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PoliThinks: Our elections, international observers. What are they observing?

Talking about international observers, of what importance are they to the electioneering process?

Elections in Nigeria often seem like the only thing our democracy leads up to, with preparations for it usually done as though the nation was preparing for war – soldiers are often deployed in strategic locations and other civil authorities like the police and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corp (NSCDC) are often emptied into the pooling units and streets on election days, sometimes these security outfits parade the streets in a show of force. The Nigerian borders are usually closed shortly before election days. The atmosphere leading up to elections in Nigeria is usually tense and heightened. These are all attempts by the authorities in Nigeria to assure the people of their safety during the elections; and of the credibility of the elections before local and international observers, who are present to validate the electoral process. Talking about international observers, of what importance are they to the electioneering process?

According to the 2019 study by Dodsworth on Double standards: the verdicts of western election observers in sub-Saharan Africa, “election observation is the observation of an election by an independent party in order to assess the conduct of that election on the basis of national legislation and international election standards

According to Shola Omotola, in a 2003 study on The Limits of Election Monitoring: Nigeria's 2003 General Election, electoral observance or monitoring is a new phenomenon which started after the end of the cold war which lasted from 1947 to 1991. The end of the cold war heralded an increase in the number of countries conducting competitive elections and the subsequent increase in the number of organizations that monitor such elections with the aim of ensuring universal standards in electoral practice.

Election monitoring by foreign observers is often done through fieldworkers who serve as monitors or observers. They are representatives of international organizations that carry out election observation on the invitation of the host country, by which they become the middlemen between the government and the governed. Examples of international election observers to Nigeria include the European Union Election Observer Mission (EUEOM), Commonwealth Observer Team (COT); the African Union Monitoring Group (AUMG); the International Republican Institute Monitoring Group (IRIMG) and the Institute of Democracy, South Africa (IDSA). What exactly are the roles of these observers in the electioneering process?

  • They ensure that the government is playing its role in increasing voter confidence

  • They provide assistance to domestic observers, civil society and the local media

  • They pressure the government sometimes through public condemnation of acts that are not seen to enhance voter confidence and solidify the democratic process. Examples include pressuring the government to update the voter register, adopt technology that reduces voter fraud and monitor the delivery of electoral materials on election days.

Beyond these democracy enhancing reasons for international observers, there are other less obvious reasons why there are lots of international observers in Nigerian elections, even if the Nigerian government may not be predisposed to having them around, they include the following:

  • Liisa once observed, in her 2005 work: “The Politics of International Election Observation: The Case of the Zimbabwe in 2000” that foreign countries may use foreign aid as precondition for the acceptance to monitor elections by monitoring groups from the aid providing country.

  • In the 2005 work of Dorman: Make Sure the Votes Count Nicely This Time: The Politics of Elections and Election Observing in Zimbabwe, foreign governments use election monitoring as an opportunity to further the political interest of foreign countries

While the presence of international observers may add credibility to the Nigerian electoral process, and ensure that it follows international best practice, it has become pertinent that the national interest of the country must be placed ahead of any other consideration in election monitoring, including making election monitoring a condition to access some aid. It is also imperative for the Nigerian government to build the capacity to run her elections entirely on her own, including all the financial implications of carrying out the election, this way, the government can boldly say “no” to other activities of foreign governments shrouded in election monitoring, after all, it is not heard that elections monitoring groups in Nigeria are invited to monitor the elections of Western governments, even though they may be flawed.

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