Electoral Assistance in Africa: How much of it works?


MUCH of Africa has transitioned from authoritarian to multiparty dispensation especially between the late 1980s and early 1990’s.  


However, the transition did not necessarily mean that the socio-economic, historical, and political convolutions are out of the way. It has also not entirely changed the face and soul of the state institutions established by the erstwhile colonial regimes. 

Even though regular elections ranging from competitive, semi-competitive to non-competitive elections are assured across the continent, the quality of these elections remains multifarious. 

There is a perennial paroxysm of election-related conflicts in some countries, hence an upsurge in electoral assistance as part of a broader democracy assistance since the early 1990’s. The essence of electoral assistance in Africa has been to ensure lasting peace and provide strategic incentives for electoral actors including inter alia election management bodies, civil society, government agencies, political parties, and legislatures to contribute to the holding of credible elections. 

Various electoral assistance actors including and not limited to the United Nations and European Union have provided electoral assistance in areas such as voter registration, procurement, logistics, polling, outreach strategies, election observation as well as election dispute resolution either directly or through international non-governmental organisations and local non-state actors. 

Evaluation of some of the electoral assistance interventions would show that electoral assistance interventions have yielded ambivalent results. The dividends of electoral assistance are visible in some countries despite niggling challenges. 

For example, in Ghana where I observed more than three election cycles and evaluated the country’s acclaimed dispute resolution architecture, electoral assistance has imbued peacebuilding efforts and strengthened the electoral processes. 

The Ghana National Peace Council has with the support of the Commonwealth spearheaded a peace model that is seen by many as exemplary and widely used as a case study. 

On the other hand, some countries that have enjoyed sustained electoral assistance have not necessarily had successful democratic transitions.  The intractable political crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the country’s failure to resolve many inconclusive elections over the years despite multi-stakeholder international electoral assistance is the case in point. 

In fact, it is not farfetched to suggest that electoral assistance to the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries like Mali and Somalia has become a curse and not a cure.

One of the major weaknesses of electoral assistance on the continent and indeed the wider democracy assistance architecture is as Rakner et al (2008:2) aptly put it, the lack of sensitivity to context. 

The assistance is informed by an idealised and western-based notion of democracy where electoral assistance providers promote standard reform templates rather than adjusting their programmes to the specific political, social, and economic power relations in different countries.

Rakner et al posit that consequently, the interventions lack flexibility and are unresponsive to the needs and concerns arising in a target country. There is often a missing link between the provided interventions and the real needs of target beneficiaries. 

In some cases, such electoral assistance is not even in sync with the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and regional normative frameworks for elections. 

Even though countries have different experiences of electoral contexts largely based on their unique colonial and immediate post-independence histories, electoral assistance programmes have at times been a cut-and-paste affair in terms of content and approach. 

Again, some of the major electoral assistance agencies are often guilty of recycling the so-called “election experts” from one African country holding elections to the other regardless of the idiosyncrasies between these countries. Even worse, without consideration for skills transfer for local capacities. 

Another criticism is the disconnect between electoral assistance programmes and the values enshrined within the normative frameworks for elections in Africa.  

In mitigation of some of the foregoing electoral assistance weaknesses, the African Union has begun providing electoral assistance to African Union member states through its Democracy and Electoral Assistance Unit established under the Department of Political Affairs. 

Much of the Democracy and Electoral Assistance Unit work has revolved around election observation through the African Union Election Observation Missions. In addition to election observation, the African Union has in recent years introduced an electoral assistance programme aimed at providing capacity to the election management bodies in line with Article 18 of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. 

Hitherto this intervention, the African Union election observation missions’ recommendations as well as recommendations by the international and regional observation bodies were hardly followed up. 

The problems identified in observation reports would resurface again in the next elections. There was a lack of follow up activities beyond the elections to ensure implementation of some of the recommendations, especially on electoral reforms. 

An even more germane example is the development of the model law on elections by the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum. This model law is the first on the African continent dedicated to elections. 

Its uniqueness is its adaptive and context-sensitive approach from the point of domestication of the international, continental, and regional normative frameworks into the national legal frameworks. 

The model law provides a bridge between the international, continental, and regional normative frameworks and national laws. It also seeks to empower and capacitate democratic institutions, enhance electoral systems and the overall integrity of elections. 

Therefore, the move by the African Union to expand its focus beyond election observation to increase the capacity of election management bodies and Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum’s model law approach are good examples of effective electoral assistance. 

However, these are inchoate efforts that require financial capacity and relevant expertise to be consolidated.

To conclude, the achilles heel of electoral assistance in Africa is on the one hand, its ahistorical approach that is often devoid of Africa’s reality. 

On the other hand, it tends to adopt a one-size approach often misaligned with the felt support needs of the beneficiaries.  To be effective, electoral assistance design must respond to the felt needs of the target beneficiaries and adopt a long-term approach covering the entire election cycle.  

  • Dr Victor Shale is the Principal Consultant at Shalestone Consultants. 

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