Tuesday 25 June 2013

Reflections on the Information Dissemination and Reporting Roles of Election Observers in Nigeria

By  Chinedu Yves Nwaguª

I.        Introduction
Election observation has emerged as “one of the most tangible and significant dimensions of democratic development around the globe”.[1] Increasingly, national election management bodies in Africa are also beginning to embrace the role of election observers in the electoral process as partners for ensuring free, fair and credible elections. Election observer groups contribute to the integrity of the electoral process in several ways. They help mitigate conflict around elections by providing independent assessments of the process, encourage civic participation in elections, and also ensure the transparency of the electoral process. These roles are underscored in the Guidelines for African Union Electoral Observation and Monitoring Missions (AU Observer Guidelines) and the Independent National Electoral Commission Guidelines for Election Observation (INEC Observer Guidelines).

This piece reflects on two cardinal roles of election observers. First, is the role to observe elections, collate facts, analyze them and disseminate information to a broad spectrum of end-users. How they perform this function impacts significantly on the perception and ultimate credibility accorded to the electoral process. Objectivity, independence and impartiality remain guiding principles here. The second function relates to their role to share reports on their activities and findings, and how this facilitates improvements in the functions of the election management body by highlighting challenges and pointing the way forward in strengthening the election process.

II.     Defining Terms
Some ambiguity has often shrouded the meaning of certain electoral terms and the responsibilities inherent in those roles. Of particular interest here are the terms election observers and monitors. Observer groups tend to use them interchangeably, without giving attention to the specific connotation of each term. The AU Observer Guidelines posits that election observation “involves gathering information and making an informed judgement”, whereas monitoring “involves the authority to observe an election process and to intervene in that process if relevant laws or standard procedures are being violated or ignored.”

The INEC Observer Guidelines provide a more elaborate definition of these terms. It posits that election observation is:

the process whereby elections in a particular country or locality are observed against set standards by an independent and impartial body of observers with the aim of identifying whether the elections conform to accepted guarantees of democratic participation, identifying flaws and challenges, and also making recommendations on how the process can be improved in the future.

The INEC Observer Guidelines further describes an election monitor as “an integral part of election management structure and has a role in the administration of the election.” In Nigeria, this role is exclusively reserved for INEC and its duly authorized personnel. The INEC Observer Guidelines recognizes both local and international observers and describes an observer as a “person sponsored by an organisation and accredited by INEC to observe elections within guidelines established by INEC.”

III.   Information Dissemination
Election observation allows groups to gather first hand information of the process, events and developments throughout the electoral process. The AU Observer Guidelines provides that “election assessment involves on-spot, preliminary evaluation of the conditions within which elections will take place.” Observer groups play key roles in information dissemination during elections. These roles differ slightly depending on the phase of the electoral process. We shall examine them in three phases – before, during and post elections. The peculiarities of each phase inform the methodology employed.

Before Election: This is when election observer groups conduct research, studies, analysis and assessments to provide background materials and information on the dynamics of the election. Every election has peculiarities that define it. Observer groups have a responsibility to also educate and enlighten the populace. They can help people sieve through the many layers of issues around the elections and identify what really matters. They can also keep the people informed about developments, changes in the legal/political framework and foster civic engagement through television discussions, radio messages, newspaper adverts and other social media platforms such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. They also produce materials such as policy briefs, security threat assessments and other advocacy materials targeted at more specific institutions and groups such as INEC, Police, Political parties and international partners. An example here is the Pre-Election Security Threat Assessment produced by CLEEN Foundation.[2]

During Elections: This is when observer groups perform their most critical function - to observe the elections and report on events as they happen. In previous years, this later element of immediate reporting was missing. However, with the availability of mobile smart phones, sms packages and various social media platforms, it is possible and indeed imperative to provide real time articulation of issues, report of incidents and management of developments in the field. Since the April 2011 elections, this form of reporting has been used in interfacing with the Civil Society Election Situation room, INEC Situation room and the Police and has contributed in providing real time response to issues as it happens.

However, the possibility of abusing this should not be overlooked. In some elections, varied degrees of falsehood and speculative messages were disseminated, especially through social media. Some people have suggested that we gag social media so it does not undermine the electoral process. We do not support censorship of the various social media platforms, rather we encourage INEC and the Police to engage social media by maintaining a presence on social media during elections and ensuring that it serves as the platform for verifying and disseminating information. It can achieve this through active collaboration with observer groups in the field during elections and with Information Technology savvy groups such as Enough is Enough, Nigeria (EiE).

In reporting incidents during elections, observer groups should ensure that they avoid inflammatory, biased and speculative reports or statements. Every incident report must be verified before it is published. Specific details as to the incident, location and actors are very important. Observers should not just say, for instance, that a local government is burning. If there are real issues anywhere, they should get the correct polling unit number, ward and local government area. This helps the relevant agency to identify and locate the place as quickly as possible and address the challenge.

They also have a responsibility not to prejudge the outcome of the election or make partisan and sweeping statements that undermine the integrity of the process. This is significant because observer groups play crucial roles in managing tensions during elections and should not take positions that might inform or inflame conflict.

Post Election: This is the feedback stage on the progress and challenges of the process. Civil society groups often prepare reports on the findings of their observers. They also address press conferences. However, it is also significant to organize forums where INEC, the Police and observer groups can review the electoral process. This helps to identify mistakes made and lessons learnt. It also serves to highlight what worked, what didn’t, what should be corrected and what should be strengthened. Strategies going forward can also be developed at this stage.

IV.   Reporting
Strictly speaking, observer groups have a responsibility to report to their various networks and organisations (and donors) but not necessarily to INEC. However, it is expedient to share observation reports with INEC, at least as a feedback on the election, in acknowledgement of INEC accrediting them for the exercise and especially to provide suggestions on what can be done better to improve the administration of elections in Nigeria. In providing this report, five key points are noteworthy here.

First, the background and context within which the election was held is significant and should be reflected in the report. Second, observer groups should explain their methodology; what they did, with whom, why, how. Action pictures can be useful here. It is also important to include a sentence or two about their organisation.

Third, reports should always have a clear objective, either to inform, correct or criticize. In preparing the report, observer groups should also always bear in mind their target audience/institution and the language of the report should reflect this. Fourth, content is important. The use of clear, unambiguous words is encouraged. Generalizations are should be avoided. The report should stick to the facts and not venture into hearsay. Verify everything. Any analysis provided should be objective. It is also good to mention the challenges faced while observing the election. This tempers the report so it does not read like the thesis of an omniscient body - the all seeing eye of elections.

Fifth, an election observation report is only half done without recommendations. As noted earlier, the INEC Observer Guidelines’ definition of election observation includes “making recommendations on how the process can be improved in the future”. The recommendations should be specific and forward looking. They should address specific institutions and propose solutions to identified issues.

By performing these roles, election observers provide significant support towards improving the administration of elections in Nigeria. They also help to build confidence in our democratic experiment by ensuring that the people vote, their votes are counted, and their votes count!

ª Program Manager, CLEEN Foundation, Abuja. chinedu.nwagu@cleen.org. This article is based on a presentation made at a meeting of the Nigeria Civil Society Election Situation Room on Domestic Election Observation in Nigeria: Taking Stock and Planning for Future Elections on 30 January 2013, in Abuja, Nigeria.
[1] Declaration Of Global Principles For Non-Partisan Election Observation And Monitoring By Citizen Organizations And Code Of Conduct For Non-Partisan Citizen Election Observers And Monitors Commemorated April 3, 2012, At The United Nations, New York, Initiated By The Global Network Of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM), 1

[2] Available at http://cleenfoundation.blogspot.com/2012/07/edo-state-election-security-threat.html



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