Elections are a most direct way for citizens to participate in their country’s political processes. But elections are sometimes accompanied by tensions and even violence. In many places around the world, carrying out a credible and inclusive electoral process remains a challenge.
Accompanying electoral processes is an important part of the United Nations good offices role. UN Special Representatives and envoys are often involved in helping to create the conditions for transparent, inclusive and peaceful elections. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who heads the UN Regional Office for West Africa and the Sahel, has recently been shuttling between five countries in the region preparing for elections scheduled between 18 October and the end of December in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger. Politically Speaking talked to Mr. Chambas this week as he started a week-long visit to Burkina Faso ahead of presidential and legislative elections on 22 November.
Elections will be held in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire this month. How is your office – UNOWAS – promoting an environment conducive to inclusive, credible, transparent and peaceful elections in these two countries?
Special Representative Mohamed Ibn Chambas: It is evident that the processes in these two countries have not enjoyed the wide consensus which would have ensured peaceful, credible elections whose results will not be contested.
In Guinea, there was a constitutional referendum, which was hotly contested by the major opposition parties and civil society. A significant part of the political class does not accept the constitution based on which the President is seeking his third term, so that has created an environment where there is contestation regarding, if we can say so, the rules of the game. So, this disagreement around the Constitution has created a difficult situation leading up to the elections. There are also some contentious issues around the voters register, with the opposition alleging that its strongholds were excluded and that the registration of Guinean diaspora was very selective. Other issues, such as whether on polling day each candidate will have a copy of the results sheet at the polling station, which is still an issue that the Electoral Commission has not been able to assure all candidates of, you can see that issues like that can create the grounds for protesting the outcome of the results.
In Côte d’Ivoire, on the other hand, a new constitution, which is the basis for this current election, was adopted more broadly by the political class. Yet, the intention of the president to contest a third term is now raising serious issues, because the opposition says that at the time that the constitution was being adopted, there was an understanding that the incumbent president would not be eligible for a third term. Of course, this is not accepted by the ruling party, which has presented the president as its candidate. There is also disagreement regarding the membership of the commissioners of the Electoral Commission. The opposition is even calling for the dissolution of the Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court, which provided the ruling validating candidates for the presidential election. This is the background around which there’s contention and lack of consensus going into the elections, which is highly likely to lead to a situation where the results will be contested.
Now, in both situations, UNOWAS has sought to build consensus through several prevention missions. Working with Guinean stakeholders, political parties, civil society, women and youth groups over a long period of time leading up to the elections. In Côte d’Ivoire, we are seeing that the opposition is radicalizing as the date of the election approaches. And even in spite of joint ECOWAS-AU-UN missions to both countries and meeting with all stakeholders and calling upon them to ensure that elections are not marred by violence, the prospects are still there that we could see post-election protest, which could lead to violence.
We have been working closely with the UN Country team and the Resident Coordinator’s (RC) Office, mobilizing the entire UN system. We’re working especially closely with our human rights colleagues, because when there’s violence, the first casualties are the innocent civilian population. We’ve seen some election-related violence causing death in both countries, arrests of political opponents, of civil society, in both countries. We have raised these issues with authorities to seek immediate release and to ensure that due process is observed.
How about in the wider region of West Africa and the Sahel?
Burkina Faso and Ghana, two other countries which will be having election between now and December, both have their unique challenges. In the case of Burkina Faso, security is going to be the major issue and of course, ensuring that displaced persons are not disenfranchised, because they are away from their homes. We’ll be holding an all-stakeholders forum here in Burkina Faso, to advocate for holding of peaceful, credible elections, calling on all stakeholders to act with responsibility and take up their obligations with a high sense of awareness that we cannot afford to have a political crisis to add to the security crisis and the COVID-crisis, and the ensuing economic challenges that it poses.
In Ghana, the main challenge has been vigilante groups. We’ve been working very closely with the RC office and other partners to focus on different initiatives, bringing on board youth and women’s groups, other civil society activists, religious and traditional leaders, eminent Ghanaians, to take a firm position against election-related violence, and especially vigilante groups, to make sure that they do not play a spoiler role in the forthcoming elections, reminding all stakeholders of the good example Ghana has provided in the area of elections and electoral governance, and the enviable record that it has. So, every effort needs to be made to ensure that vigilante activities do not mar this rather proud record the country has.
In Niger, also a country that is preparing for elections, we have a very good example set by the president, who is finishing his second term and is not seeking another term in office. There, we have embarked on a number of missions over the past months leading up to the election, meeting all stakeholders, political parties, civil society groups, women and youth, and the electoral management bodies, working with them on creating a peaceful enabling environment for the conduct of credible elections. The opposition has so far refused to take its seats on the CENI, nevertheless it is fully cooperating by preparing itself to participate in the elections. So, we will continue our efforts to engage with opposition parties and urge them to work with the CENI, so that the processes put in place by the CENI for the elections are completely known and understood and accepted for the conduct of the upcoming general election. We will work, again, with other partners in Niger to hold and all-stakeholders forum where we will bring on board all the political and civic actors to engage in voter education and training of trainers.
What has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the preparation of elections in the region?
I must say that the COVID pandemic looms large over the region and has to some extent interfered with their preparations for the elections. I commend the effort of countries in spite of COVID to speed up different operations that have been undertaken, albeit somewhat delayed. Especially the voter registration exercises in most countries had to be put on hold. In Niger, a technical partner of the Electoral Commission for the compilation of a biometric register withdrew, causing some difficulties.
And COVID is not over yet. One of the messages that we have repeated is to ensure that measures are taken to protect voters, e.g. make sure that at polling stations people are able to wash their hands, that they have sanitizing gels and masks. In Benin, at the peak of COVID-19 local elections were held, and the government provided those who came without masks to the polling stations with masks. It is significant that even after holding those elections, we did not see an unusual spike in cases, because these precautionary measures were taken. I recall that before the election, I had a video conference with the Electoral Commission, the President and others, and strongly urged that COVID-19 protocols should be observed. We were assured that all these provisions were being undertaken. So for the forthcoming elections between now and December, we are strongly advocating that the Electoral Commissions should be provided the necessary means to ensure that polling stations are well catered for to ensure that they don’t become centers for the spread of COVID-19, because we’re still not over it yet, it still remains a threat, and it should be taken seriously.
UNOWAS works closely with women’s organization to further peace and security in West Africa and the Sahel. How have women and youth in the region contributed to peaceful elections?
In Côte d’Ivoire, working closely with the ambassadors of the AU and ECOWAS in Côte d’Ivoire, we organized a meeting of women leaders in all the political parties, We wanted to draw a spotlight on the women leaders in the political parties to acknowledge their role and to use that as a platform to urge all of them to advocate for peaceful elections. It was the first time an initiative had been taken to bring them together as women leaders in their respective parties, both government and opposition coalition.
UNOWAS has also set up a network of women in West Africa and the Sahel, and in each of the countries during election time, we have worked with them to play an advocacy role for peace. In Nigeria in 2016, during the presidential election, it was this network that we used, working with the National Peace Committee of Nigeria to organize peace fora in a number of hotspot states in Nigeria at the time. Similarly, in Niger, we had a meeting of women and youth civil society organizations to let them be in the forefront. Through the G5 Sahel Permanent Secretariat, we have been working with the Sahel Women’s Platform, which UNOWAS helped to create. It is a very important platform, which we will work with in Burkina Faso and Niger; two Sahel countries that will be having elections this year.
Now, we have always also advocated for gender parity laws. And so during preparation for elections, and during the process of constitutional reform, we have insisted that gender parity laws need to be passed. And we are happy that we now have them in a number of countries in the region. The task is now to ensure that these are respected, because it’s one thing to have the gender parity laws, and it’s another thing to ensure that they are implemented. So, here, a lot of advocacy is required. You’ll find that during campaigns, there’s a very high level of women and youth participation and yet after elections, you don’t see significant numbers in high positions in the administration and other strategic areas. Women and youth should not only be mobilized during elections, they need to have their place in governance, taking up key positions both in the National Assembly, in the Executive and also in other parts of the administration. During this election period, we will continue to work with the different women’s organizations in the region to ensure that the role of women is appreciated and given the respect that it is due.
From the electoral processes this year, what are some of the lessons learned so far?
This electoral cycle will be quite challenging. I think that at the end, we will need to work with West African think tanks and research organizations to do a review of some of the challenges that we are seeing in the area of electoral governance, and which need to be addressed going forward. There’s still too much tension around elections and a lack of consensus, and unfortunately, still too much violation of human rights and electoral violence. We need to find out what accounts for what some people are already calling a slide backwards in democratic governance in West Africa. Many have seen West Africa as an example, but lately there seem to be a number of issues around constitutional amendments leading to the seeking of third terms, some say an instrumentalization of judicial processes to target political opponents and also, just in general, a slide back in terms of allowing for genuine independence of electoral bodies and an increase in electoral violence in West Africa.
We need to deepen our analysis, to understand the different factors and see how working with ECOWAS and other regional institutions, think tanks and civil society, we can try to address this and make West Africa once again a shining example for consolidation of democratic governance, rule of law on the African continent. We need stability and peace in the region because of the already difficult security situation that the region faces, with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic constraints that the region has had to deal with as a result of these multiple crises. So, we need to have a peaceful environment and that will come when we are able to create non-contentious elections and build more consensus so that the outcomes of elections are accepted by all. Then the countries can move on to deal with the need for fighting to ensure sustainable development for the peoples.
Title picture: A woman casts her ballot in the legislative by-election in Grand Laho, Côte d’Ivoire, February 2012. UN Photo/Hien Macline