African Union Election observers have long received scathing attacks from opposition parties for doing little to promote democracy on the continent and for producing election reports late.
The AU Observer Missions are likely to come under scrutiny once more as Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic (CAR) prepare to hold elections in 2020, amid complaints of opposition intimidation and gagging of the media.
Critics argue that election observation, which ought to add value to the democracy-building and peace-building functions of elections in Africa, has not achieved its goals since it favours “status quo and stability” rather than credible elections.
For instance, in the Kenyan election in August 2017, international observers—the AU Mission included—gave a verdict of confidence in the overall process despite clear problems, and urged defeated candidates to concede gracefully, only for the country’s supreme court to nullify the results.
In the Mission’s defence, Khabele Matlosa, the director of the Department of Political Affairs at the African Union Commission, said that their critics misunderstand their role and often expect immediate intervention, which is not their mandate.
He said the AU election observation is meant to reinforce procedural certainty and substantive uncertainty of elections as a central plank of electoral governance.
“It includes systematic, comprehensive and accurate information gathering; on-site fact-finding concerning the laws, processes and institutions related to the conduct of elections; impartial and professional analysis of such information; and reaching an informed verdict about the credibility, legitimacy and acceptability of the election outcome. Watch, see, note and report,” he said.
Dr Matlosa, however, said that elections in Africa and other continents do not equal democracy. He said that elections can serve two purposes—as a fundamental anchor for democracy-building, and as a veil of legitimacy to authoritarian rule.
“Whereas democracy is unthinkable without elections, autocracy is also possible under regular elections. Elections can be held regularly even in political systems that are far from being democratic,” said Dr Matlosa.
Despite the accusations of doing too little, in January the AU observer mission tried to intervene in the Democratic Republic of Congo elections held the previous month.
The mission called for a delay in the final announcement of results but the AU heads of state and government agreed to send a high-level delegation to Kinshasa instead, in an effort to find a way out of the political crisis. The requests were ignored by the DRC government, then headed by Joseph Kabila.
Molu Boya, a commissioner with Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, said that many international observers rely on local civil society groups that are in most cases divided along political lines. He, however, said that some of the observers are able to send advance teams weeks before the elections.
Dr Matlosa said that the AU election observation structure involves two phases—the pre-electoral phase which includes safeguarding the integrity of voter registration and the voters’ roll and observing tabulation, counting and announcement of results and the post-electoral phase that involves assessing the overall performance of key actors (parties and the electoral management bodies), assessing electoral dispute resolution mechanisms and processes, and suggesting electoral, democracy and governance reforms.