Election observers, under scrutiny, are learning lessons

Wednesday October 4 2017

By DAUTI KAHURA
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This is the third time I am writing on the subject of international election observer missions in as many weeks, which shows how much international elections observers have come to pervade our political sphere.

They have been pervading that sphere since the country returned to multi-party politics in 1992.

When they first showed up in December, 1992, they did such a shoddy job that they received a serious bollocking, from the local media and political analysts, their donors and international press.

In fact, many keen onlookers – both local and international – who were monitoring their activities, considered them to have come for “election tourism”: they jetted in on the eve of the elections and left shortly afterwards, after the “touring” was over.

In the subsequent general election of 1997, they improved on their mission stay – they showed up a couple of months before, engaged various institutions and organisations that were directly or indirectly involved in the elections, but above all, took some time to try and understand the political terrain under which our five year cycle of elections takes place.

Since then, one would argue, international election observers who come to Kenya have been on a learning curve.

But not since the 1992 general election, when the international election observers looked clueless, mindless and rudderless, and not knowing what they were observing, have international election observers in Kenya been put on the radar – locally and internationally – as they were before their massive goof in the August 8, 2017 general elections.

Not until after the opposition coalition party Nasa went to the Supreme Court to challenge the election victory of Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party did the international observers wake up to the realisation that they had missed the electoral malpractices perpetrated in the August 8 elections, as adjudged by the David Maraga-led majority Supreme Court decision.

The Court found out that the electronic transmission of results was a sham and the results that were apparently being relayed were not in tandem with the true results that were captured by the IEBC server.

Hence, the Supreme Court's insistence on scrutinising the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission's (IEBC) servers. To date, in open defiance to a judge’s order, the server has never been disclosed to anyone, leave alone the Supreme Court itself.

CREATION OF THE MEDIA

Several days ago, I had a one-on-one with Marietje Schaake, Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) Kenya 2017. It was apparent that she and her observer mission had been stung by the unceasing criticisms that has been levelled against EU-EOM, as indeed all the other international election observer missions that came to monitor the elections.

The truth of the matter is the international election observers have a lot to answer for.

“It is not true we had certified the August 8 elections as “free and fair”, she calmly told me. “I will speak on behalf of my organisation; that is not what I said in my preliminary press statement and report on August 10, 2017. Free and fair is a creation of the media.”

It is likely, the journalists did not read the 15 page report that the EU-EOM issued to them, she said. “Had they read it fully, they would have found out that we had pin-pointed some of the issues that came out in the Supreme Court.”

Yet, it is true, if as she told me, the media in their reporting imposed the two words into her lexicon, she did not find it in her place to immediately correct the “wrong” impression.

Just like all the other international election observers, they waited for the Supreme Court pronouncement to be jolted into a flurry of “corrective” activities.

IMPARTIAL ARBITERS

A Dutch politician who today sits in the European Parliament, in Brussels, Belgium, Schaake said the primary role of international election observers was to monitor the elections and ensure they adhere to the rules and regulations as stipulated in the Constitution and the laws of Kenya.

“We are answerable only to the people of Kenya – not to political parties and certainly not to the government.” Interestingly, some of the harshest criticisms of the international organisations like hers, came from the Kenyan people.

Many Kenyans view international election observers as people who carry themselves as the guests of the state, and not impartial arbiters, whose chief job is to call out – without fear and favour – correctly and immediately, election shenanigans perpetrated by any, or some of the participants.

“Maybe we did not communicate our message well and elaborately,” Ms Schaake said, in recognition to the fact that some of the biggest flak on international election observers came from the very same people who they apparently were working for.

Other severe criticisms came from the international press, especially from Western countries. “Perhaps we ought and should be communicating our message regularly.”

SOUL SEARCHING

But Ms Schaake was quick to note that it would be unreasonable for the people to expect that every so often, international observers would call the media to point out even the slightest electoral malpractice.

The EU-EOM Chief Observer got an unlikely ally and vindication from an American Africa specialist – Lauren Ploch Blanchard who works at the US Congressional Research Service – when towards the end of September, she argued that none of the international election observers had certified the August 8, election as “free and fair”.

Speaking in Washington DC in a “Spotlight on Kenya” conference, organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Blanchard said to the best of her knowledge, that none of the international election observers had passed the August 8 elections as “free and fair”.

She said it was true that the international election observers may not have communicated their messages effectively and with clarity, hence, “a lot of soul-searching was going on in the international election observer community on how to do better.”

Ms Schaake said to me, EU-EOM (EU – Election Observer Mission) was certainly keen on doing better, as her organisation looks to again overseeing the coming fresh presidential election, which takes place in less than a month from now.

PLANNED PROJECTIONS

On September 14, 2017, the EU-EOM issued an interim statement, titled 'Recommendations for the RE-Run Based on Findings since the 8 August Election Day' The mini report is written in diplomat-speak. Just like Ms Schaake’s conversation with me, the report is couched in ambiguous, diplomatic language. Sample an example:

"The planned projections did not always take place as planned; and when they were working, rather than showing the tallying of the actual constituency results (based on the 34A forms) only the keyed results were shown.” Talking about the same form 34As, the statement says, “some difficulties in completing forms were also evident for both polling station results (form 34A) and constituency tallies (form 34B).”

In mitigation, Ms Schaake told me: “I always encouraged the aggrieved party to go to court.” As international election observers once again look to participating in the coming election, Kenyans will be observing them and waiting to hear what they have to say about the changes in the electoral laws’ being rushed through in parliament, by Jubilee MPs, in the guise of effecting the Supreme Court recommendations.

Dauti Kahura is a senior writer for 'The Elephant', a Nairobi-based publication. Twitter: @KahuraDauti