Are election observer reports worth the paper they’re written on?

07Feb 2016
Isaac Mwangi
Guardian On Sunday
Ea Whispers
Are election observer reports worth the paper they’re written on?

Election fever simply won’t leave East Africa alone: After last year’s debacle in Burundi and the hotly-contested Tanzanian polls, it is now Uganda’s turn. As a result, election observers from the East African Community and elsewhere in the world are already trooping into Kampala.

President Yoweri Museveni will be seeking a further five-year term in the coming contest on 18 February. As expected, there have been accusations from the opposition that the ageing leader is not playing fair. And election observers, of course, will be there to monitor the dying days of the campaign season – as well as the polling itself and tallying of votes – in order to give their verdict on the poll.The purpose of international observers is to shame the contestants – especially the incumbent – into playing by the rules of the game. Knowing that the whole world is watching, so goes this thinking, it would be inconceivable for whoever is in power to take advantage of incumbency to rig an election. Time and again, however, this has been proved false.In fact, all the botched elections in East Africa in recent years have had both local and international observers. That has hardly prevented the subverting of the will of the people, and all indications are that this trend will continue.Generally, what election observers do is to give an opinion that favours the incumbent. Perhaps this is to avoid rocking the boat and pushing a country down the precipice. Whereas their reports may speak of some weaknesses in the electoral process, the overall verdict is predictable: That the election to a large extent represented the will of the people.That, basically, pulls the rug from under the feet of anyone thinking of mounting a challenge against unfair electoral practices. It is a trend that has also emboldened despots in the region and elsewhere, who can afford to simply ignore the seemingly wise old men and a sprinkling of women who arrive to monitor elections.The Kenyan presidential election of December 2007 – made famous by the resulting post-election violence – had election observers in plenty. Predictably, election observer missions gave their seals of approval, with heads of state beginning to congratulate the then president Mwai Kibaki.When violence broke out, these same observer missions had to make a tactical retreat from their previous pronouncements, or at least strengthen their statements on the weaknesses of that election.Apart from the Burundi elections held last year, which attracted outright condemnation from across the region, this narrative that elections were free and fair has been repeated ad nauseum. It has basically made a mockery of election monitoring.While President John Magufuli has made himself a darling of the people with his blunt anti-corruption stand, let us not forget that he rose to power through very difficult circumstances. To this day, the problem in Zanzibar arising from that election has not been resolved. Election observers, as expected, gave a fairly glowing assessment of the Tanzanian general election.An electoral process cannot be judged by the conduct of the parties shortly before, during and after an election. Take the stripping of a woman politician in Uganda last year, for example: Doesn’t this, among other events, already give an indication that the coming election will not be a fair contest?That is not to begrudge the election monitors of their allowances. Hopefully, however, their reports can be more circumspect. Quite often, whitewashing the wrongs of an election only leads to greater frustration and pent-up anger; it merely postpones an explosive situation, thus doing a disservice to a nation.Kenya’s coming election in 2017 has the potential of becoming a game-changer of sorts. President Uhuru Kenyatta will be facing an uphill task to retain his seat, what with all the allegations of corruption and sheer incompetence that have plagued his administration. Quietly, he is using every excuse to get ready for the battle – legally, politically and, if need be, through the use of brute force.From the judiciary to the police force, it is hard for any keen observer to miss the goings-on,  with obvious conclusions. Like in 2007, hopefully Kenya will pull through this one. It will be interesting to watch the outcome – and how election observers will behave. East Africa News Agency