International Election Observation Mission members, including those from IRI/NDI, are arriving in Nigeria for the general election Saturday in a difficult environment.
Although invited by Nigeria’s government there has been at least one unwelcoming statement and no one could deny that this is a hard job simply from the stakes of the election, the instability in some areas, the poverty and underdeveloped infrastructure faced by large portions of the voting population and the simple relative newness of regular competitive elections.
International election observation, which focuses on civil and political rights, is part of international human rights monitoring and must be conducted on the basis of the highest standards for impartiality concerning national political competitors and must be free from any bilateral or multilateral considerations that could conflict with impartiality. It assesses election processes in accordance with international principles for genuine democratic elections and domestic law, while recognizing that it is the people of a country who ultimately determine credibility and legitimacy of an election process.
Quoted is the standard of independence and impartiality to which the USAID-funded NDI/IRI International Election Observation Mission is pledged under the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation (Oct. 2005).
The IRI/NDI Nigeria 2015 Observation Mission was funded directly by the State Department so shifting back to USAID funding this time is one of the positive things that I see as having potential to help preserve independence and maintain clarity between an Assistance Observation and a Diplomatic Observation to the benefit of the process.
See my post “President Trump’s Asst. Sec. of State for Africa candidly explains why election observation and technical assistance have to be ‘fire-walled’ from diplomacy to have integrity” for a current discussion and further links.
The joint IRI/NDI EOM model has positives and negatives in terms of actual and perceived independence. In Nigeria where democracy assistance is confronted by “resource curse” funded problems and lobbyists working “both sides of aisle” in Washington at a unusual level for an “African election”, along with prominent American campaign consultants usually involved, the joint model seems to me to have some important advantages over IRI or NDI doing a nonpartisan mission on its own, in-spite of the tradeoffs (alternatively you could go with the Carter Center as an “outside the beltway” if politically connected choice, or Democracy International as a truly private entity).
IRI in Africa from my now distant view has come quite far from some of the vulnerabilities that we faced in the 2007 Kenya Election Observation–experience is the best “capacity builder” and institutional funding and attention are now much more appropriate to the scope of the job. Some of my old Kenyan friends and colleagues who did such a great job running things on the ground in 2007 have stayed on and climbed the ladder. And we can expect this election in Nigeria to be better than their 2007 election, observed by many involved this year, as well.
Since Nigerian elections are always high profile and “on the map” in Washington there is no danger of overlooking the situation from that front. This Observation is long-planned and expected and well-funded; there have been an ongoing series of pre-election missions with reports on preparations. Likewise these observations have been going on with regularity throughout this century–and we’ve even been through the scenario of an incumbent seeking re-election during the Boko Haram war.
At the same time, you need no expertise to know that national elections are always challenging in Nigeria and that while cumulative progress has been made in some areas there are some particular concerns that have been reported on and discussed by this Observation Mission and others in the donor governments and media.
Thus, there may be hard calls ahead for the Observers, both on concerns they have already highlighted and from unexpected events as the voting, counting and disclosing play out.
American lobbyist and Ellen Johnston Sirleaf advisor Riva Levinson articulated part of the present challenge well in The Hill in Washington over the weekend: “At Risk: Credibility of U.S. democracy promotion in Africa“. Johnston Sirleaf is in Nigeria as lead observer for the ECOWAS intergovernmental Election Observation Mission and was co-lead for the most recent IRI-NDI Mission, “ZIEOM” in Zimbabwe.
UPDATE (Feb 12): Riva Levinson and her firm KRL are “registered foreign agents” in Washington for Retail Express Limited of Lagos, Nigeria. The Foreign Agent Registration Act filing from September 30, 2018 identifies this client as a “limited partnership which supports the goals of the Senate President of Nigeria, Dr. Aubakar Bukola Saraki, to engage international stakeholders in support of free and fair national elections in February, 2019, seek a level playing field for opposition parties, and convey the core tenants of the Senate President’s vision for the future of the country.” (She also currently lobbies for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Liberia and the Ministry of Finance of Ghana.)
Sakari lost the now-opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) nomination to Atiku Abubarka but stayed in PDP, having defected from the All Progressives Congress (APC) of Pres. Buhari in July. The PDP itself hired Ballard Partners as its Washington lobbyists for a year at $1,080,000 two days before Retail Express hired KRL.
Recent former diplomat and Council on Foreign Relations Africa lead Amb. Michelle Gavin had a notably hard-hitting CFR blog post last week headlined: “The Truth About United States Complicity in DRC’s Fraudulent Election” although in the text she just covers the macro level issue of diplomatically blessing an election whose official result was contrary to all available evidence.
We in the U.S. got partially off the hook in the DRC where the incumbent Kabila did not invite U.S.-funded or other international observers beyond the African diplomatic groupings (although I learned from Levinson’s piece that we provided funding for the Catholic Church run ‘Parallel Vote Count’, a fact I totally missed in the news reporting. USAID’s website indicates we were also providing “technical assistance” to the election management body CENI itself (!) which again I missed somehow in the news reports. These facts may have informed Gavin’s view even if the journalists that I read did not take notice.)
Update II (Feb 18): As it turns out, the U.S. not-for-profit IFES continued USAID-funded work with CENI, along with its partner IRI in the Coalition for Electoral Process and Party Strengthening (CEPPS) according to a brief overview on IFES’s website, and continues to work with CENI toward local elections. CENI hired its own Washington lobbying firm in 2018, Avenue Strategies, founded by former DJ Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (he left and set up a separate firm before the CENI contract). In January 2019 after CENI named Felix Tshisekedi as president-elect, Avenue Strategies also signed on to represent Tshisekedi as president-elect and now president.
Presumably, then, under the CEPPS mechanism USAID funded the third partner, NDI, for the work with the Catholic Church Parallel Vote Count. I will contact USAID to confirm the arrangement and see if they are willing to release any contractual details without a formal Freedom of Information Act request.
The Carter Center stood firm in calling out Kabila’s 2011″re-election” as failing to meet international standards. The State Department followed along in declining to bless the election and offering technical assistance to address irregularities back then, unlike the current situation which Levinson and Gavin question (although the diplomatic impetus for remediation at the presidential level in 2011 went away quickly).
See Dr. Carl LeVan’s Homepage “Development for Security” blog for an overview of the Nigeria election contest. Likewise, Amb. John Campbell’s “Nigeria’s Election: What to Know” at CFR.
Here is my piece from The Elephant in the wake of Kenya’s judicially annulled 2017 presidential election: “Free, Fair and Credible? Turning the Spotlight on Election Observers“.