'The election was smooth except for some skirmishes: This is Africa'

Tuesday August 22 2017

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In November 2000, I was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for two weeks, to cover the country’s second multiparty elections.

I was not new to Tanzania and its politics. When it held its first multiparty general election in 1995, I was there, reporting from the lakeshore city of Mwanza, Tanzania’s second-biggest.

Benjamin William Mkapa, the ruling Cha Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party candidate, was seeking to be re-elected on his second and final term.

That was not a problem: CCM was properly entrenched – then as now.

The problem was the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar.

CCM was unpopular on these islands, more so Pemba, where Civic United Front (CUF) reigned supreme.

Its flag-bearer was the rambunctious Seif Sharif Hamad.

The first thing I learned in covering that election was that Tanzania was no longer an “island of peace in a sea of turmoil” to use a worn-out cliché.

In one of the biggest shows of might, the CCM government unleashed a well-oiled, orchestrated military machine to cow the recalcitrant Zanzibari voters.


CCM was as unpopular in Zanzibar as it was in Pemba. I remember one veteran Tanzanian journalist telling me, “the entire state machinery had been transported to Zanzibar to take care of the Zanzibari malcontents”.

Where am I headed with this story? I learned a second thing in covering that election: the role of election observers.

After a whole day of running helter-skelter, dodging security officers’ batons and occasional tear gas canisters, I would retire to my hotel, where I stayed with some election observers from the European Union (EU).

At the dining table, I took to eavesdropping their whisperings, as they exchanged their day’s experience.

Many of them, young and impressionable, would say things like: “ours is to observe, not to interfere. We are not here to antagonise anyone and we should not be seen to take sides. (read: the state has been kind enough to allow us to come, we should not pick a quarrel with it).

Picking a quarrel should be interpreted to mean: in their daily briefing to the international media, they would downplay the force and violence the state was unleashing on voters, which to say the least, had a net effect of intimidating the same voters to either vote for the ruling party or stay away completely from the polls.

“We will (in the final report) say the election went smoothly, save for a few skirmishes here and there…this is Africa…you know. I mean, it is not as if CCM was not expected to win,” they would mitigate their case.

To the extent the election observer mission was to OBSERVE and WATCH, they believed they were executing their mandate.

So long as they observed and watched they were impartial, so they reasoned.

On a more serious reason as to why some of them felt privileged to be picked as observers, they would break away from the “election shenanigans” to say things such as: Wow, what a beautiful island Zanzibar is…so and so…we surely must stay awhile longer to sample the beautiful corals of the spice islands, as we plan to come back at a later time.”

The bottom line: the observers were there for a “holiday break” from their usual routine back home, to witness an African nation going through the rigours of its final act of election preparedness.

Protected from any election or political harm by their awe-inspiring badges, they would retire to their posh hotels to pontificate from the safe confines of the hotel lounges.
To document their brief sojourn in the country they have been delegated to observe, they follow their observer missions by compiling a report saying the election had been smooth – a few rumblings here and there – but is there an election that is 100 per cent foolproof? A few hiccups are expected.

The same time in November 2000, saw simultaneously, the US held it election and the Florida fiasco was very much in the minds of everybody who had been following the election.

What was the fiasco about?

Vice President Al Gore, who was running on a Democratic Party ticket was neck to neck in vote count with George W. Bush of the Republican Party.


As the tallying of votes reached their crescendo, there was a stalemate in the state of Florida.

And who was the governor of Florida? John Ellis (Jeb) Bush. To this day, many Americans of the Democratic Party persuasion, believe Al Gore narrowly lost the presidency on the account of “Jeb counting the votes”.

I remember one senior CCM official saying, “Dare any of these so-called election observers lecture to us on the merits of holding a free and fair election.”

After the EU Observer mission in Tanzania had compiled its report, I looked for it – more to satiate my curiosity than to learn anything new.

The report did not disappoint me. The 2000 Tanzania election had been declared generally free and fair – two words that has come to be embedded in the election observer’s lexicon.

Joseph Warungu, then covering the election for BBC Africa Service, exclaimed to me when we met in the hotel lobby: “I have never seen that kind of violence in peacetime in any African country.”

Jenerali Ulimwengu, then the chairman of Habari Corporation, after witnessing the violence perpetrated in Zanzibar, said: “That kind of terror could only be but premeditated.”

The election observer mission would not dare, in their daily briefing, point out that the Tanzanian state was brutalising and intimidating voters by unleashing its military might.

After the just concluded August 8, 2017 elections, the opposition Nasa has been grumbling about election observers – led by the African Union (AU) mission under former President Thabo Mbeki, the Carter Foundation represented by John Kerry and the European Union (EU), led by Marietje Schaake.

What did they expect from these people?

The international observers, who were so quick to proclaim a clean bill of health insofar as the elections were concerned, did not have any capacity to understand and detect any technological malpractice.

Less wonder, Schaake had to beseech the opposition to pursue redress through the court, because even the EU mission was now not sure about the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) handling of the data entry in its computers.

I met some of these observers, especially from the AU and EU.

They did not, as much, look different from the group I had met 17 years ago in Dar es Salaam.

They behaved true to their traits: The election was very peaceful. No ugly incidents. It went on very smoothly. Therefore, it was free and fair. Finished.

We were here to observe, if we are to comment, please wait for our respective reports.

The observer missions will indeed write their reports in the coming months and I can wager, they will not say anything that they have not said verbatim – only that now they will do it in long form.

Chapter closed. Another election observed. Others waiting to be observed. And the cycle goes on.


International election observer missions are much like the UN peace missions: The UN “peace” soldiers are deployed to “keep peace by observing” the locals hacking each other with machetes from their armoured tanks with bullet proof vests and pith helmets.

Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, (DRC), Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, the story is the same: The UN peace missions are as useless as the election observer missions.

Some of the election observer groups who witnessed our peaceful elections, had another bigger, more important mission: to take this chance accorded to them to roll down to the Masai Mara Game Reserve to sample the ongoing wildebeest migration.