It was late in the afternoon of March 31, 1994. Journalists were waiting impatiently for an announcement from international election observers. UN officials stated for the third time their argument that the observers should declare the March 28 elections for Uganda Constituent Assembly ‘free and fair’.
But the election observers avoided the phrase.
They had monitored only part of the electoral process; moreover, they knew that calling the election ‘free and fair’ would preclude discussion of the problems [in the elections] they had discovered,” wrote Jorgen Elklit and Palle Svensson in the 1997 Journal of Democracy.
“In the end, the elections in Uganda – which were no worse than many other elections that have taken place in emerging democracies – were not declared ‘free and fair’.
The duo add that the term “free and fair” has become a catchphrase for UN officials and political leaders and scholars alike, but what actually constitutes a free and fair elections is in itself vague.
Does the phrase mean only that the election was “acceptable” or does it imply something more?”
Twenty two years later
Twenty two years later, the European Union (EU) election observer mission chief to Uganda Eduard Kukan, asked by this reporter on February 20, 2016, whether the polls held two days earlier came anywhere close to “free and fair” said “it is up to the world to judge after reading the report of our findings”.
In their findings, the EU Mission poked holes into the conduct in which Ugandan polls were conducted, from the incompetence of the Electoral Commission to the intimidating atmosphere by the deployment of the military in several places.
African election observer groups, on the other hand, saw the Ugandan elections as calm, smooth and transparent.
A good number of Ugandans had hitherto grown weary of election observers; after all they had jetted into the country two weeks to polling day and spent most of their time at fancy hotels and towns.
The same was not quite different in neighbouring Kenya.
An estimated 500 election observers were accredited to monitor the August 8 polls which saw the incumbent, Mr Uhuru Kenyatta, and his running mate William Ruto bounce back with 54 per cent or eight million of total votes cast.
Mr Odinga, the main challenger, according to Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), garnered only 44.84 per cent, or six million of the vote tally.
More than 15 million people cast their ballots, representing 78 per cent of the registered voters.
Mr Odinga and other Nasa members, however, quickly rejected the poll results announced on August 11, citing malpractices such as hacking and manipulation of the IEBC vote tallying system.
One senior Nasa official, James Orengo, who was also lead counsel in the petition to overturn Mr Kenyatta’s victory, described the August polls as a “charade”.
“You do not just hold an election for the sake of it. And the election is not about announcing winners and losers,” Mr Orengo said shortly after the August 11 announcement.
Foreign election observers from the African Union, East African Community (EAC), European Union and United States from their vantage point saw the elections as having been smooth and transparent.
The EAC mission team led by Prof Edward Rugumayo, told journalists a day before the polls announcement, that IEBC had done a good job.
The EU observer mission chief, Marietje Schaake, said in a statement that they had seen no signs of “centralised or localised manipulation” of the voting process as Nasa claimed.
Former US secretary of state John Kerry, who led the Carter Centre observer delegation, said he believed IEBC had managed the election well.
In an interview with CNN a day before the poll announcement, Mr Odinga said the observers had not helped Kenyans resolve this dispute but rather confounded “it by giving basically an approval to a fairly flawed process”.
“…and therefore I am very disappointed with John Kerry and the other observers,” Mr Odinga added.
What exactly do observers do?
Crispin Kaheru, of the Coordinator of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy, believes that election observers still have a big role to play but only need to re-examine their methods of work.
“The annulling of the election in Kenya calls for a re-examination of election approaches and the idea of sending of observer teams usually one month or weeks to the voting day,” Mr Kaheru says.
“Elections are a process and involve several nuances; starting with the electoral laws passed to guide the exercise, the preparations of voters and political parties, right to the management of the actual exercise.”
He adds: “And with the involvement of technology to receive voters’ data, tallying and dissemination to the central server has even become more complicated. Technology however firewalled or waterproofed it might be can always be manipulated. These are things that clearly need to be looked at besides people lining up well in queues or materials being delivered in time.”
A diplomat of one of the EU countries told this newspaper sometime last year that foreign observers are like “diplomats” and for any host countries to expect them to “condemn an election gone bad in the strongest terms is expecting too much”.
The diplomat explained that their observer missions say “what is acceptable within limit” to avoid putting countries they represent on a collision path with the different host governments.
“But it doesn’t mean we don’t see thing where they wrong. Also don’t forget that each country has a different political or historical context.”
Could this alone be the reason for the “tourist” role that foreign election observers have come to be known for?
Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who led the Commonwealth election observer group to Uganda last year, in a chat with this reporter on election day expressed disappointment about what he had witnessed around Kampala, Wakiso and Mukono, but remained guarded with his opinion.
African election observers’ sugar-coat the situation for understandable reasons of association with the African Union (AU).
Only Botswana, known for its heretical foreign policy that includes admonishing African despots and unflinching support for the International Criminal Court, condemned the Ugandan elections.
History of foreign observer missions
The practice of foreign observer missions dates back to 1857 when European nations dispatched monitors to bear witness to the referendum in the enclaves of Wallachia and Moldavia (which joined to form present day Romania).
In Uganda observers started monitoring elections with the December 1980 elections which was later disputed and compelled President Museveni to go to the bush.
Since then, foreign observers have been witnesses to subsequent elections in Uganda.
Given the ongoing scholarly argument on the phrase “free and fair elections”, some observers believe that elections, especially in infant democracies in Africa, have emboldened bad governments. It said that foreign observer missions are not any different; election malpractices happen under their watch but they never condemned in strongest terms or usually condemned in a tone that is laid back.