Now that Togo has held its election this year, there are 21 more African elections to come in 2010. Some of them have critical importance for U.S. policy formulation, such as the ones in Sudan, Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire and Madagascar. However, it has become clear that American policy is skewed by policies on electoral assistance that too often are a day late and a dollar short.
Recently, Almami Cyllah of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and I testified before the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health on overall American policy toward Africa, and he made the point (with which I concurred) that we too often intervene too late in the electoral process to make a positive difference in African countries. Cyllah reminded legislators of the long-complained about charge that decisions about U.S. election assistance – whether it is training for election commissions or observers or election observations – is often made so close to the balloting that it is not as effective as it should be.
Back in the 1990s, I worked on African elections under the African Regional Electoral Assistance Fund program administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). From the beginning of that program in 1992, it was clear that those making decisions in Washington were ambivalent about whether any intervention could help. Certainly, there were those who set the bar for African electoral systems quite low. So when those of us working on proposals requesting funding for everything from election observer training to election observations, decisions were delayed almost until the last moment. I was set to leave for Guinea for a multi-level democracy program for the first time on a Saturday . I didn’t get final approval until Friday at 4:58pm.
The point I made to the subcommittee on this was that there was always ambivalence about what to do about political parties. Guinea had 44 registered parties, and my USAID handlers insisted that I train each party – even though most consisted of a couple of people who had filled out paperwork. In the end, there were only 18 parties at most who showed up for training at any of the five locations. Several years later, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute managed sophisticated programs in Mozambique and South Africa that provided for all-parties training as well as individual teams for the major parties. It is the lack of development of political parties that lies behind the continued overwhelming success of ruling parties in Equatorial Guinea, Botswana, Namibia and other countries, and this trend will continue until the situation is properly addressed.
Still, the U.S. government continues to provide electoral assistance too late to prevent pre-election manipulations. It is in the months leading up to elections during which political parties and candidates are disqualified. Long before election day, districts are established that unfairly favor ruling parties and disadvantage the political opposition. If governments can rig elections by committing what we call “wholesale fraud” through creating an unfair electoral environment, then they don’t need to commit the “retail fraud” on election day by stealing and replacing ballots, miscounting ballots and intimidating voters. African civil society groups and Africa voters already smell a bad election long before it is held. When we fail to recognize unfair pre-election conditions and then complain when an election destined to go bad does so, they look on us as either naïve or part of the fraud.
In countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia, U.S. national interests have trumped the impulse to take serious action to punish cheating governments. In some cases, such as South Africa in 1994, we overlooked serious deficiencies because it was important to encourage the peaceful transition to majority rule and even opposition parties accepted the system’s shortcomings to enable the elections to go forward.
However, after the troubled 2005 elections in Ethiopia, the Bush Administration did everything it could to prevent Congressional sanctions brought on not only by vote counting irregularities, but also the election violence by government security forces. It seems Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia and the still-unresolved border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea were considered too critical to endanger by taking action against Ethiopia no matter how egregious the violations of human rights were.
In Kenya and Zimbabwe, we pushed Governments of National Unity when tainted elections seemed to cheat opposition parties out of earned victories. This is only a surface solution, though, because forcing mixed governments don’t work when neither party has an incentive to help the other achieve success. They remain competitors, not allies. At best, such solutions are remedial remedies for problems that should have been addressed long before the first ballot was cast.
Before this next round of elections in Africa, the powers-that-be in our foreign policy apparatus need to think ahead in terms of helping in a timely way to make those elections it can more effective and considering what can be done in the aftermath of a failed election to make the situation in that country significantly and genuinely better.
Elections shape the future of countries. We cannot afford to miss these opportunities to make African futures more hopeful.