From a “Situation Room,” Democracy Spreads in West Africa
By Amanda Fortier
Elections in West Africa can be turbulent events. Instances of fraud, violence, and corruption, coupled with ethnic and political rivalries, can overwhelm efforts at ensuring a free, fair, and transparent electoral process. Compromised elections can tip peace and stability into chaos and conflict. To help ensure elections are as credible as possible, the Election Situation Room (ESR) has emerged as a rapid-response monitoring tool. The Open Society Initiative for West Africa’s first engagement with the ESR was during Nigeria’s 2011 presidential elections, and the tool has since spread.
The ESR is essentially a platform with a wide variety of actors—from members of civil society and government to media and grassroots groups—working to coordinate efforts before and during elections. It provides real-time observations, results, and, crucially, response when fraud or violence comes to light. This latter is, in fact, one of the key aspects that makes the ESR so valuable. It changes and reacts on the fly.
The ESR system may be an interactive tool—such as an online national map—taking SMS or phone input from election monitors at various polling centers around the country. These observers watch for suspicious activity and may provide recommendations to electoral management bodies (EMBs) and other actors, such as security forces.
The use of election monitors who provide direct updates in real time on Election Day helps build critical trust among voters, as well as internal and external observers. This legitimacy can help ensure that final results are deemed free, fair, and transparent—and locally credible.
There are a few key steps to ensure a successful ESR. First, there must be advanced planning, with enough time for partners to thoroughly analyze risks. Times vary, but this process normally takes at least a year. Secondly, a wide range of civic actors—members of civil society, the media, security forces, government officials, NGOs, and youth leaders—must coalesce around the goal of ensuring credible elections. The more interests an ESR has to consider, the richer the debate and ideas, and the greater the level of objectivity over a wide geographic area. This diversity in ESR actors also reinforces the legitimacy of the entire ESR project. Thirdly, the ESR leader must enjoy convening authority for hosting and pushing the entire process forward. And lastly, parties need to ensure a constructive relationship with government structures, political parties, security forces, in some cases religious figures or former politicians, and, of course, the EMBs themselves. This is a tough but compulsory step.
The ESR model has developed considerably since 2011. When the Nigerian model first started, it relied mainly on media and election monitors, relaying reports to civil society organizers who were usually sitting in a physical room inside a hotel. These leaders would then call on election monitors to react. The ESR members worked mainly through the press.
Senegal’s 2012 ESR added another dimension with its online platform. This took information from thousands of monitors on the ground and displayed many types of information on an interactive map. Any citizen could track the level of electoral preparation in voting stations, instances of violence, voting proceedings, questionable activities, and provisional results. Analysis provided immediate and actionable assessment.
This 2012 model has since improved: the 2014 elections in Malawi incorporated an interactive SMS platform. Citizens seeking information on the voting system could directly message in questions or concerns.
As the ESR’s evolution suggests, the tool can suit and adapt to many settings. Over the years, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa has been sharing the model with several other organizations both within and beyond West Africa, including with Open Society partner foundations in Tunisia and Albania. Face-to-face exchanges between staff, partners, and the civil society organizations have been set up to help facilitate and expedite these projects.
Usually an interested nation sends civil society representatives and electoral management bodies to the Open Society Initiative for West Africa in Dakar, Senegal, and then a team with expert partners proceeds to visits that country. During the election period, a team of our staff and ESR expert partners will go on the ground in that country, helping to provide technical assistance and oversight.
The Open Society Initiative for West Africa has produced an ESR guide and documentary film in French and English, and is developing an ESR toolkit with a narrative guide, software, and training modules.
Editor’s Note (November 17, 2014): A longer version of this Voices post was first published on October 20, 2014.