the long-term month-long mission), and typically amounts to merely ticking boxes.

Another key issue is that election observers cannot fully scrutinise digitalised electoral systems. This was cause for concern in Nigeria, as technical challenges arose where polling staff also had limited understanding of the technology. System malfunctioning also hindered voting in some areas.

Coordination between the AU and RECs

Although there was a joint statement on the postponement of the elections, signed by both the ECOWAS election monitoring mission and the AUEOM, it appears that the two missions run independently of one another, each led by a former head of state and government. It is thus not clear to what extent the AU and ECOWAS coordinated in discharging their duties. The organisations have also released separate preliminary reports by their EOMs in Nigeria.

Long-term observation needed in Senegal

Albert Pahimi Padacké, former prime minister of Chad, led the AU EOM in Senegal. The EOM had 50 members from 26 African countries, made up of technical experts and officials from the AU. The EOM took place from 17–28 February.

During the elections, delays in the distribution of voter cards were observed. Because only ECOWAS biometric identity cards can be used, as stipulated by law, some questioned the independence of the National Electoral Commission and the National Audiovisual Regulatory Council responsible for distributing the cards. These issues point to the possibility that electoral mismanagement was more widespread, with the AUEOM having limited capacity to discern the problem.

Many complained that the political environment in Senegal had been sanitised to favour incumbent Macky Sall

Beyond the conduct of the polls, more than a year before the elections many complained that the political environment in Senegal had been ‘sanitised’ to favour incumbent Macky Sall. Two of his major opponents – Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall – were sentenced on charges of corruption in trials that ECOWAS and the United Nations deemed to be in violation of due process and were prevented from contesting the election. After Sall’s victory in the first round, with 58% of the votes, he called for the resumption of a political dialogue.

The measures Sall took before the elections, including amending the electoral law, also heightened tensions. This was not addressed by the AUEOM, as it was deployed only after these announcements and events. Sall’s desire to engage in a political dialogue after having ensured his victory has been seen as indicative of the political malaise in the country.

What can be done going forward?

Clearly, AUEOM reports should be conflict sensitive so that they do not trigger further violence. At the same time they should hold political parties accountable for the actions they take following the announcement of the election results.

While the AU observation missions have come a long way since the first mission in Namibia in 1989, there is room for improvement.

The AU should help to enhance the capacity of electoral bodies and improve the electoral laws

The AU should help to enhance the capacity of electoral bodies and improve the electoral laws in member states through an engagement that takes place earlier on in the electoral process. This will allow for a level playing field and enhance the credibility of the elections. One such example is that of Madagascar, where the practice of the incumbent’s leaving the presidential palace and relinquishing command of state resources three months before the elections seems to have had the desired effect.

Another key takeaway from the recent Nigerian and Senegal elections is that the AU should closely collaborate with regional economic communities, especially those such as ECOWAS that have greater capacity in undertaking election observation. Similarly, the AU could involve local civil society organisations in the AUEOM, as they can be great sources of information.

Finally, the AU must find ways to hold actors accountable for tampering with the electoral process and causing violence. It must also ensure practical actions are taken to implement AUEOM recommendations after each election. This could be done in collaboration with the African Peer Review Mechanism or other AU organs that have the capacity to follow up on implementation.

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