P013 – Watching Elections: Election Observation and Monitoring in Africa
8 July, 17:30-19:00

Willis Justin / Durham University


The process of ‘election observation’ or ‘election monitoring’ has become increasingly systematised and elaborate over the last two decades. Yet in one form or another, awareness of the gaze of an audience has been a feature of elections in Africa since the 1950s. Elections are a performance; the moment of secrecy at the heart of the ballot is validated by the very public nature of the rest of the process, and journalists, diplomats and advisers have always been interested observers. Observation and monitoring, whether formally constituted or not, have been consistently implicated in the definition of good and bad elections; in recent years the elaboration of electoral assistance programmes by bilateral or multilateral donors has arguably demonstrated the ‘extraversion’ of political liberalisation and emphasised the role of non-governmental actors in debates over proper process and practice in elections, and which results should be accepted. This panel seeks to bring together papers drawing on approaches from history, anthropology and political science to explore the role of multiple audiences in elections in Africa.

Observer le scrutin: l’observation des élections en Afrique
Depuis les deux derniers décennies, les dispositifs d’observation du scrutin se trouvent de plus en plus systématisés et complexes. Toutefois, les électeurs en Afrique prennent conscience du regard d’une audience pour les élections depuis les années 1950. Le scrutin prend la forme d’une représentation; le moment secret au sein du scrutin est validé par la publicité ouverte qui entoure les autres aspects du processus, où journalistes, diplomates et conseillers politiques ont toujours été des observateurs intéressés. L’observation du scrutin, qu’il organisé officiellement ou pas, demeure un facteur qui permet de mieux juger la bonne conduite d’un scrutin. L’élaboration de programmes d’assistance électorales de la part d’agences donatrices démontre l’”extraversion” de la libéralisation politique; elle souligne le rôle d’organisations non-gouvernementales dans les débats autour de la meilleure conduite des scrutins, ainsi que la reconnaissance des résultats. Notre panel permettra de confronter les approches historiographiques, anthropologues et politistes pour mieux décerner le rôle joué par les audiences diverses des élections en Afrique.

Paper 1

Walls Michael / University College London

International Election Observation in Somaliland: Interactions Between Local and International Actors in a Context of Sovereign Non-Recognition

Somaliland’s lack of international recognition means that donor support for elections, including international and domestic election observation, employs indirect channels and is subject to a variety of sensitivities specific to that status. This creates uncertainty but also promotes engagement between international and local civil society actors in ways that are rarely possible with more formalised observations. International actors (donors and diplomatic community) are often conflicted: torn between a desire to support successful indigenous state-building efforts, while simultaneously loath to undermine the principles of sovereignty under which the Somali administration in Mogadishu is internationally recognised as holding the right to exercise sovereignty over all parts of ‘Somalia’, including Somaliland. Somaliland unilaterally declared independence in 1991 following a brutal conflict. Since then, they have established a viable system of governance in the context of a durable peace, while southern areas have experienced protracted conflict. The indirect avenues of international donors have permitted the development of relations between international and local civil society actors that depart from normal practice. In electoral observation these atypical arrangements have shifted the emphasis from the formal procedure of observation towards a more pragmatic local engagement and understanding, presenting both opportunities and challenges.

Paper 2

Mazembo Mavungo / University of Basel

Playing in the Hands of the Incumbent: Election Observation during the 2011 Electoral Process in the D. R. Congo

The 2011 legislative and presidential elections in the Congo were marred by grave irregularities to the point that the new political authorities that emerged from this flawed process have had to deal with a legitimacy crisis. There was however a great divergence in how observer missions pronounced on these elections. The paper specifically contrasts domestic, African and western observer mission reports and argues that these observer mission reports differ in significant ways in how they report about the nature of the irregularities, how they identify the actors or masterminds of the botched electoral process and how they pronounce on the overall legitimacy of the process. Our analysis shows that African observer mission reports were superficial while western mission reports were reserved and ambiguous. Only domestic observer mission reports seriously confronted the State sponsored nature of the electoral fraud and related repression and underlined the unacceptability of the results published by the national electoral commission. In contrast to this stance, western observer mission reports as well as African observer mission statements rather played in favour of the regime’s resolve to cling on political power. The paper highlights implications and lessons for improved practices for future election observation missions in Africa.

Paper 3

Beardsworth Nicole / University of Warwick

Observer Status: EISA’s Election Observation Mission and the 2015 Presidential by-election in Zambia

The Zambian election of 20 January 2015 was held following the death of President Michael Sata, which precipitated an unexpectedly tight electoral contest. With less than 90 days until the presidential by-election, donor agencies, diplomatic staff and observer missions were left under pressure to prepare for these highly unpredictable polls. While the role of election observer missions in African elections has become better understood over the previous two decades, the utility of regional NGO’s in observing elections in Africa has not yet received significant attention. Organisations such as the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) regularly mobilise observer missions across the continent; this small non-profit has operated in over 23 countries across the continent since 2003. These observer teams are modest, often comprising as few as 14 observers who can thus hope to offer a relatively limited snapshot of the dynamics leading up to Election Day. An expensive exercise funded predominantly by government agencies in Scandinavia, Switzerland and the UK, it is important to consider what this organisation and others of its size can reasonably be expected to achieve in such a complex and dynamic environment. This paper will reflect on the author’s experiences during the 2015 election observation mission and the broader implications of the work done by small regional NGOs in in election monitoring in Zambia and beyond.

Paper 4

Willis Justin / Durham

Uganda’s 1980 Election: the Rise of International Election Monitoring

Uganda’s 1980 general elections were a seminal moment in international election monitoring: they saw the the first deployment of a Commonwealth observer team to observe an election in Africa conducted by a sovereign state. The elections proved to be highly contentious, with multiple forms of electoral malpractice: but the Commonwealth Observer Group endorsed them. The elections reveal themes which have continued in the subsequent history of monitoring. International actors fetishize elections as a rule bound process with the capacity to legitimize political systems and promote stability; in Uganda, they did not necessarily expect elections to run smoothly, but believed that elections were a necessary feature of a legitimate state, Incumbent politicians engage in a particular kind of electoral extraversion through which positive evaluations of elections by international monitors create a façade of legitimacy for highly repressive regimes. And monitoring creates its own, chronic dilemma: having opted to support elections through a monitoring, observers face the difficult choice of either endorsing a poor election, or calling the result into question, with the associated threat of political instability. The 1980 elections established a pattern for managing this dilemma: the observers’ report detailed multiple irregularities (evoking an ideal of electoral norms as it did so) but concluded that the level of popular participation itself made this a ‘valid electoral exercise’.

Paper 5

Dufief Elise / Northwestern University

The Contradictory Purposes of Election Monitoring: Evidences from Ethiopia

This paper examines the construction of power relations in the international system, through the lens of international election monitoring and its politics. Focusing on the relationship between the European Union and Ethiopia, I argue that election monitoring reflects a complex hierarchy of power and serves contradicting purposes. In the hands of the monitors, it is an instrument of discipline, intended to monitor domestic behavior and enforce a standard of performance. The recipient of monitors, while accepting the general rule, finds interstices to manoeuvre within, playing with and against interests and agendas of external actors. Ultimately, the politics of election observing functions as an arena of struggle where power strategies are at stake. Power relations are eventually reversed when international actors are weakened, giving more space for the recipient country to pursue its own electoral strategies. I find that the very instrument which is meant to open political space in fact contributes to its closure when faced with ‘strong states’.I present here findings from multiple fieldworks carried in Ethiopia as well as in the headquarters of the European Union. Election monitoring in Ethiopia in 2005 and 2010 led to major diplomatic crisis and highlighted the politics at stake. In light of the 2015 elections in Ethiopia, I will present the strategies displayed by national actors to sustain a position of power despite the growing involvement of international monitors.

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