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Power dynamics of election monitoring in Africa: To observe or to be observed

EU election observers speak to voters in Nyatsime, Zimbabwe, on July 24, 2018. The EU was invited back into the country by the Zimbabwean government for the first time after a key observer was expelled during the disputed 2002 presidential election. File picture: Marco Longari/AFP

EU election observers speak to voters in Nyatsime, Zimbabwe, on July 24, 2018. The EU was invited back into the country by the Zimbabwean government for the first time after a key observer was expelled during the disputed 2002 presidential election. File picture: Marco Longari/AFP

Published Jun 19, 2022


By Everisto Benyera

The political legacy of colonialism warrants to be revisited, rethought, and linked to current electoral and justice problems in (post) colonial states, especially those in Africa.

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The political impact of colonialism, and for others, of coloniality, is important in this discussion as it shapes, pre-determines, and pre-empts the outcomes of most political processes in (formerly) colonised countries of the global South.

Political processes such as elections in (formerly) colonised countries have to be authenticated and approved by western countries, western-based institutes and institutions, and westerndominated multilateral organisations. This authentication is done based on western standards of what constitutes what the West terms “free and fair”elections.

Why is it that the AU, the Southern Africa Development Conference (SADC) or Angola are not invited to observe and monitor, say, the US, Portugal, France or UK elections? If they are invited, their views on the election outcomes in their former colonisers would not carry much weight.

Can Zimbabwe declare that US Presidential elections were not free and fair and admonish the US for gravitating towards authoritarian democracy? It is noteworthy that elections were imposed on Africa as part of the colonial processes and at independence there were no structural changes to electoral politics.

What happened was a mere change in the players, not the warranted change of the game itself. I ask: Who elected the elections so they become the “first among equals” when it comes to managing politics in the (post) colony? If democracy is about choices, what are the other choices for the institution of elections?

When elections fail as an instrument for managing the selection of office-bearers in public institutions in Africa, we must have the guts to question: Is it elections that are failing in Africa or Africans that are failing in elections?

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Maybe the institution of electoral democracy is one never meant to work for (post)colonial situations such as Africa. The corollary to the above is: What are the alternatives to elections, especially in states where elections consistently fail. I am aware that elections do not occur in a vacuum. They occur in a capitalist and highly contested power-based terrain.

Given the multi-dimensional nature of electoral contestations, which see elections being contested in all dimensions of life, religious, economic, gender, class etc, it goes without saying that elections are prone to power politics and elite collusion.

Capitalism as an ideology tends to pre-determine electoral outcomes because in the simplest terms, the one with the “greatest bucks” and the most powerful wins. Elections are therefore not a contest over popularity and policy decisions but a contest over power.

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Here the notion of majority is no longer a numerical one but one about power dynamics, meaning the most powerful become the majority and the numerical majority becomes the minority. An apt example is women who are a numerical majority in Africa but a powerful minority.

This also explains why it is the countries that constitute the (former) colonisers who bestowed on themselves the right to monitor elections in their (former) colonies. And inversely, it bestowed on the (former) colonies the responsibility to be monitored but no right to inversely monitor elections in the (former) colonisers. Remember, any endeavour to monitor is done against the desired outcome.

Question: whose desired outcome? The (former) colonisers or the (former) colonised? The result of the current election observer power dynamics is that the most important election outcome-related decisions about Africa are made in Euro-North America, especially in the US, the UK and France, and this leaves one with the view that as Africans, we must participate in American, UK, French elections, since some of the most important decisions about Africa are made in Euro-North America.

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The perceived reliance of Africa on the EU and other foreign observers must be exposed for what it is, the (former) colonisers maintaining a power grip on their (former) colonisers by ensuring that elections go their desired way.

This must be read as a continuation of the many institutions that were imposed on Africa as part of the colonial processes. It is imperative for me to state that the state in Africa is a colonial construction and a colonial imposition.

The state in Africa was imposed as part of the colonial processes together with its institutions which include elections. There is no way in which elections can work for the (former) colonised people when they were imposed as part of the greater project of colonialism.

No matter how many changes are applied by the (post) colonies to the institution of elections, elections will remain problematic one way or the other because in my view, they were never meant to work for Africa.

If elections were used in apartheid South Africa and colonial Africa to exclude the black majority, there is no way in which without major structural changes, the same institution of election can now be turned around into an instrument of inclusion.

Then there is the issue of how to classify electoral and election outcomes with many terms and concepts being deployed. These include “free and fair”, “free and acceptable” and “disputed elections”.

This points to the absence of an agreed-upon framework on how to classify electoral outcomes. This deliberately created and well-managed confusion plays into the hands of the (former) colonisers as those in control of the institution of elections come up with new ways of classifying electoral outcomes to suit their agenda.

As with everything colonial, those with the most power not only determine the agenda and the standards, but they bestow on themselves the responsibility to develop and deploy new election-related norms. This is why without exorcising the ghost of colonialism, elections as an institution for managing power succession will never be efficacious in (post) colonial Africa.

Instead of thinking about alternatives within the problematic paradigm of electoral politics, we need to think of an alternative to elections. In conclusion, the university has a challenge of thinking about alternatives to elections in Africa.

This task is made difficult by the way in which other forms of leadership such as religious faith-based leaders and traditional leaders have been politicised and instrumentalised by political elites. If the EU is again signalling its intentions to send an election observer mission to Angola, it would be within Angola’s sovereign right to deny them permission to observe these elections if their motive is not that of preserving peace and genuine democracy in Angola.

Given the history of some of these EU members who once colonised Africa, their motive in observing African elections in general and Angolan elections, in particular, remains suspect. One is left to ponder if the EU has got a predetermined outcome with which they come to Angola. Only time will tell.

* Benyera is a Full Professor of African Politics at the Department of Political Sciences, University of South Africa