Biden’s Diplomats Should Boycott Discredited African Elections

What is the purpose of international election observer missions? Ever since the first major monitoring team landed in Zimbabwe in 1980, foreign observers have served as independent and impartial witnesses to election processes. In the months before the vote, they monitor voter registration, measure access to the media, and scrutinize the role of the security services. On election day, they detect fraud, deter violence, and later deliver an assessment on whether the process was “free, fair, and credible.” If all goes well, international election observer missions contribute to an election’s legitimacy.

The value of an observer mission, however, is diminished when the outcome is precooked and doomed to be crooked. If an election only rubber-stamps an autocrat’s continued grip on power, why dispatch observers to watch what will neither be free, fair, nor credible? If the Biden administration intends to revitalize its commitment to democracy and human rights in sub-Saharan Africa, it needs to do more than simply talk the talk. It should signal, through its actions, when an election has been irrevocably tainted. It should pointedly refrain from sending observers—consistent with the president’s vow to stand up for democracy, human rights, and human dignity. The opportunity to fulfill this pledge starts with a series of votes in the Republic of the Congo, Chad, and Benin.

If the Deed is Done

Election specialists say that while elections are held almost everywhere, savvy autocrats often ensure that the “contest is rigged from the start.” That is certainly what has happened in the Republic of the Congo, Chad, and Benin. Congo is set to vote on March 21 while Chad and Benin hold elections on April 11. In all three cases, the outcome is preordained. It may seem calm and orderly on election day, but the die was cast months and weeks ahead of the vote.

  • Republic of the Congo. President Denis Sassou Nguesso seized power in 1979 and has been in control for the past 42 years, save a brief period of five years when he stepped down in defeat after Congo’s only free and fair post-independence election. Sassou regained power by trouncing his rivals in a bloody civil war. In February 2021, the government suspended a journalist for “insulting” the president and arrested a human rights activist for “wanting to destabilize the electoral process.” The Catholic church says it has “serious reservations” about the upcoming vote, the main opposition party is boycotting the election, and two of Sassou’s most formidable rivals are in prison. Last election, where Sassou clinched a third term, was so problematic that the U.S. embassy expressed profound disappointment by the “flawed electoral process.”

  • Chad. President Idriss Deby, who ousted his former boss Hissene Habre in 1990, is Chad’s long-serving leader and a key French and U.S. counterterrorism partner. He stacked the electoral commission in his favor, provoking an outcry from the opposition. He ordered his security forces to arrest opposition leader Yaya Dillo in February 2020, resulting in the death of two people. The incident prompted four of the leading opposition candidates to withdraw from the race. Deby shut down the internet from March 2018 until July 2019, and he continues to turn it off periodically to silence his critics. He has postponed legislative elections five times since 2015, although he has pledged to allow them to proceed in October. In its 2020 Freedom in the World Report, Freedom House allotted only 17 out of a possible 100 points for Chad.

  • Benin. President Patrice Talon defeated the preferred successor of his ally-turned-bitter-enemy and former president Boni Yayi in a free, fair, and credible election in 2016. Once ensconced in power, however, Talon sentenced in absentia another rival to 20 years in prison and banned a third from contesting in elections for five years. Last year’s legislative election, in which Talon barred opposition parties and blocked the internet, was so egregious that the U.S. embassy substantially scaled back its observation mission and judged the process to be “neither fully competitive nor inclusive,” adding that it did “not reflect the Benin that we know.” The government has almost completely muzzled the media, circumscribed traditional civil society, and banned labor strikes and demonstrations in some areas. Ahead of the vote, Talon amended the electoral code, increasing candidate fees and requiring the endorsements of at least 16 legislators or mayors, thereby eliminating all potential contenders except the president and two other candidates.

Under these circumstances, there are few benefits to deploying an embassy team to monitor the voting—especially when the risk of inadvertently providing a veneer of legitimacy is high. What is the point when the incumbents are already set to wallop their rivals in an unfair and deeply flawed contest?

The Ambassador Brown Precedent

In 2016, academics Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Justin Willis posed the following question in Foreign Policy: “if the circumstances are simply too uneven to provide genuine competition, and if observers know that they will not be in a position to call out fraud if they see it, then might it be better for international monitors to stay at home?” In the article they took aim at election observers who “pulled their punches” following Uganda’s tainted 2016 election, refusing to say whether the election was free and fair. So it is only fitting that five years later, the United States broke with past precedent and canceled its observation of Uganda’s January 2021 poll. U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Natalie Brown concluded it was not possible for the United States to meaningfully observe the election because the government of Uganda denied more than 75 percent of the U.S. election observer accreditations requested.

Ambassador Brown’s decision established an important precedent, but the Biden administration should go further. If it is certain that an election will lack accountability and transparency, diplomats and international observers should decline to participate in the proceedings. It is an unequivocal indictment of a flawed process, and it spares foreign observers from issuing mealy-mouth statements that obfuscate and minimize election chicanery. They usually open with an anodyne statement, congratulating African publics on “largely peaceful elections.” Last year, for example, U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Donald Wright deployed small election teams to monitor the vote, even though the government had harassed leading candidates, stifled the opposition, muzzled the media, and clamped down on civil society. While Wright noted “serious doubts about the credibility,” he accepted the outcome. Similarly, the U.S. Embassy in Togo congratulated the people of Togo on a peaceful election, burying the lede that the Togolese electoral commission revoked the credential of a U.S.-financed civil society organization. The African Center for Strategic Studies opined that President Faure Gnassingbe’s alleged win of 72 percent of the vote “strained credulity.”

A decision to rescind an observer mission is not an abdication, it is an affirmation that an upcoming election cannot meet the standards set forth in the African Charter on Democracy, Election, and Governance. It narrows the space for regional bodies and pro-government nongovernmental organizations to blithely endorse a poll result and often water down their assessments. It also hampers donors from adopting a “business-as-usual” approach in the post-election period. While it does not necessitate a severing of diplomatic ties, it sets down a marker that bad elections are unworthy of the tacit validation associated with international observation missions.

The New Game Plan

A decision to boycott tarnished elections is a last resort. It should not be taken lightly and without considerable legwork and public messaging. Africans widely support democracy—some 68 percent, according to Afrobarometer—but there are growing concerns about attitudes toward elections. African publics reject dictatorships, one-party states, and military rule in large proportions, and prize accountability. If a foreign government terminates an international observation mission, it should be consistent with sentiments expressed by African citizens.  

In its Interim National Security Strategy Guidance, the Biden administration sees a world “of rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry with China, Russia, and authoritarian states, and a technological revolution.” To meet some of these challenges, it will need to reconfigure how it engages, who it supports, and what it does in the aftermath of a spoiled vote in which foreign observers refrain from participating.

  • Lean in before the election. The diplomatic community, as well as foreign and domestic civil society organizations, should observe and produce detailed reports on the pre-election environment. They should extend their hand to support electoral commissions and other stakeholders to level the playing field and ring the alarm bell when the process goes sideways. The pre-election phase is more important than voting day, and it is the best opportunity to avert a worst-case scenario. Too often, however, this treatment is only afforded to the biggest states, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria. And, when the system is blinking red, election observers tend to stay the course rather than retract their support. During the pre-election period, foreign observers should forcefully call out malfeasance—especially before candidates are selected—then decide: does the election merit further international observation?

  • Back domestic observers during the vote. While foreign observers weigh whether to stay or go, most domestic civil society groups will and should continue to engage. After all, it is their country’s future at stake. The international community—even from afar—should support these organizations. It remains vital, as Ambassador Brown attests, to “benefit from observers’ insights to improve and inform future elections.” Cheeseman argues that the foreign observer missions can “virtual[ly] monitor” electoral activity and support crowd-sourcing to obtain an accurate portrait of the election. This means increasing access to smartphones, end-to-end encryption, and virtual private network (VPN) technology to facilitate these activities. Support for domestic observers, voter education, and independent institutions should continue regardless of whether the outcome is prebaked.

  • Stick to a roadmap after the poll. Following a discredited election, it is incumbent on foreign and domestic election observers to unsparingly identify the election’s shortcoming and develop a step-by-step approach to rehabilitate the country’s election process and restore public confidence. The United States and other foreign partners, however, should do more than just blast a poor election outcome; U.S. policymakers need to remain focused once the immediate post-election period has concluded, communicating long-term priorities, requesting new funding, and pressing the host government, political parties, and other actors to implement proscribed reforms. The quid pro quo should be genuine reforms in return for future election monitoring.

The Republic of the Congo, Chad, and Benin will have deeply problematic elections this year, but boycotting these polls is not abandoning the U.S. commitment to democracy. It is standing up for shared values and a first step to breaking the cycle of bad elections. It is a statement that elections could and should improve in these countries, and a warning to the rest of the region with elections on the horizon—including Ethiopia and Zambia—that stolen elections are undeserving of international observation.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Idayat Hassan is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Africa Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont