Skeptics of election observation received a boost with the Kenya Supreme Court judgment nullification of the August 8th, 2017 presidential elections. The court ruled that the election was not conducted in accordance with established procedures by the election management body hence the directive that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) conducts a fresh election into the office of the President. The botched election had been adjudged credible by several election observation missions (EOMs).

The entire world went agog calling for the scraping of election observation. International observation missions were the worst hit as they were termed as electoral tourists. They were accused of subverting the will of the people in pursuance of peace. The Carter Center, National Democratic Institute (NDI), European Union Observation Mission received the most bashing. The argument is international observation missions are only valuable to the extent that they provide oversight on the conduct of elections. This resonates with the view that their presence could potentially deter electoral fraud.  

Across Africa, citizens and stakeholders have confidence in the findings of election observers because they not only validate the electoral outcomes but also proffer recommendations for future reforms. In fact, in countries like Uganda, Cameroon and Zimbabwe, citizens repose more confidence in the reports of election observation missions than their electoral management body. Thus, the surprise generated with the quashing of the Kenyan presidential election, which was validated by most of the EOMs. However, this development beckons for a deep introspection not jettisoning of election observation since it reposes confidence in the electoral process. Again, there’s a reliance on the findings of election observer missions in assessing the level of democracy in sovereign states. This to an extent influences international democracy assistance to countries.

The end of the Cold War ushered in the third wave of democratization which introduced international election observation as an event or mechanism of promoting universal and democratic standards in sovereign states, particularly in emerging or transitioning democracies. Since then, election observation has evolved with respect to scope and methodology, same as the standards of assessing of elections. This advancement led to the codification of standards for election observation into international or regional instruments. The Declaration of Global Principles for Non-partisan election observation and Code of conduct for non-partisan citizen election observation is one of such instruments that outlines conditions or standards for credible and professional election observation. These following conditions are vital to the credibility and sustainability of election observation missions:

The Independence and Integrity of the election observation mission must be guaranteed. The mission must have high regard for standards and professional ethics.

Neutrality, quality and objectivity in data gathering, analysis and reporting

The scope and methodology must be comprehensive spanning all aspects of the elections because election is a process not an event

Respect and compliance with established municipal or international legal and regulatory frameworks

It is important to reconsider the composition of EOMs. Traditionally, EOMs are composed of diverse membership of past leaders, politicians, academics, civil society, media etc. Some of these personalities are politically exposed persons whose personality may impugn the integrity of the mission. Regional institutions and international organizations should be weary of personalities recruited and employed to serve as election observers.  EOMs must prioritize the moral and integrity credentials of these individuals because their moral stands or public a perception could undermine the integrity of the observer mission making it easy for their findings to be discredited.

International EOMs must also strengthen their collaboration with the domestic election observer groups. The domestic groups often deploy more observers hence the need for complementarity in their role. IOMs are at their best when they amplify issues raised by local observer groups during elections. 

It's a notorious fact that the results collation process is the weakest link in most elections in Africa. This aspect of the electoral process has received little or no attention from observers. The presently obtainable is for the group to mention it in passing but there has been no deliberate effort to methodically oversight the results collation process. It is important for observer missions to dedicate quality time to the observation of the results collation process. Specific observers should be deployed to observe results collation. This can be made possible with strong partnership with local and citizens observers. 

It has also become imperative for EOMs to review their timeline of issuing statements and reports lest it is misconstrued as providing a verdict on an election. Perhaps there's need for an expanded definition of the usual line "the election was free and fair based on our observation”. Electoral integrity and political stability are both important for the sustenance of democracy.

It is important that these issues are reviewed and lessons learnt ahead of the October 10th Liberia Election. Already there is a beehive of activities in Liberia, the Robert International Airport is in full buzz with planes arriving ferrying the international observers into town, all the posh hotels are fully booked, the election observers have all moved to the capital city of Monrovia.

Samson Itodo is an elections and constitution building enthusiast. He is the Executive Director of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement (YIAGA). He writes from Liberia where is he serving as an international observer with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) observer mission to Liberia.

Liberians will head to the polls on October 10, 2017

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