Observers under fire for ‘rubber stamping’ Kenya vote

by TimesLive

Observers and some analysts said enthusiastic praise for part of the electoral process was mistaken for endorsement of the whole. Image: STEVE CRISP/REUTERS

NAIROBI – Accused of glossing over flaws in Kenya’s election which later caused the result to be overturned, international observers are under a harsh spotlight ahead of a re-run next month.

The August 8 poll, which saw President Uhuru Kenyatta reelected, was annulled by Kenya’s Supreme Court earlier this month on grounds of “irregularities and illegalities”, notably in the transmission of election results.

The shock decision put foreign observers in a particularly difficult position, accused by Kenya’s opposition and many media outlets of being too quick to declare the elections were “free and fair” in a preference for the status quo over democracy.

But observers themselves — and some analysts — told AFP this characterisation was unfair, saying enthusiastic praise for part of the electoral process was mistaken for endorsement of the whole.

And they point to the media, as well as Kenya’s polarised public and combative opposition, for over-simplifying and misinterpreting their messages.

In a continent where allegations of vote tampering and disputed results have repeatedly undermined the electoral process, monitors can play an important role in bolstering confidence.

The debate has intensified as Kenyatta and his main rival Raila Odinga step up campaigning for the re-run which will take place on October 17.

‘Few ringing endorsements’

The story begins not on polling day but afterwards, on August 10, when a succession of observation mission chiefs held live televised press conferences to present their “preliminary findings” on the voting and its run-up.

Citing the deployment of hundreds of their observers, the missions — among them the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU) and the US-based Carter Center — broadly welcomed the good conduct of the vote itself, which passed off smoothly and peacefully.

And they praised the work of the IEBC election commission while noting that the tallying and transmitting of results was still ongoing — the latter playing a key role in the Supreme Court’s September 1 decision to annul the vote.

Alongside the praise, some listed irregularities, while others condemned the use of public funds for party campaigns or flagged a lack of transparency in the electronic voter system.

“Few of those statements could be read as ringing endorsements of the polls, while most highlighted significant flaws,” said the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank in a report.

Yet, “the impression created, by the statements themselves and by observers’ other pronouncements, was that results were accurate, and it was time to move on.”

Perception is everything

To explain this, analysts pointed to an “overly approving” tone from observers, who by their own admission were seeking to “encourage” the electoral process.

“At that point, what we were worried about was more the possibility for violence,” said Sarah Johnson, an associate director in the Carter Center’s democracy programme.

Nic Cheeseman, professor of African politics at the University of Birmingham, said the legacy of 2007 when over 1,100 people died in post-election violence put observers in a difficult position.

Some international observers — notably the EU — were more critical, but all eyes were on the big names: former US secretary of state John Kerry who headed the Carter Centre mission, and former South African president Thabo Mbeki leading the AU team.

Both skirted over allegations of irregularities before appealing for peace and taking a tone which was “way too positive”, said one Kenyan analyst.

“(Kerry) called the ones who were protesting against the election to go to court or concede defeat, but I think he insisted too much on the second option and, among other things, he talked about his personal experience” of conceding defeat in 2004, he said.

Kerry’s high profile compounded the impact of his words because he was sometimes misconstrued as speaking for the United States rather than for an independent observer mission.

Days later, as the IEBC delayed in its legal obligation to publish tally forms from every polling centre, observation missions became much more critical but in press releases that had “less weight” and failed to grab the attention of their earlier public pronouncements, the analyst said.


Marietje Schaake, a European MP who led the EU observation mission, blamed the “polarised” and partisan nature of Kenyan political discourse: “We get criticism for almost everything we say, from one side or the other.”

Schaake said that many in the media — both Kenyan and international, wilfully or otherwise — ignored the nuances of her preliminary report, preferring a soundbite answer to an impossibly simple question.

“Media are looking for one answer to one question, and that is were the elections free and fair?”

Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, a US organisation promoting free and transparent elections, said that observers in Kenya were seen as putting “a stamp of approval” on flawed elections.

“The bar for what constitutes acceptable elections in Africa has been lowered to such an extent that it is virtually meaningless,” he said. “Now, when observers say ‘peaceful’ everyone hears ‘free, fair and credible’.”

So what then is the point of the observers?

Writing in Le Monde newspaper, Nigerian journalist Seidik Abba criticised the “mercenary” nature of parachute observers, former heads of state and ministers who “get back on their planes the day after the vote.”

The Kenyan example, he wrote, reveals election observation in Africa, “is a masquerade that must simply be abandoned.”

But the ICG sees a role for observers who, “like the media and outside organisations, can play a central role in deterring abuse and in improving the atmosphere in heavily polarised environments”.

That description is apt for Kenya, ahead of another bitterly contested presidential election which will take place in five weeks’ time.


  1. Subject: “Observers under fire for ‘rubber stamping’ Kenya vote”, by TimesLive, Sep 12, 2017

    Commentary, 12 Sept 2017
    Let us be honest and accept OURSELVES the way we became. Let us not pretend.
    If we were expecting theoretical pure democratic process in a civilized world, WE AFRICANS have a long, long, long way to go to understand the reality of the world and, above all, the damage that has been done upon AFRICA by centuries of colonialism, which left us not only NOT knowing ourselves but becoming poor imitators of our colonizers. We are simply ‘hanging and swaying’ in between.

    Please observe the Title of the article: International “Observers … ‘rubber stamping’ Kenya vote”. Those words are TRUE reflection of lingering colonial powers of yesterday and other bystanders in the rest of the WORLD. They are – and have always been — only interested for their own, and only their own, benefit for time immemorial. They are not – never have been — interested in the well being of Africans. NEVER!

    And so, it follows that they pilgrimage to Kenya as “Obesrvers” has NOTHING to do with observing the fairness of the voting system in Kenya. Very far from it! They went to Kenya to make sure their ‘calculated’ candidate would get the necessary image and support to make sure their interest in that part of Africa to go along undisturbed for THEIR own benefit. That has always been their mode of operandi in Africa – for that matter in any other country of interest to them. By the way, let me be fool hardy for a moment: Have you ever seen an African delegation going (for example) to United Kingdom as “OBSERVER” to witness whether or not the election therein was fair and square?!!! I know, I am ridiculous.

    Back to my commentary. A MIRACLE happened in Kenya [in our Africa!!!]. Six AFRICAN Judges [two females and four males] struck the lighting rode of justice and annulled the result of the voting system. The lightening rod was a light beacon to Africans everywhere. But the schemers, as expected, are out to keep Africa as a ‘Dark Continent’ that they have always wanted it to be. They said the election was fare and square! Their indigenous enablers too went along with them, accusing the African judges with inexhaustible slanders, because – to put it bluntly – the candidate too lost his benefit leading to life long ruling and enjoyment. In that regard, it is now history that a 55-year old Kenyan President, with meaningful name, and the son of an extraordinary gallant liberator, condemned the duly appointed Kenyan judges for discharging their responsibilities in favour of democracy! His outbursts reflected his commitment to HIMSELF and — one is forced to suspect — in defense, with outsiders for mutual benefit. In other words, one is again forced to conclude, the interest of the Kenyan people DID NOT matter. In either way, as the African noble adage goes, the Young man with a noble name ‘HAD A BAD DAY’. It is extraordinary telling that the good people of Kenya were NOT aroused to do the image that painted by colonial forces about African characteristics. For that, we are relieved, but in fact reflects the deep characteristic of AFRICA.

    It is hoped that the re-election of Kenya will go smoothly and accurately defining the basic dignity of the African People, as opposed to the century old image formulated by colonizers who made tremendous perception damage to Africans – much worse damaging than the physical duration of century-old-war. In short, the crime perpetrated against Africa and Africans cannot be covered in thousand voluminous of books. It is up to Africans – and only Africans – to recover their dignity and true ancient history. THE END

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