The presence of international election observers has become a regular feature of life in this country as elsewhere in Africa, for the best part of 25 years, if not more. It is a phenomenon that our political leaders and the electorate alike have not only come to expect in general elections, but have now tended to accept as part and parcel of the package. Nowadays, it seems, no general elections will be deemed complete without the prying eyes of individuals and groups of individuals from mainland Europe and America for starters, and others from different parts of the world, and organisations dedicated to observing elections. Indeed, election observation has developed into a career and profession for certain groups of people in these countries that they make comfortable living out of it. They become established and experienced in observing elections, get promotion and recognition as ‘professionals’ and ‘experts’ in the field so much that people struggle to get their names included in the “core team” of election observers by the funding organisations in Europe and America.
They, therefore, will always see the need to observe elections in overseas countries because they have now developed a vested interest of their own in the exercise.
Whereas, it used to be merely an altruistic exercise on the part of European and American retirees and election tourists eager for an all-expenses paid vacation to exotic locations around the world, the bulk of which they still are, but more importantly, election “missions” have seen the creation and steady rise of professional cadres and the concomitant need for perpetuation and self-preservation. A trade union of sort.
The above background is given not as an argument against foreign election observers, but, to put the rest of this write-up in a better perspective. It is equally important to state at the outset, that the term “international” observers as used here precludes the countries of Africa and fellow Africans coming to observe elections in Nigeria. Their participation, history and structure are fundamentally different from those of the funding bodies from Europe and America. In fact, observer missions from Africa are viewed as “peer-review” and in some sense, “internal”, than the ones from Europe and America, sometimes seen as meddlesome and extraneous. The main rationale for European and American election observer missions in this part of the world is essentially to deter fraud and promote transparency. Since political power offers untrammelled access to state resources in Africa, whoever emerges the winner and loser has everything to gain and lose respectively from any election. Ultimately, the margin between winning and losing often makes the difference between economic survival and ruin for the country concerned. Let us not forget, European and American monies are heavily invested across the continent of Africa as well. That being so, economic ruin in any of the 53 countries on the continent could result in an extra flow of refugees to Europe and America. So, does that also give them a vested interest in the process of elections in Nigeria, and Africa in general? You bet it does, it is a two-way traffic.
It is precisely the European and American vested interest just referred to that forms the basis of their weak standing on the election process in Africa. European and American experts are bent on making us clones of their respective electoral processes in their home countries. Their insistence on multiparty democracy, for instance, leads to fragmentation in many homogenous African setting. For instance, when such an experiment was first attempted in Guinea-Bissau almost 20 years ago, it literally led to communities fighting communities, and family clans fighting family clans, because, with a population of just over one million, everybody was related to one another in one way or another. So, once you insist that they must organise into different parties overnight, you have brothers and sisters suddenly campaigning against one another from different sides of the party game. It was a recipe for disaster for the country, which has continued to this day. Another thing is the insistence on “free press” without taking account of the lack of resources in private hands to make that a realistic option in Africa. Consequently, when, as a European or American observer, you view the media in Africa through the rose-tinted goggles of a free press from your home country, you are bound to see the unimaginable and the bizarre, upon which you draw conclusions. Contrary to widespread belief, many people love, and subscribe to the ideal of democracy in Africa. As a matter of fact, democratic accountability in African societies was better pronounced, and much deep-rooted before the advent of colonialism, than it has been with the so-called “modern” parliamentary and presidential systems foisted on the continent by the West.
Do election observation-funding agencies in the West have something to teach Africans about democracy? The answer is emphatically NO, unless you think that the process alone is substitute for substance, as many Western experts inside the IMF, the European Union, and White House apparently do. It was indeed these renowned institutions which once gave succour and protection to sit-tight dictators and military coups across Africa in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s for fear of communist take-over of the continent. Kwame Nkrumah won a popular, democratic election in 1957, and had embarked on a people-oriented transformation of Ghana before he was bundled out by Western imperialist agents-cum autocrats held the country down for years. Similarly, Patrice Lumumba won a decisive democratic election in the Congo in 1960 before a CIA-sponsored coup installed the despotic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko to power and kept him there for over three decades while multinational corporations plundered the country’s natural resources. Before long, Africa was strewn with puppet regimes after puppet regimes on every corner of the continent, who also went on to plunder the resources of the continent, leading to the rush of economic refugees into Western countries. Western donor agencies then suddenly realised the need for ‘democracy’ and an end to sit-tight dictators that their own policy had hitherto created across Africa.
For the avoidance of doubt, nothing that has been said thus far represents a rejection of, or hostility towards Western election observers. Most of the personnel involved in the exercise are ignorant of the historical records highlighted in this piece. Many more simply seize on the opportunity to do good for people in the “Third World” as they see it. In that respect, they are neither to be vilified nor castigated for making an honest living out of thecyclical jamboree. That being said, there is a lot to be desired at the policy and state level in their home countries. It is particularly galling to hear, for instance, representatives of American government wagging their fingers and warning us of “consequences” if the election process falls short of their own expectation. Was it not the current US President, Donald Trump, who talked repeatedly, in his 2016 Presidential campaign, of how the US electoral system had been “rigged” against political outsiders like himself? Is the US not guilty of systematic suppression of black votes in some US states? The election of the first black US President, Barack Obama (2008-2016), witnessed a rise in violence and killing of innocent black people by police in America. Against that background, how should the world view the issue of post-election violence in the country? The US diplomats in Nigeria represent and speak for Donald Trump; a man who has no moral authority to lecture others in “hate speech” (he does a lot of that himself) and racism or ethnicity as it is known here (he exhibits tons of that himself). Please, remember, when you are pointing one finger, the remaining four are pointing straight back at you.