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confidentially speaking

The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 6th September 2017

Observing the observers

Blue Lines

Some rethinking by election observers and we, the journalists who cover them, is needed in the wake of the 1 September decision of Kenya's Supreme Court to annul last month's presidential election. In a rare example of editorial remorse, the New York Times has conceded that its leader, two days after the results were announced, asserting that observers had 'witnessed no foul play' and accusing Raila Odinga of 'fann[ing] the embers of ethnic strife', was misplaced. Other media outfits are less inclined to self-criticism.

Amid the complexity of a national election in which about 19 million voters marked six ballot papers each, it requires detailed scrutiny to assess its fairness. The key role of digital technology – and its vulnerability to security breaches – in verifying voters, tallying and relaying the results makes accurate judgements still harder.

That can make even intrepid journalists reliant on expert observers. Yet politics can impinge on technical judgements. After the murderous clashes of 2007-2008 in Kenya, some observers adopted a 'peace before justice' position, wanting to dampen down all but the most egregious complaints lest they fuel another political implosion. Now it seems the Supreme Court has taken a different tack, subjecting the electoral commission to the most rigorous legal tests. This comes at a time of creeping, sometime galloping, authoritarianism in Africa and its boldness puts a huge responsibility on the country's politicians.