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Election Observation and Democratization in Africa. Jon Abbink and Gerti Hesseling (eds.). New York: St. Martins Press, 2000. Pp. 324.
In Africa and elsewhere in the world, election observation became a growing industry in the 1990s. The end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of promoting democracy that was to be sponsored and monitored in the parts of the world orphaned after the geopolitical fallout of the end of the Cold War. The ensuing management and monitoring of sponsored democracy took the form of continued conditionality. In a political atmosphere where the state has had its legitimacy and trustworthiness repeatedly questioned, election observation was needed to boost public confidence in the democratic process and to secure the fairness of the elections. As a fairly recent phenomenon, there has been scanty information available on the mechanisms needed for and the processes of election observation. Nearly a decade after the start of the election observation era, emerges the book Election Observation and Democratization in Africa. The aim of the book is to provide guidance to election observers on issues of election monitoring in non-Western settings, with less economic means and less secure institutional infrastructure (p. xii). Africa is chosen as the primary case study because the most interesting and challenging material to study this topic comes from there (p.10).
The book is divided into three parts. The first section deals with the context of elections in Africa. The second consists of case studies, while the last segment deals with policy issues facing election observers. Throughout the book, the contributing authors discuss issues facing foreign monitors, the moral/ethical issues involved, the brevity of time spent in a particular location, and the lack of understanding of the culture and politics of the country where elections are being observed.
Jon Abbink introduces the book by stating what has become a commonly held belief: afro-pessimisme. Initial election observer missions failed to obtain adequate outcomes because they declared faulty elections as a step in the right direction (p.2). Part of the problem was that external observers had unclear mandates and ambiguous standards and methodology. Additionally, donor states may have their own realpolitik interests and thus, they may care more about their particular concerns, rather than the long term prospects for democracy. Finally, the free and fair qualification is meaningless so long as it does not engage the broader problems of democracy, equality and justice (p.8).
One of the contributors, Van Cranenburgh discusses the theoretical relationship between multiparty politics and democracy. Multi-party elections are part of routine political practice everywhere in the West. The author criticizes, quite rightly, the reductionist and elitistist view that multiparty elections are the necessary and sufficient condition for democracy. The picture is more complex than that and the totality of problems should be taken into account, presumably with an interdisciplinary approach which gives fair coverage of historical, political and cultural issues as the book promises to do on its opening page. Does the book deliver on the promises? Only partly. While international relations and political aspects are widely covered, there is inadequate coverage of historical factors, the economic background, and other features impinging on democratization in Africa.
The search for mirror images after imposing Western features on non-Western setting is bound to backfire. A working paradigm requires certain grounds to explain a social, political and economic reality. A western multi-party system presumes the existence of, among other things, a modern state, a fully functioning civil society, and a free press. Organic constitutions that are grounded on the soil need to clearly define the powers, rights, and responsibilities of all involved. The social contract is such that parties, both in opposition and in power, understand and abide by the rules. For many African states, this contract was handed down at the time of decolonization and is poorly understood by the people. In the realm of society, the sponsored democracy seeks the civil society. That, however, is not the same as Goran Hydens "uncaptured peasantry" or Mahmood Mamdanis decentralized despotism where the subjects are trapped in a non-racial version of apartheid. It is a fact of life that in Africa, rural societies account for the largest portion both in population size and in terms of economic activity, this obviously does not conform to the expectations of technologically advanced countries. The focus on literati society is not surprising looking at the evolution of western, liberal democracy. But when the rural world is left out of the oppositional politics, it does not augur well with the spirit of democratization. There is another, yet more important dimension: economic activity. Most countries in Africa are characterized by mono-economic structures, producing and exporting a select few agricultural or mining products. More importantly, where the state is the focus for shrinking economic resources, the premium on losing and winning power becomes hugely expensive.
All this happens in an African setting where heterogeneity is the norm. Van Cranenburgh sees consociational or consensus model of democracy to be increasingly relevant (p.26). Also, Ellis is adamant that the sovereignty of the popular will, tested most obviously through general elections, was replacing all other principles of sovereignty throughout the world. Indeed, it is crucial to any country that wished to develop (p.39). Consequently, rather than focusing on fundamental political reforms, democratization was narrowly construed, making it unsurprising that elections failed to bring increased power sharing or greater economic prosperity (p.43).
The issue does not end with the nature of postcolonial state, which remains colonial in its adherence to generally anti-democratic and repressive measures and attitudes. Van Kessel queries about the goals, rules, roles, and responsibility of election observers, as well as those of the donor countries. If donors who sponsor election observation are concerned more with political stability than democratization, then the right approach is to send peace monitors rather than election observers.
In chapter 4, De Gaay Fortman analyses political violence sometimes as an occasional aspect of the political struggle. Ted Gurr argues that it is part of a human beings constitution that if frustration, dissatisfaction, and grievances are sufficiently prolonged or sharply felt, aggression is quite likely, if not certain to occur. Whereas democracy must begin with the process of democratization, the sudden introduction of multiparty elections may lead to protests, rebellions and regime orchestrated violence, as occurred in countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The author grapples with the fact that even in the West, where democracy implied representation, accountability and participation, the Westminster style winner takes all model produces a single party government as a result of multiparty elections (p.86).
Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the experience of multiparty democracy in Africa, the question remains. If multi-party politics are problematic in Africa what alternatives are there? In the second section dealing with case studies, M. Doornbos recommends that the Ugandan no-party system introduced by the [National Revolutionary Movement] in 1986 is quite novel for Africa or anywhere for that matter (p.109). The substance of the no-party alternative lies in competing individual candidates vying for votes as individuals and not as members of a party. Skepticism, at best, is what the reviewer feels in copying any social model that were developed for certain circumstances that may not exist in other places, times and conditions. The Ugandan practice has its own political and historical background. Uganda, which is a country greatly haunted by its turbulent past, is quite different from its immediate neighbor, Kenya, which does not see it fit to dismantle the entrenched one party system dominated by KANU.
Here, as Foenken and Dietz found out, ethnicity is another issue multi-party democracy has to contend with. African ethnicity as a form of nationalism has not been accorded sufficient attention. Most of the times, the attention it attracts both from academic and media outlets has been negative. Neglected are the analyses of why it is a resilient a realty in Africa as Timothy Shaw persuasively argued, as well as the positive sides of ethnicity. Conforming to the existing approach, Kenyas political system is characterized by ethnic voting which is illustrated in the 1992 election results being along ethno-territorial boundaries (p.128). Mention is made of ethnic clashes and manipulations and division of opposition largely along ethnic lines. The role of election observation in this respect is murky though the preliminary conclusion is that the election results would have been more unfair and unfree without the observers.
Looking into Ethiopia, Jon Abbink, goes beyond the watered-down declarations of free and fair. The narration of Democracy and ethnicity: The Ethiopian approach may sound more than novel where ethnicity has made its entry in the official political discourse of Ethiopia and perhaps indeed of Africa (152). The reviewer would have been mesmerized had he not been from that part of the world. There is no doubt that external observers would find it interesting, and at times carried over by official account. To critical students of Ethiopian historiography, the events of the late 19th century, the conquest and the imperial expansion to the south that resulted in the formation of modern day Ethiopia, largely explains the revolutionary declarations of the Derg military rule that ended in 1991 and the EPRDF rebel army rule that replaced it. For the latter, the organization of elections meant the organization of its victory. Some external observers understood this, especially the large donors who were concerned less with democratization and more with strategic geopolitical motives. These donors found moral relief by comparing the new arrangement with the worst cases as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Sudan (pp.171-172). The EPRDF is also accorded with another exotic notion of ethnic federalism and the most revolutionary constitution on earth, a contract that neither the citizens nor the subjects have the will and the capacity to put into practice. The views of protagonists vary. For some, the post-1991 order represents nothing but the extension of the old system with new methods of divide-and-rule; for others the semblance of language and cultural barriers constitute nothing but an ethnic apartheid. This dark side is apparent to everyone except those who want to believe that democracy is flourishing in the middle of the city.
Thus the secrets of multiparty democracy know no bounds. R. van Djik provides the anthropological slant to the secret worlds of culture, including the political culture. He notes that the cultural implications of the imposition of democratic procedures and their monitoring are often overlooked (p.181). Many observers take for granted the development of the Western nation state in Africa. But the realties in Africa do not guarantee such assumptions. That is why, in Malawi, for example, the secrets of muttiparty, as they knew it locally, needed to be told by the young cadres that it was not just another party. The new converts explain to the elderly that it is an alternative to Banda, who also used Nyau secret society as a means of oppression and repression. To the international observers the idea of Nyau secret society inspecting and monitoring the ballot boxes by placing magic eyes in polling booths in the villages is secret in itself (p.198). For they lacked knowledge of the local culture and time to prepare themselves (p.203). In Chad, they arrived too late, made public their findings within two days of the elections, and left the scene just after the polls. Then the hasty and imprudent reports were used out of context by the Chadian authorities to serve their own ends (pp.221-24). For those who knew their world in Mali, the new democracy was a process of the democratization of access to the financial resources either of the state or of foreign aid (pp.245-46). The role of observers in this instance appears as without any real influence on the democratization process in the country (p.250). Here as elsewhere in Africa, the very legitimacy of election observation is at risk Lange notes: Is not a kind of consensus being constructed between African leaders and Western leaders, ready to accommodate regular and free elections which they have no real political stakes, lack financial transparency on party finances and electoral campaigns, and which also are increasingly held in the absence of the voters (p.251)?
The policy and practice of international election observation faces tremendous problems stemming from the mandate and the role of foreign election observers as well as the organization and execution of election observation. One problem for the observers is acting as arbiters whose values and standards may differ from those held in the country they are stationed in. The other related point is the issue of sovereignty and involvement in the political process. The masses who protested against bad governance in the early 1990s are now facing even more difficult times, since what they obtained is multiparty politics, rather than democracy, participation, accountability, and representation. As a matter of policy what can individual countries that contribute election observers do to combat this substantive failure? At the moment, it seems that very little can be done. For example, the Dutch government, admits its limitations by stating that while its policies have moved out of the infant phase, they still suffer from some childhood diseases (p.291).
The final chapter of the book is an epilogue that revisits Kenyas 1997 election, which was purported to be the test case of the new model of international election observation. In the May-June 1997 election, a group of 24 Western donors (known as Donors for Development and Democracy) met and formed an Election Observation Center. Despite the Centers presence, the ruling KANU returned the incumbent president back to office. It matters little if the model was applied elsewhere, since the same familiar outcomes remain. The problem of the short-term nature of observation led to the recommendation that resident diplomats conduct long-term observation. Chances are however, that resident diplomats would become passive in the face of the human rights violations by the governments in power, or even worse, supportive of the regimes.
In sum, one would conclude that due to the imperfect packaging and delivery, multiparty democracy is becoming increasingly unsaleable. The level of apathy is powerful enough to question the motives behind a very restricted aspect of democracy, multiparty election and its observation. Undermined are the cultural and economic, historical, and political underpinnings of a particular slant of the global project coming from a single direction.
The book under review provides readers with ample opportunity to examine the most recent experiment on Africa, its limitations, and prospects. It is rich in offering critical appraisal so wantingly missing in democratization and elections observation literature in Africa. However, it still leaves the readers desirous of alternatives other than multiparty politics, save a single chapter on Uganda, whose recent referendum resulted in a win for a no-party system. Additionally, the work would have benefited much had African scholars had an opportunity to voice their own perspectives in the volume. It seems that the book was written by western Africanists for Africanist discourse and policymaking rather than providing a forum for a multidirectional flow of ideas.
The book is a rich source for critical appraisal of election observation in Africa. It is important to state however, that Africans need to be involved in these processes. Furthermore, although election observation was widely conducted in the 1990s, it bore inconsequential results far too frequently. The only consolation is that things might have been worse had there been no observers at all.
 Bayart presented a unique perspective of this. See Bayart, Jean-François. The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. London and New York: Longman, 1993.
 Hyden, Goran. "The Anomaly of the African Peasantry." Development and Change 17 (1986): 677-705.
 Mamdani, Mahmood. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
 See Seyoum Hameso. Development, State and Society: Theories and Practice in Africa (forthcoming).
 Gurr, Ted R. Why Men Rebel? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
 Shaw, Timothy. "Ethnicity as the Resilient Paradigm for Africa: From the 1960s to the 1980s." Development and Change 17 (1986): 587-605.
 Hameso, Seyhoum. Ethnicity and Nationalism in Africa. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 1997.
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