They Came, They Observed

By Mudiaga Ofuoku

NewsWatch, Nigeria
June, 1999

When observer groups first surfaced on the Nigerian electoral scene to witness the presidential election of June 12, 1993, Nigerians considered the idea an entirely novel one. Today it has grown to become an accepted feature of the country's electoral process, with local observer groups also taking part in it.

Voters line up to cast ballots in
Enugu, Nigeria, February 1999

About 12,000 accredited election monitors assessed the February 27, 1999 presidential election between Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general and former head of state, and Olu Falae, former finance minister in the Ibrahim Babangida military regime. Of this vast number about 2,000 were foreign observers drawn from different organisations. They came to witness the election at the invitation of General Abdulsalami Abubakar, head of state and Ephraim Akpata, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC.

The European Union, EU, sent 100 observers and the Commonwealth sent a 23-member delegation called the Commonwealth Observer Group, COG.

The Carter Center in collaboration with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, NDI, based in Washington, D.C., and the Human Rights Watch as well as observer groups equally from Canada, Norway, Japan and some African countries were here too.

Delegation leaders former US
President Jimmy Carter,
former President of Niger
Ousmane and Chris Fomunyoh
at a press conference in Abuja,

The Carter Center was led by former President Jimmy Carter of the United States. In Carter's entourage were Mahanane Ousmane, former Niger president, and Colin Powell, former chairman of the U.S joint chiefs of staff. Leading the NDI was Chris Fomunyoh. The 23-member COG was led by Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana. The 100-member European Union Observer Mission, EUOM, was led by Hans-Gunter Sulimma, former German ambassador to Canada. The International Republican Institute, IRI, another US-based group, was led by Ed Royce.

The over 10,000 domestic observers came from different non-governmental organisations, NGOs.

The Transition Monitoring Group, TMG, and the Abuja NGO Coalition for Democracy and Good Governance contributed a vast majority of the members. Each of these NGOs is a coalition of over 50 other NGOs and human rights organisations.

The number of observers that witnessed the 1999 presidential election far outstripped that which monitored the one of 1993. About 3,000 observers assessed the one of six years ago. Of this number, 135 of them were foreign. Britain contributed 24 observers, the largest. The British team, which had four parliamentarians in it, was led by the then British mhigh commissioner in Nigeria. But unlike the 12,000 foreign and local monitors who were accredited by INEC in the recent election, the 3,000 monitors in the ill-fated 1993 presidential election were accredited by the Centre for Democratic Studies, CDS, then headed by Omo Omoruyi. Omoruyi said then that the observers were invited to give credibility to the elections.

The same reason probably informed the decision by INEC and Abubakar to invite this year's observers. At a meeting in early February, of the INEC and the TMG, Akpata said his commission believed in election observation and monitoring. Akpata, who was represented by Steve Osemeke, INEC's director of public affairs, said the reports submitted by the observers who monitored the local government, states' houses of assembly and governorship elections had been very useful, to the commission in appraising its strategies for future elections.

Clement Nwankwo, the TMG director, said his group was involved in election monitoring in order to contribute meaningfully to the conduct of a credible and acceptable election in Nigeria.

There are reasons why the foreign bodies sent a large retinue to the elections. The western countries attach so much importance to democracy. They are eager to see Nigeria fully back in the democratic club.

Said Chris Fomunyoh, regional director for East, Central, and West Africa at the NDI: "This (presidential) election has great meaning for the rest of Africa. If democracy can be peacefully rooted in this powerhouse of a nation (it could create) the democratic tide that raises other nations in Africa as well."

Less than two weeks to the presidential elections Powell, had said that "this election is a critical step in the transition to civilian rule. We are hopeful that Nigerians will have confidence in the process and that they will turn out to vote in large numbers on election day."

Addressing a tripartite meeting of the COG, INEC and the police two weeks ago in Abuja, Masire, leader of COG, said the successful conduct of the election would pave way for Nigeria's re-admission into the Commonwealth. Nigeria is a very important member of the organisation.

The method applied by both local and foreign observers during the presidential election was no different from that employed during the preceding elections, especially the election to the national assembly. It was a painstaking job indeed. For example, the 100 observers from the EU operated in teams of two. They were deployed in the 36 states of the federation and in the federal capital territory. The teams observed the erection of polling stations, the accreditation of registered voters, the poll and the count at polling station level. The teams then proceeded to monitor the collation of the results at ward and local government area centres.

In all the 100 observers visited over 900 polling stations and witnessed collation of results at 200 centres. The COG also observed the process from start to completion, using its own method. Its members travelled to many parts of the country before, during and after polling. The Carter Center-NDI observers did the same thing in 24 states and reconvened in Abuja to discuss their findings after which they issue a preliminary report of their observation.

Both the foreign and local observers were unanimous in their findings. Although the exercise took place peacefully nationwide there were nevertheless instances of electoral abuse, such as falsification of voters and stuffing of papers into ballot boxes. Addressing a world press conference in Abuja the following day, Sunday 28, Carter said members of his monitoring group witnessed serious irregularities and overt electoral fraud. "It appeared that many of these electoral abuses were a result of collusion between polling officials and party agents and operatives," observed Carter.

In a letter to INEC chairman the following day, Monday, March 1, 1999, Carter said: "Regrettably it is not possible for us to make an accurate judgement about the outcome of the presidential election." But all the other groups including the ones despatched by the Organisation of African Unity, OAU, said the election results reflected the wishes of the Nigerian people.

It was not clear at press time how much it cost the observer teams. The EU said it spent a total of $4 million on the electoral process, both in technical and direct financial form. It said it provided the assistance to both INEC and the Transition Monitoring Group of local Nigerian observers, and its 100 observers. The Carter Center and the NDI also spent undisclosed large amount of money on the exercise, especially by setting up the TMG and opening up offices in Nigeria since last November. The Commonwealth is equally believed to have spent considerable financial resources on the exercise. Masire, who led his 23-member team to the country, February 12, declined to tell Newswatch how much the organisation was spending on the process. In spite of their huge financial, technical and logistical commitments, some critics initially expressed reservations about the neutrality of some foreign members. This led Carter to reassure Nigerians that he had no special interest in any particular candidate. Carter had observed more than 15 elections worldwide. At a recent workshop organised by the EU, Bolaji Akinyemi, former external affairs minister, wondered if Nigeria needed as many as 2,000 foreign monitors. He advised that a maximum of 500 foreign monitors would be enough.

Overall, observers said the idea was perfectly in order. The Daily Times, for instance, lauded the monitors for their roles during the whole exercise. It said: "We believe that the international monitoring groups and their local counterparts have conducted themselves creditably, pointing out errors and making suggestions, which have helped the INEC to improve on its performance."