Elections in 2017 – can the African Union up its game?

The presidential elections that took place in Benin and Ghana in 2016 were thankfully peaceful and transparent. If it hadn’t been for the polls that led to a change of leadership in these two West African countries, last year would have been defined almost exclusively by its contested election outcomes. The African Union’s Department of Political Affairs could play a leading role in keeping this year’s elections free and fair. 

Across the continent, from Gabon to Zambia and from Chad to Uganda, incumbent presidents clung to power amid widespread accusations of fraud, manipulation of electoral processes and blanket restrictions on social media.

The list of 2017 elections published by the African Union’s (AU) Department of Political Affairs is much shorter than that of 2016, with only two presidential elections (in Rwanda and Liberia) and two general elections (Kenya and Angola) that could see the appointment of a new president. To this list should be added the election of a new president in Somalia, postponed to this month, and presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – now to be held in December 2017.

The AU sends observer missions to all these elections – there were 19 in total in 2016 – but is often accused of merely rubber-stamping the results, regardless of whether they are free or fair.

In an interview with the Institute for Security Studies’ PSC Report towards the end of last year, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Aisha Abdullahi, said that the AU has improved its system of observing elections by looking more comprehensively at a country’s political situation ahead of elections. It follows a “multi-pronged approach” that includes sending pre-election assessment missions ahead of time – and not only a day or two before the polls, she says. In that way, it can assess whether the playing field was level before voting day, which it very often isn’t.

On paper, this approach looks excellent. However, such long-term observation missions are very expensive and the AU often has to rely on donor funding to do this.

The many other factors that are also at play in the interaction between the AU and its member states mean that these missions are often of little consequence.

In Gabon, for example, AU observers made a comprehensive statement noting imbalances in media coverage of the various candidates; the lack of full participation by civil society; and a refusal by some electoral staff to allow observers to enter polling stations on voting day. This preceded the post-election crisis of August and September 2016, in which opposition leader Jean Ping challenged the victory of the incumbent Ali Bongo. The report, however, got very little attention.

On the other hand, the European Union (EU) observer mission – which said much of the same in the run-up to the polls – made sure they captured the media spotlight to promote their analysis and criticism of the process. The EU has a long history of independent election observation.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council subsequently also became involved in the post-election crisis in Gabon and requested the AU Commission to send “eminent members from high Francophone jurisdictions” to Libreville to assist its Constitutional Court in arbitrating in the election dispute. This never happened, and Ping lost his battle to have the results overturned.

In the end, and this is likely to be the case again in 2017, any strong continental action about disputed results largely depends on the political will of the regional organisation dealing with the matter.

Last year, three of the most contested elections (in Gabon, Chad and the Republic of Congo), took place in Central Africa, where the regional organisation, the Economic Community of Central African States, is hardly functioning.

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By Liesl Louw-Vaudran