Lest We Forget


Temesgen L. (temssgenalemu@yahoo.co.uk)


As one of latest developments in the overall electoral activities, last month saw the Ethiopian government having extended invitations to a number of major international institutions to send their respective election monitoring missions. The African Union and the European Union Commission responded by sending envoys to get a foretaste of the electoral goings-on.


Meanwhile, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced it was preparing a code of conduct for foreign election observers. This writing is just to show why codifying the rules of engagement for foreign observers’ missions would help Ethiopia’s ongoing democracy system building.


Come election time there are a plethora of issues that every democratizing country finds itself to grapple with. Some of these arise from an assumed or actual need to give the outside world an opportunity by which to follow through the electoral processes and thereby to follow the international community to get a general picture of the state of affairs in any specific country holding periodic elections to date. Allowing in international election monitoring missions to get first-hand experiences of any given electoral event has been the most common practice. Whatever the case, it’s of convention and of self-initiative – not, contrary to popular perception, of an international law agreed upon by nations as something of an obligation – that compel individual nations to invite international reps to observe and report on any given electoral event. There should be no qualms concerning such a practice. As a way of encouraging openness, transparency and fair play it should be looked at positively. It should be embraced by democracies across the globe. No democratizing country of its true salt fail to accept, at least in principle, the positive aspects embedded in such global electoral custom.


If only there have been uniform standards and ethical codes required of each and every observer mission of international stature to strictly adhere to, comply with. Unfortunately, though, much of the relevant history of post independence Africa does not recognize internationally sponsored election observance as a boon for the continent’s democratization. There are some cases where national electoral events have been disturbed in the continent due to undue external interferences.

Moreover, foreign observer groups come in all sizes and shapes. The problem is when two observer missions give findings that not only differ in approach but stand in substantive contradiction.


The case of Ethiopia


During the 2005 parliamentary election in Ethiopia several foreign observer groups were invited. Accordingly, the AU, EU and the Carter Center were among the institutions that had assigned their respective election observers’ missions. All of these foreign observers’ missions had been allowed to conduct their assigned tasks freely. None of these had anything to complain about concerning access to all relevant institutions, political actors including party officials and even candidates, voters or other stakeholders. Also on the voting day, they had carried out their task with their personnel covering as many polling sites as they could throughout the country.


When it came to reporting their findings, all but the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM) had been of the same voice and that turned out to be categorical acclamation to the state (FDRE) for having managed to conduct what they appraised was basically free, fair, transparent and democratic election. This does not mean their respective reports hadn’t pointed to some cases of hitches and hiccups. But these were shown to be isolated cases, which could by no means lead one to make allegations overshadowing the whole process, democratic practice that had stood out beyond and above what popped up here and there, now and then, by way of minor irregularities. In fact any foreign observer of his/her true salt shouldn’t have overruled possibilities – or rather expectations – those problems might surface during electoral processes. While the conduct of multi-party election in any country anywhere on the planet earth cannot be entirely foul-proof, such minor irregularities should even be expected as a thing of inevitability. The more the inevitability when it comes to electoral processes and voting procedures in young democracies.


Unfortunately, EU-EOM did not seem to have taken such a principle born of common sense very much to heart. It had become the only party amongst a battery of counterpart missions to have taken the radical stand of casting doubt on the credibility of one of the most open electoral contest in the history of democratic elections in Africa.


The negative report then by the EU’s electoral observation mission was to be refuted through an inquiry that implicated particularly the head of the observer group in what could be described as a foolhardy act of partisanship. She was reported to have categorically sided with the then CUD party, many of whose leadership were later tried and convicted of the street violence of the post election days. To cut a long story short, that inquiry’s finding should at least serve as reminder of how fairness ought to be as much a guiding principle for anyone charged with the task of election monitoring as for any country holding periodic election as a chosen means of ensuring that political power emanates from nowhere else but the ballot box. That inquiry showed how an individual entrusted with the lofty responsibility of being at the head of an election monitoring mission of such a hugely significant establishment as the EU, but how, failing to stick to one of the most commonly cherished article of ethics, led a whole nation to question the credibility of that establishment for its purported claim of support to democracy and good governance in the world.


To make matters even worse, some Europe-based media organizations aired snappy reports based solely on that biased finding issued by the head of EU’s electoral monitoring group. Coupled with clamors by the then CUD and its Diaspora stooges that finding fed incessant, orchestrated propaganda operation and smear campaign aimed at providing some sort of a political context by which to justify what then was looming into a color revolution. Though short-lived, that threat left a bad mark, a sad precedent, in Ethiopia’s democratization. Another equally sad implication of EU’s election observer group was a threat to disrupt or at least weaken the multifarious partnership between EU and individual member states had had with Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government did superbly in normalizing relations with the EU.


Ethiopians should take stock of that experience and stand in unison to guard against any covert or overt moves that, left to work its way through, may grow sinister threatening to disrupt the smooth conduct of the upcoming election. Remember, five years down the road and with only two months to count down before the 4th-round of general parliamentary election, that controversy and its undesirable aftereffect are still fresh in the minds of most Ethiopians.


In this regard, a code of conduct governing the operations of foreign observers should be looked at as an essential instrument to vend off any subjectivity or preconceived judgment that may come in the way of accurate descriptions of the reality on the ground. We should, therefore, hope to see this draft passed into law sooner than later.


If the code of conduct governing contending political parties pays of – I think it does in more ways than one since its enforcement a couple of months ago – there can be no reason why this should fail.


Thumbs up for NEBE for having conceived the idea!