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The African Union called on Congo to suspend its election’s results. That’s unprecedented.

- January 21, 2019

After a contentious race, on Jan. 10, 2019, Democratic Republic of Congo’s electoral commission pronounced Felix Tshisekedi the winner of the country’s Dec. 30 presidential elections. But polling data and parallel vote tabulations suggest it was“highly implausible” that Tshisekedi actually won, and the true winner was Martin Fayulu, who appealed the result.

In an unprecedented response, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), headed by Zambian President Edgar Lungu, called for a recount last week and proposed that the DRC consider forming a national unity government. SADC is known for not publicly intervening in member state electoral affairs.

In the week since then, the African Union convened a high-level meeting among heads of state or their representatives from several African regional organizations, including SADC; the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR); the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS); the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); the East African Community; the African members of the United Nations Security Council (Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, and South Africa); and the AU troika. After this meeting at the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, AU representatives called on the Congolese electoral commission to suspend its pronouncements of the results, and dispatched a delegation to Kinshasa to work with Congolese stakeholders on finding a solution to the country’s post-electoral crisis.

The AU has a long history of monitoring elections, but this decision is historic

The AU has been monitoring elections on the continent since 1989. AU monitors are tasked with gathering information and making informed judgments on elections. This involves meeting with political stakeholders, collecting data on the electoral process and highlighting areas of concern that may have undermined the election’s credibility.

AU monitors are mandated to intervene if “relevant laws or standard procedures are being violated or ignored.” Deployed three months before an election, the AU’s pre-election assessment team determines the size and length of monitoring missions. Missions are either short-term, lasting 10 to 14 days, or long-term, lasting three months.

AU election monitors observed 423 elections between 1989 and 2013, which is the last time the AU made an official count. Despite this long history, on various occasions, critics from national civil society organizations, think tanks, and academics have lamented the AU’s inaction during critical elections.

Consider, for example, AU observers’ failure to criticize Kenya’s 2017 and Cameroon’s 2018 elections.

In Kenya, the AU, along with several other international observer missions, did not challenge the process — even though political stakeholders raised a number of concerns. Those included claims that the election results had been hacked and manipulated in favor of the incumbent because of noted irregularities in the electronic transmission of paper results forms. Because of these irregularities, Kenya’s Supreme Court canceled the presidential election results and ruled that the nation must hold another presidential poll.

In Cameroon, government forces had been attacking and arresting Anglophone protesters for months before the election. Opposition candidates raised concerns about voter intimidation, violence and ballot-stuffing during the polling process. Yet Kwesi Ahoomey-Zunu, the head of the AU observer mission, stated “We can agree that it went well and we are satisfied. … I do not have an exact evaluation of how things unfolded. … In spite of that I think my appraisal is positive.” AU commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat issued a statement urging “all political stakeholders to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from any statement or action that could heighten tensions.” This was the extent of the AU’s involvement.

The AU is not the only African organization involved in monitoring elections in Africa

One key organization observing the DRC elections is the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (known as CENCO), led by the DRC’s Catholic Church, a highly trusted institution in Congo. CENCO deployed 1,026 short-term and 40,000 long-term observers to over 75,000 polling stations across the country. CENCO’s unofficial tallies did not match the electoral commission’s official results. Most observers consider that serious evidence that Tshisekedi may not be the winner.

In addition to SADC, other regional organizations that regularly send election observation missions to elections across the continent, depending on the country’s membership, include the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the East African Community (EAC), the International Conference on the Great Lakes Regions (ICGLR) and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy (EISA).

Westerners often imagine that observers for African elections are from Western industrialized nations. But not all African elections have Western observers. Unlike most Western observers, regional and domestic observers often have regional and cultural expertise — for instance, fluency in the language and trusted identities — giving them a different perspective in monitoring African elections.

Will the DRC heed the AU’s call?

Both AU and SADC reactions to the DRC election are historic, suggesting a shift among African organizations. During the 2017 Kenyan elections, the head of the AU election observation mission, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, emphasized that AU observers should be actively involved in helping elections run freely and fairly. That appears to be what is happening now, as an AU delegation was originally scheduled to fly into DRC’s capital city, Kinshasa, to help resolve the election. However, as of Jan. 20, AU spokesperson Ebba Kalondo announced that the trip had “been postponed. Not canceled.” That contributed to the continued uncertainty about these elections.

Tshisekedi’s inauguration is scheduled for Tuesday. That will most likely go ahead; the Congolese government has rejected the AU’s call to suspend the election’s results. But by getting involved nevertheless, the AU and SADC are challenging the perception by civil society organizations and citizens of their member states that they are merely “toothless bulldogs.” In small steps, they are redefining election observation by African actors on the continent.

Anna Kapambwe Mwaba (@annakapambwe) is a lecturer in government at Smith College. Her research focuses on the role of African international and regional organizations in election observation and democracy promotion in Southern Africa.