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  • International Organizations & DemocracyThe OAU and Elections
  • Larry Garber (bio)

In October 1991, the secretary general of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) dispatched a five-member team to observe the presidential and legislative elections in Zambia. Upon arrival, the team met with resident African diplomats to explain the purposes of its mission. Several of the diplomats responded antagonistically, doubting the propriety of sending an observer mission to a sovereign African country and worrying that the Zambian precedent would require similar monitoring of all future African elections.

The OAU team answered by noting that Zambia's President Kenneth Kaunda, a founding member of the OAU, had invited them. In addition, since other international observers were already present, the OAU believed that an institutional African presence was important. The team also stressed the limited nature of their mandate, which was to demonstrate support for the process by their presence and to report to the secretary general regarding the conduct of the elections. They were not to offer a public assessment of the election process. Finally, the team commented on the dangers of internal conflict and increased refugee flows that failed elections might bring.

The OAU team's chilly reception in Zambia reflects the institutional and political difficulties that confront the OAU as it seeks to maneuver across the new political landscape of Africa. The OAU must decide whether to lend active support to democratic transitions throughout the continent, or to eschew such support for fear of violating the principle of nonintervention. The former option suggests the provision not only of election observers but also of sustained technical and material [End Page 55] assistance to key institutions including governments, election commissions, political parties, parliaments, judicial systems, and nongovernmental organizations.

Since the Zambian elections, the OAU has continued to send observer missions to African elections at the invitation of the governments involved. Compared to missions undertaken by the UN and nongovernmental organizations in African countries, the OAU teams so far have been small, and their political impact limited. At the same time, the OAU has institutionalized some of its political development activities by establishing a conflict-resolution unit and by organizing training programs in election monitoring for OAU personnel.

A notable ambivalence exists within many African countries regarding the international community's role in promoting democracy and respect for human rights. In the 1950s and 1960s, before the OAU's inception, several African countries gained their independence following UN-sponsored referenda or elections. Even after the OAU's formation in 1963 and the adoption of one-party constitutions by many African states, governments in the region often welcomed the efforts of external actors to encourage and sustain multiparty elections as part of the decolonization process.

Most recently, the United Nations supervised the overall process for the 1989 constituent assembly elections in Namibia. The OAU also sent a team to observe the conduct of the elections. The team comprised ambassadors from 18 mostly nondemocratic African countries, who nonetheless sought to monitor the extent to which the elections complied with international standards of fairness and openness.

Outside of the decolonization context, however, a different attitude has prevailed. The OAU charter enshrines the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of member states. Strict application of this precept has precluded OAU criticism of regimes that habitually violate human rights (except in the most extraordinary circumstances), and it has led to chronic weaknesses in OAU mechanisms for monitoring human rights, as detailed in the preceding article by Clement Nwankwo.

Equally significant, the transformation of multiparty political systems into one-party regimes during the 1970s prompted a unique approach to the internationally recognized right of political participation designed to suit the new rulers. Thus the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights—unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments—says nothing about "periodic and genuine elections" as the basis for determining "the will of the people" in choosing their government.

The movement toward multiparty democracy in Africa since 1990, however, has required a reevaluation of attitudes within the OAU. The organization also has been stung by criticism that it has not effectively prevented the many wars or mitigated the severe economic deprivation...


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