White sandy beaches, glamorous resorts, history and beautiful architecture. These are some of the things that come to mind when we think of the exotic island of Zanzibar. But for the Africa Liberal Network (ALN), Zanzibar was – and is – much more than that.
For the ALN, Zanzibar was the destination for our first-ever election observation mission. Following the unanimous decision taken by the network’s executive committee, the ALN Secretariat arranged and coordinated this mission in partnership with the LibDem International Office and the Friederich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). The mission was led by our East Africa Vice President, Rosemary Kariuki (Orange Democratic Movement, Kenya).
Arriving in Zanzibar, the team and I quickly realised that we were truly the ‘’guinea pigs’’ of this new ALN project, and what an exciting challenge it was!
All across the island, the excitement of voters was palpable. We had the impression that Zanzibarians are always ready to engage in their support of their political party. The urgency to get out the vote came from ordinary citizens themselves.
Gearing up to Election Day, our observation team had the opportunity to talk to locals, the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC), representatives of political parties, the police authorities on the island and other important figures.
The Observation team (from left to right): Rosemary Kariuki (ALN VP, East Africa), Hubertus von-Welck (Director, FNF), Stevens Mokgalapa (ALN VP Southern Africa), Roy Jankielsohn (MPL, South Africa), Luke Akal (ALN Coordinator).
We all quickly learned that declaring any election as entirely “free and fair” is not a simple task. There will always be a number of issues and challenges. Having said that, we did believe that preparation was sufficient and that Zanzibarians would be able to head to the polls in peace and make their mark. With that in mind, we trusted that a legitimate outcome could be realised after counting the votes.
The enthusiasm of Zanzibarians was undoubtedly refreshing. The sincere interest in the island and its future reflected a real belief that democratic practices and process would offer Zanzibarians a chance to shape their own future. They really seemed to believe that the island’s destiny lay in the decisions each voter would make at the polls. For us, as African liberals, this was tremendously encouraging.
The incumbent president of the island, Dr Ali Mohamed Shein of the CCM (Party of the Revolution) faced extremely stiff competition from the first vice president, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad of the Civic United Front (CUF – an ALN member and liberal party). CCM and CUF billboards, posters, stickers, clothing and other party branded items dotted and decorated the island. It was a matter of either loyalty to the ruling party or a time for change on the island.
As official observers, we had the opportunity to view polling stations prior to Election Day. An interesting feature was the voters roll. Each station had printed lists of the voters registered to vote at the station in question. The lists were placed on large cardboard cut-outs outside the station and included not only the voters’ names and identification numbers, but also photographs. Voters were eager to visit the stations well in advance, find their names and details, and make sure they were ready to vote.
In spite of this advanced approach by the Zanzibar Electoral Commission, no official staff were available at the stations to assist voters with their queries. As far as voter education material was concerned, little-to-none was available at the polling stations.
Come Election Day, the team split into groups and had an early start. We ensured that we covered a wide area that included suggested “hotspots” of contention, rural areas, as well as the more developed parts of the island such as Stone Town. Long rows began to develop outside the stations, especially closer to the business and densely populated areas of the island.
Interestingly, the rows were split into two: one male and the other female. Because of the demographics of the island, this led to much longer female rows. Perhaps even more interesting to note was that this sort of segregation was not directly enforced; it was as though the separation of rows happened organically or out of habit.
Following our return home, we eagerly awaited results from the island. To our shock and surprise, the commissioner of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission announced a nullification of the Zanzibar elections, citing major issues and irregularities. This was in spite of the Zanzibar Electoral Commission’s previous confidence in all the processes and procedures in place. Some have suggested that it this nullification is politically motivated, as the leader of the liberal opposition announced himself as the winner of the elections.
The observer team have followed up our mission with a comprehensive report. This is available to view and download at the ALN website.
We have learned a number of lessons from our mission. But perhaps the one that stands out the most is this: Africans are motivated and eager to be involved in democracy. Africa still has hope for democracy, and its people believe in a future which they can shape for themselves and their children.
Liberals across the continent must continue to promote these ideals and encourage Africans to see a future of opportunity for all. Liberal solutions exist for Africa and can shape the continent of our dreams.
* Luke Akal is Coordinator of the Africa Liberal Network