Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What to Do About African Elections?

In Cote d’Ivoire, the long-awaited presidential election ended with the two top candidates both declaring victory and being sworn in. In Egypt, the main opposition party accused the government of committing widespread fraud and preventing their observers from monitoring the vote in the recent legislative elections. In Guinea, the June elections resulted in a runoff that had to be postponed due in part to the conviction of election commission officials for vote-tampering in that initial election.

Since the wave of elections that brought multi-party democracy to Africa in the 1990s, there have been significant advances made in consolidating democracy and the resulting good governance in African countries. However, there continue to be forces that try their best to frustrate the political will of the African people, and the international community seems to lack understanding or will to make the long-term investment to help prevent abuses that frustrate a broader advance of democratic elections in Africa.

After working on African elections for nearly 20 years – observing them, analyzing them and training people to prevent fraud in them – it is clear to me that whatever the intentions of the past three U.S. presidents and the current one, too many bureaucrats within the American government don’t fully understand the complexity of the electoral process. I always thought that officials in the U.S. Agency for International Development in the early 1990s associated the political process with former U.S. President Richard Nixon, whom they hated. So despite what I and others working to help elevate political process in Africa told them, they didn’t enable us to do what was necessary from the start to make elections acceptable because they saw the political process as inevitably flawed.

What former U.S. President George W. Bush called “the bigotry of low expectations” also comes into play. There just doesn’t seem to be the ability by too many American or other international officials to accept that Africans are capable of world-class elections. So the mood of “it’s good enough for Africa” seems to permeate the reaction to African elections. Whenever an African election is troubled, the first reaction is to call for a Government of National Unity. Somehow, these international leaders think, by putting opponents together in one government, trouble can be put behind them since all the African politicians want is a share of power.

Arranged Governments of National Unity are not really the way things work in the developed world. If the voters choose divided government, so be it, but who puts a viper in his or her own nest? In America, Democrat and Republican presidents usually appoint a member of the other party to their cabinet as a sign of cooperation. But when has the losing presidential candidate ever been given a major role in the winner’s government, especially if that losing candidate is a viable future candidate for president.? Under what circumstances would President Barack Obama ever have given Senator John McCain a major role in his government? It was a surprise when Obama appointed his primary opponent – Senator Hillary Clinton – as Secretary of State.

American and other international officials must understand that elections are often won or lost long before the first ballot is cast. For example, the Kenyan African National Union created a majority of small constituencies for itself and larger, fewer constituencies for the political opposition and used this tactic to hold onto power in the transition to multiparty democracy in the 1990s. In Cote d’Ivoire in the 1990s, one of the current presidents, Alassane Ouattara, was declared ineligible to run on the bogus charge that he wasn’t a citizen. In the historic 1992elections in Angola, entire segments of the population were not registered to vote. Tactics called “wholesale fraud” are used to prevent parties, candidates and voters from participating in elections. Election day can be scrupulously clean if the election has been won in advance. Unless those trying to guarantee free and fair elections pay attention to this phase, nothing done on election day will matter.

Then there is the voting process. African governments to often wait until late in the day to train election officials and find qualified election workers. Polling places are often poorly chosen. For example, I saw polling places in Equatorial Guinea in Mongomo a few years ago that had no security of the ballot as there was access to voters while they cast their ballots out of the sight of election officials. You don’t usually see ballot boxes being stolen and ballots being stuffed nowadays. What you do see (if you pay attention) is manipulation of vote counting as was the case in Ethiopia in 2005 and Kenya in 2007.

Rather than trying to find an expedient solution to an electoral crisis as was the case with the international community in both cases, why not make a more concerted effort to prevent the crisis before it develops?

Since the wave of African democratic elections crested in the 1990s, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute have worked on all phases of African elections. Unfortunately, their efforts have been hampered by U.S. government officials who delayed funding until almost too late, required equal treatment for all political parties even when they were parties on paper only and asked for favorable public assessments in the face of blatant election manipulation.

Permanent, professional electoral commissions with input from political parties, political parties prepared to effectively contest elections on behalf of their supporters, timely funding of election mechanisms and the application of new technology, such as biometric voter identification systems, must be applied to African elections to put governments, political parties and voters on a more secure road to lasting democracy.

There are important elections coming up in 2011, including in Sudan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Cameroon. For some of these process, particularly Sudan, it is too late to make the investment in setting the stage for free, fair and transparent elections. We can only hope that what interventions are made at this late date can be helpful.

In those African elections where timely interventions may help guarantee the accurate expression of the will of African voters, efforts must be made now to ensure that the goal of a fully functional democracy is served. Trying to clean up a preventable mess must no longer be the option when it comes to African elections.

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