By Paul Ejime
WITH elections increasingly becoming triggers and drivers of political conflicts and instability in West Africa, Okechukwu Ibeanu, a Professor of Political Science and expert on election management and administration has charged Election Management Bodies (EMBs) in the region to prioritise electoral reforms and lessons learnt to improve the quality and outcome of elections.
“EMBs in West Africa should take seriously the implementation of the important lessons offered by PEARL (Post-election Audit, Review and Learning), he said, adding that the “hard-won democracy” in the region should not be taken for granted.
In a Keynote to a Symposium themed: “Institutionalising Lesson-Learning Processes for Improved Electoral Processes,” which preceded the just-concluded 9th Biennial General Assembly of the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC) in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, Ibeanu, a former National Commissioner with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), explained that “the purpose of all these lessons is to improve our elections and democracy through electoral reform.”
“However, we need to rethink how we understand electoral reform,” he told the gathering of members of EMBs, election specialists and representatives of development partners that support elections in Africa.
“Presently, there is too much emphasis on changing the law, bringing in new regulations and altering procedures. But it seems to me that we need to shift emphasis more to democratic reforms. This will call for mechanisms necessary to ensure compliance with the law and empowering citizens more to defend democracy,” he observed.
Four of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are currently under military rule coupled with perennial election-related violence, polarising contestations and disruptive legal disputes raising concerns that democracy is on the decline in the region.
According to the keynote speaker, “There are indeed persistent threats lurking everywhere. These, ironically, include agencies and individuals put in charge of nurturing democracy. As important as election is, it is not sufficient to guarantee democracy. Popular support is always needed and that is not unrelated to the ability of democratic governments to deliver the basic needs of their citizens.”
He said that election managers “have a responsibility to first deliver those governments in the right way. Consequently, constant reforms and improvements through information and experience sharing and peer-learning are needed to save both elections and democracy generally. If we fail to do so, we might lose this epoch of democracy as we did the immediate post-independence one.”
Ibeanu identified ten transformational post-election lessons, which could be leveraged fix future elections and save democracy in the region.
“The first lesson is that there is a persistent trust deficit. We, almost at the drop of a hat talk down on our processes, make unsubstantiated accusations against our EMBs and thereby erode public confidence in the process and outcome of elections. Yet, trust is at the very heart of elections,” he affirmed.
According to him: “electoral process is to politics or democracy what the market is to the economy,” adding: …if the big political players, especially political parties and candidates continue to question the integrity of the EMB, the voters, who use their votes to invest in these candidates and parties, will soon lose confidence in the process and the value of the ballot will decline.”
Ibeanu further noted that the “quality of an election cannot be divorced from the state of infrastructure, structure and culture of the country in which it is conducted.”
Similarly “the quality of rules affects the quality of elections – how and when they are made, their clarity, how they are interpreted and whether they hamstring the EMB,” he said.
“Consequently, for good elections to happen,” he said: “rules must be made in advance and in good time; they must be publicly known, and all individuals and agencies must adhere strictly to them,” also adding that the “quality of elections depends on availing a level playing field for all” as well as “the existence of real, impartial opportunities for redressing grievances.”
“Adequate and timely funding are at the heart of quality elections,” Ibeanu said, noting: “Paradoxically, Africa is poor, but its elections are becoming excessively expensive,” citing the 2017 elections in Liberia which cost about US$38.3 million, or almost 1.8% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that year.
On technology, he explained that “digital technologies generally, and particularly as applied to election management, is a terrain of global power in which Africa is disadvantaged. This is so because Africa is essentially a consumer of digital technologies produced elsewhere. “
Describing election as “a multistakeholder responsibility,” the professor said “what other agencies do or fail to do may be as important in determining the quality of elections as what the EMB does. Indeed, we deceive ourselves if we believe that what the election management body does or fails to do is necessarily the most critical thing in an election.”
He further harped on the “moral responsibility of ruling parties and governments to make the electoral process free and fair for all players,” adding: …if they (ruling parties and governments) decide to muzzle the electoral process, who can really stand in their way? They control funds, security, the media and can buy or extract favourable court judgements.
Therefore, it is an emerging consensus that ruling parties and governments must always recognize this moral burden and consciously act in the right manner,” Ibeanu stressed.
In addition to effective implementation of post-election lessons, he also recommended an annual or biennial ECONEC Colloquium for Knowledge Sharing (ECKS), as a “basis for establishing a resource centre on election management for West Africa under ECONEC.”
He also suggests that an electronic register of needs by EMBs and a separate register of skills available in EMBs in the region should be developed and circulated among ECONEC members to facilitate technical exchanges and support.
A highlight of the Abidjan General Assembly was the election of Mohamed Kenewui Konneh, Chief Electoral Commissioner and Chair of the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) as President of the ECONEC Steering Committee for the next two years.
He replaced Cote d’Ivoire’s Ibrahime Coulibaly-Kuibiert who has served out his two-year term on the ECONEC role.
Other members of the new Steering Committee are the heads of Electoral Commissions of Benin Republic (1st vice President), Cabo Verde (2nd vice President), Burkina Faso (Treasurer) and the Gambia (deputy Treasurer), while Serigne Mamadou Ka, the acting Head the ECOWAS Electoral Assistance Division (EAD), is to serve as Permanent Secretary of the Abuja-based ECONEC Secretariat.
Konneh was 1st vice President on the Coulibaly-Kuibiert-led Steering Committee.
One of his major assignments since assuming the ECSL chair in January 2020, was the conduct of Sierria Leone’s Presidential and legislative elections last July, with Commission declaring sitting President Julius Maada Bio re-elected for a second term.
However, Sierra Leone’s major opposition party has rejected the official results alleging electoral malpractices.
Also, some local and international observer Missions in their separate reports said the electoral process, particularly the results management lacked transparency.
ECONEC was set up in 2008 to foster cooperation as well as knowledge, information and experience sharing among member States and to support ECOWAS in the realisation of its mandate on the promotion of electoral processes with integrity for the consolidation of democracy in the region.
***Ejime is a Global Affairs Analyst and pioneer Senior Advisor, Communications and Advocacy to ECONEC
-Nov. 25, 2023 @ 18:29 GMT |Tags: ECOWAS Okechukwu Ibeanu Paul Ejime