Looking back: the need for credible election observers

Election observers need to up their game in 2018 if they are to remain relevant.

Elections held in Africa in 2017 show that international election observers need to up their game if they are to remain relevant in improving the quality of elections and building public confidence in electoral processes.

In 2018 Africa could see as many as nine presidential elections. This includes elections in Sierra Leone, Egypt, Madagascar, Mali, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as well as run-off elections in Liberia. These are politically charged events that test the democratic institutions and resilience of the respective states. The African Union (AU), together with other international actors, is likely to send electoral observers to all these elections.

Elections are politically charged events that test the democratic institutions
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In 2017 there were five presidential elections; in Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia and the self-declared independent Somaliland. Although the elections were not as turbulent as those held in 2016, the 2017 elections, particularly in Kenya and Liberia, confirmed Afrobarometer’s 2016 public survey that African citizens mistrust their electoral commissions and the quality of their elections.

The annulment of the August polls in Kenya, as well as the halting of run-off elections in Liberia by the courts, highlights these recurring misgivings about electoral processes. Yet judicial processes are sometimes also the reason for public distrust in electoral processes and outcomes. Last year courts in Gabon and Zambia were accused of partisanship after deciding in favour of incumbents when evaluating the outcomes of electoral processes.

More worrying is the fact that poor conclusions by international election observer missions further frustrate people’s desire for free, fair and transparent elections.

Focus on voting-day electoral processes

The conclusions of observation missions have often focused on voting-day processes, with minimal efforts to provide a conclusion about the entire electoral process.

The conclusions of observation missions have often focused on voting-day processes
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In Rwanda, for instance, the AU observation mission concluded that the voting process was conducted in a ‘peaceful, orderly and transparent manner’. Although the AU mission identified flaws and provided technical recommendations for the improvement of the elections, it did not provide a final assessment of the entire electoral process.

The elections saw President Paul Kagame securing a third term in office with almost 99% of the votes cast on 4 August 2017. The European Union (EU) had probably anticipated this unsurprising victory for Kagame and did not send an observer mission to the country. It had done the same in 2010, when it had cited the need to prioritise its limited resources for other regions. The move partly absolved the EU from making conclusions on voting-day proceedings, which were only a small part of an electoral process marred by the systematic political intimidation of opponents of Kagame.

One potential presidential candidate, Diane Rwigara, who was eventually disqualified from participating in the elections, is still in prison – along with her sister and mother – for allegedly inciting insurrection in the country.

Analysts say that the international community has, over the past two decades, focused on economic development in Rwanda while overlooking the need for participatory democracy and human rights in the country.

The 2015 constitutional amendment could see Kagame remain in power until 2034
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Kagame has also proven to be pan-Africanist through his efforts to spearhead the reform of the AU and his government’s recent offer to accept thousands of migrants held captive in Libya. However, the 2015 constitutional amendment could see him remain in power until 2034, thereby raising questions about the future of Rwanda if the focus is on building a ‘strongman’ rather than strong institutions and competitive democracy, which could produce competent leaders in the future.

Going forward, international observer missions may do better by clarifying the stages and aspects that they intend to observe. This will help to limit public expectations and provide a basis for the assessment of observer missions.

Admissibility of the conclusions of international observers in court

In Kenya, international observers – including the AU, EU and the United States-based Carter Center’s mission led by former secretary of state John Kerry – declared that the elections were free and transparent, but the courts annulled the vote on the grounds that the elections had been marred by irregularities and illegalities.

In Kenya, international observers declared that the elections were free and transparent
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While observer missions are not similar to judicial processes and may not be as rigorous as court processes, their judgements on electoral processes contribute to building confidence.

Fonteh Akum, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, says that powerful political parties have perfected ways of playing international observer missions by showing them what they want them to see and using them as electoral décor to legitimise elections that are deeply flawed.

Indeed, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee party cited the statements of observer missions during the court proceedings as proof of a free and fair election. This indicates that their conclusions are not mere statements but also judgements that are admissible in court.

New elections in Kenya were held on 26 October 2017 and the courts upheld Kenyatta’s victory.

The criticisms of electoral observer missions to Kenya mark a critical turning point in the history of election observation. Besides setting parameters for their observation, the new demand for credibility should nudge international observer missions to adapt to current dynamics and collaborate with local observers who follow the entire electoral circle and are making considerable progress in election observation and monitoring.

The criticisms of electoral observer missions to Kenya mark a critical turning point in the history of election observation
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Akum holds that ‘international observer missions have to institutionalise long-term and analytical partnership with local civil society initiatives to enable them to provide more comprehensive and close-to-reality conclusions’.

Upcoming elections in fragile states

In the upcoming elections in South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Mali, Cameroon and the DRC particularly, international observers will have the delicate task of reaching conclusions that foster democratic practices, which is key to addressing public grievances over exclusion, injustices and power grabs.

The elections in the conflict-torn South Sudan, for instance, will test the progress of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) efforts to revitalise the stalled 2015 peace deal. The prospect of an election raises fears of a heightened crisis in a deeply divided country where many warring leaders compete for political power. It is unlikely that President Salva Kirr will pursue inclusive and transparent electoral processes that could threaten his position. If the election takes place in 2018, it will be the first post-independence general election. The election scheduled for 9 July 2015 was postponed owing to the civil war.

In Zimbabwe, enthusiasm over the end of former president Robert Mugabe’s autocratic rule will have to be sustained by efforts at the local and international level to promote free, fair and transparent electoral processes. Elections are due to take place before August 2018.

In Zimbabwe, enthusiasm over the end of former president Robert Mugabe’s autocratic rule will have to be sustained
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In the DRC, the international community has to put pressure on the government to adhere to the election timeline of 23 December 2018, as published by the electoral commission.  Indeed, hopes for elections to be held on this date are once again diminishing after statements by the electoral commission that the election date depends on funding.

The new date is already much later than the two previous deadlines that were the result of the Catholic Church-mediated talks, which required elections to be held in 2017, and of the AU-mediated talks, which required elections to be held by April 2018. The international community has to push for the elections to be held at the end of 2018 – and be ready to build public confidence in the electoral process in the crisis-riddled country.

President Paul Biya, who has led Cameroon for 35 years, will also stand for election at a time when calls for secession in the anglophone region are gaining momentum. The election period risks being marred by protests by dissenters and repression by the government.

The impact of international observers in these countries should not only be about being spectators on voting day. Rather, the impact will depend on how much they rethink the purpose, strategy and outcomes of election observation to better contribute to the consolidation of democracy and good governance, which are key elements of sustainable peace in the long term.

Presidential elections in 2018 


Election due dates

Sierra Leone

7 March 2018


Between February and May 2018


Between May and December 2018


Between July and December 2018


Between July and December 2018

South Sudan

Between July and December 2018


Between October and December 2018


23 December 2018


Run-off election, date to be confirmed

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