Election Observation as an Exercise in African Agency

23 January 2023, 1641 EST

Election observation is at a turning point. Roughly 80-85% of elections around the world are subject to election observation. The majority of these are in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. While international election observation is important for democracy promotion and electoral integrity, it has undermined the agency of those being observed. A growing push for domestic observers highlights the importance of local involvement, expertise and accountability during the electoral process.  

My research is particularly interested in how African international organizations use election observation for two purposes: encouraging democracy efforts in their members states and exercising African agency.

What is election observation, and why does it matter?

International election observation is defined as the unbiased evaluation of a country’s electoral process. Observers are tasked with providing an objective assessment of the electoral process. In this way, election observers differ from election monitors, who are mandated to address electoral irregularities—including discrepancies in voter registration, vote buying, voter disenfranchisement and intimidation, miscounting of votes, ballot rigging and other forms of electoral fraud—as they arise. Election observation is an important aspect of democracy assistance.

Sometimes, observation goes well. For instance, in Ghana, international observer presence has been found to “deter overt acts of electoral fraud, violence, chicanery and corruption during elections.” Where observers are in place, incumbents cannot manipulate the ballot box as easily due to fears of the repercussions of being caught by foreign observers.

Election observers are also credited with the improvement of voter registries, implementation of reforms to bolster election processes, and training of domestic observer groups. Their presence is also said to encourage participation in the polling process as well as boost public confidence in the credibility of elections.

Election observation in crisis?

But it can also go wrong. There are two central critiques.

First, critics find election observation to be “an exercise in futility.”

On February 3, 2020, after the Malawian Constitutional Court nullified the results of Malawi’s election held on May 21, 2019, opposition leaders voiced serious concerns with election observation. As current Vice President Chilima stated, “For international observers, if what they are going to continue to do is election tourism, we should scrap it. It is no better than a cartel protecting each other. But if we want to continue with them, let’s redefine their role. It should not be a tick-the-box exercise.” Chilima’s position echoes that of Khabele Matlosa, former Director for AU Political Affairs, who argues that “election observation in Africa is in crisis.”

In this vein, election observers have been accused of applying lower standards to African elections and tolerating flawed elections if they mark an improvement from the last.

Second, election observation missions have largely been deployed by Western organizations like the European Union and the Carter Center. Leading political stakeholders on the continent have labeled election observation as an imperialist endeavor.  

Voters reacted similarly after the nullification of Kenya’s election in 2017. Following this election, citizens expressed serious doubts as to the credibility and aims of election observers, accusing the observers of being “neo-colonial” and “having big names” but nothing to offer. 

Instead, some stakeholders call for a shift toward continental and regional observers, rather than observers from the West. Leaders like former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa have questioned the need for non-African election missions.

Recent years have seen a surge in observers from the regions that have been most subject to observation. In response to this surge, my research focuses on African international election observers.

Why African observers?

African observer missions bring a regional dimension to international election observation. My fieldwork has shown that African observers feel an affinity towards member states through a shared African identity, culture, language, and history. Similarly, Malawian citizens interviewed found value in observation by their peers.

Further, organizations like the African Union are mandated to support stability and encourage democratic development in their member states. Its position on this issue is enshrined in multiple legal documents: its Constitutive Act (2000), the Lomé Declaration (2000), the Declaration of the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa (2002), and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (2007).

African election observation is an exercise in African agency. Agency is defined as “the ability of states, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, and individual actors to exert influence in their interactions with foreign entities to maximize their utilities and achieve a set of goals”. African actors exert agency in the establishment of international security norms, diplomatic negotiations through the Common African Positions, bilateral agreements,  and health policies, amongst others.

While a shift to African observers would increase agency, there are potential downsides as well. African organizations may have a stake in the outcome of a member state’s election, which can limit their capacity and provide incentives to not be as transparent.

These organizations may not be ready to take over election observation. And not all Africans agree with their involvement. For example, prior to Angola’s August 24th election, which remains disputed, the opposition expressed concerns with being monitored only by “African cousins of political and ideological proximity.”

Where do we go from here?

Still, the increased presence of African observers is notable.

In the case of Malawi, I have previously noted that while international election observation is important, domestic observers are essential. If anything, domestic observers are underutilized partners in strengthening electoral processes in Africa. In both the 2019 and 2020 Malawian elections, the robust presence of domestic observers played an important role in safeguarding Malawi’s democracy.

An IPOR survey showed that party monitors followed by domestic observers were the most important in ensuring the integrity of upcoming elections, while international observers were seen as least important. Unlike international observers, domestic observers have more at stake as to how state institutions evolve. The fact that Malawians challenged what was unfair highlights the strength of civil society and the power of Malawian institutions.

If election observation is to ever get out of its current “crisis,” a more concerted effort by those involved in the process must be made. International actors influence how citizens trust in the electoral process. That civilian confidence is necessary if international election observation is to remain relevant.