Electoral Diplomacy and Unilateralist Foreign Policy Impositions in International Relations: What Future?

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Mahmood Yakubu
Chairman of INEC, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Electoral diplomacy is essentially about the conduct and management of democratic elections in international relations, which witnessed the rivalry between democracy, as underscored by the West, on the one hand, and the East, which promoted communism and socialism, on the other. Democracy and Communism were often equated to mean freedom versus dictatorship. Consequently, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Western countries began to work on the need to impose democracy as the only system of political governance to be accommodated in their foreign economic relations. This was the main rationale for the 1991 decision of imposing democratisation as a condition for the grant of development aid during the Franco-African Summit held in La Baule, France.

Without doubt, elections had been held in many countries of the world and the host countries had been given various forms of assistance bilaterally and multilaterally. However, such assistance was given, more or less, on voluntary basis. It was at the La Baule Franco-African Summit that the foundation of democratisation fever or the conditionality of democratisation as a requirement for the grant of foreign aid was laid. Assistance giving ceased to be voluntary but subject to conditionalities. This is the genesis of what we have called here electoral diplomacy. Immediately after the La Baule Conference, Member States of the European Community not only agreed with democratisation as a conditionality for development aid, but also began to also insist on it in their foreign economic cooperation programmes, particularly in Africa.

What is noteworthy about the development of electoral diplomacy over the years is the fact of increasing unilateral imposition of national foreign policy interest by the big powers, rather than an imposition of collective interest for the purposes of global peace and security. The specific cases of the United States, France, United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany are noteworthy. We therefore posit here that the current mania of conduct and management of electoral diplomacy has the potential of seriously undermining peace and security, and consequentially economic development at the national level. Explained differently, it has the potential of generating fresh intra-state crises. By so doing, good governance at the level of the international community cannot but be made more difficult.

For the purposes of this hypothesis, some illustrations will be given for further exegesis.: Zimbabwe, to reflect the situation in the African region and the Venezuelan example, to reflect that of Latin America. These cases will enable not only a better understanding of the nature of electoral diplomacy, but also the dynamics of what future it has, particularly for the people of Africa. Let us begin with a cursory look at the nature of electoral diplomacy in international relations.

Understanding Electoral Diplomacy

Electoral diplomacy is an important aspect of a nation’s foreign policy process. It not only largely falls under tactical and preventive foreign policy, it is also largely aimed at protecting the national interest through guided democratisation. Its implementation modalities include adoption of policies of interference and intervention, election monitoring, provision of election logistic assistance, taking sanctionary measures against countries perceived to be non-compliant or non-cooperating, adoption of sets of rules and principles guiding the organisation of elections, and perhaps, more significantly, and choice of diplomacy as a tool. In essence, electoral diplomacy is both a means and also a strategy. It has a national and international dimension.

At the national level, it is operated differently, but essentially, its main focus is to promote democratisation and rule of law without resort to the use of force and without threatening international peace and security, but many powerful countries do not follow this logic. Electoral diplomacy as conducted by the United States is quite interesting as a case study.

US electoral diplomacy is generally predicated on a three-pronged strategy of supporting a free and fair electoral process, prevention and mitigation of electoral violence, and supporting civic and political engagement. In this regard, technical assistance is given to countries, including Nigeria’s election institutions, civil societies, political parties, and monitoring of conflicts and peace building programmes, as well as supporting civil society election observation.

In his testimony of December 13, 2018, given to the United States House of Representatives Sub-Committee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organisations, Mr. Tibor P. Nagy, Jr., Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs, not only titled his submission as ‘Nigeria at a Crossroad: the Upcoming Elections,’ but also underscored the many expectations and concerns of the American people regarding elections in Nigeria. The concerns include fears of potential attacks on the legitimacy of INEC and the electoral process for political gains; intimidation and partisanship by the security forces; terrorism-driven insecurity and particularly terrorist attacks on elections institutions and violence on voters, observers and electoral officials; inability of the Internally Displaced Peoples or persons with disabilities to vote; voter suppression and use of armed group for voter intimidation and non-condemnation of hate-speech or disinformation; and widespread vote rigging that challenge the integrity of the electoral process.

Without any shadow of doubt, there is no fear or concern expressed above that was not manifested during the February 23rd, 2019 presidential and legislative elections in Nigeria. This is in spite of the various US diplomatic engagements on the matter in Nigeria: engagement of youth, especially the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), ‘Get Out the Vote’ Campaigns, Voter Education, as well as training efforts.

It should be recalled here that the INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, was invited to the United States in October 2018 to observe US preparation for mid-term elections. As noted by Mr. Nagy, ‘during this visit, INEC Chairman Yakubu observed early voting in Maryland and met with Congressional staff, US electoral civil society and legal experts, and US government officials’.

The kind invitation to the INEC chairman is commendable, but what really is the lesson learnt from the visit? Is it really that Nigerian public officials cannot organise a free, fair, transparent and credible election? If truth be told, the INEC and incumbent governments in Nigeria may be challenged by problems of logistics, they are not incapable of organising very credible elections. The truth is that they are dishonest and simply do not want to have credible elections. If they want credible elections, they can have them. Enabling credible elections does not allow for ethnic domination by the various political stakeholders. Credible elections cannot but allow for a new glasnost and perestroika à la Nigeriana. Credible elections will put a permanent stop to the militarisation of democracy without which professional politicians cannot survive in Nigeria.

If the Nigerian people, and particularly their government, can be frightened by the constant calls by the US for credible elections in Nigeria, then there is a serious problem. The Buhari administration preaches fairness and free election, but it does not want it to be drummed regularly to the ears of the people. This is a contradiction. It should also not be quickly forgotten that Barrister Festus Keyamo, the spokesperson for the President Muhammadu Buhari Campaign Organisation, noted in one of his statements entitled ‘America’s unguarded Statement on our Election: a call for Caution and Equity,’ that Nigeria was “deeply concerned about many of the expressions of the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Ambassador W. Stuart Symington and other Western diplomats which have been directed towards Nigeria’s upcoming elections. While we laud and whole-heartedly welcome their interests in the elections, many of these expressions have been notably off-key. The continued warnings about “flawed elections” is capable of casting an unwarranted cloud over the process. Instead of encouraging our country toward credible elections, such statements undermine public confidence. It would appear that these envoys seem to have discredited the election before it has even taken place.’

Most unfortunately, too, big power politics aid and abet the various political wrong doings, not only in Nigeria but all over, and by so doing, seriously threatening the future of democracy in international corporate governance. In this regard, Ambassador W. Stuart Symington was reported to have threatened to hold to account anyone who engages in hate speeches.

As Keyamo put it, ‘in condemning other forms of political speech, the American envoy overstepped his ambassadorial brief. For instance, the American ambassador was reported to have condemned a situation where a candidate says that his opponent’s political and economic policies are abhorrent and dangerous to the greater welfare of the people and calls on citizens to hate and reject such policies… [T]his is a correct statement… [b]ut Ambassador Symington says his country would punish such necessary political speeches.’

The essence of the foregoing is that there is no big deal about the constant calls for credible election by the United States ambassador. The calls were simple reminders to people who would consciously opt to forget the need for a transparent and credible election. If the United States also promised to sanction anyone on hate speeches, this is nothing more than a conflict between capacity to sanction and effective resistance to it, that is, capacity to punish at the level of the United States and resistance or application of the rule of reciprocity at the level of Nigeria. This is where the question of imposition of a foreign policy interest also becomes a problem.

Foreign Policy Impositions

Many countries were not happy with Zimbabwe, especially under the rule of President Robert Mugabe. One major reason was the issue of farmland for white Zimbabweans, that is, the policy of Chimurenga. Robert Mugabe made efforts to bring fairness and justice in the matter, by reallocating land, the most fertile of which belong to the white people. The British government, in particular, agreed, under the Lancaster agreement, to pay compensation to the Mugabe government for land concession but later reneged. This partly explained the constant misunderstanding between Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom since 1980. In fact, sanctions were always placed on Zimbabwe.

The sanctions, varying from financial penalties, such as restrictions on financial transactions, visa restriction, ban on transfers of defence item and services, to suspension of non-humanitarian government-to-government assistance, were informed by various reasons: allegations of dictatorship, human rights violations, etc. The United States placed the sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2002 and 2003.

The sanctions did not stop with the election of Emmerson Mnangagwa as President of Zimbabwe. 141 individuals are currently placed under US sanctions, including Robert Mugabe and Mnangagwa. The sanctions placed by Executive Order 13288 of March 6, 2003 on 77 Zimbabweans with effect from 12.01 eastern standard time, were renewed for another one year by the US on Monday, 4th March, 2019. The order, which is by the President of the United States, George W. Bush, is on ‘Blocking Property of Persons Undermining Democratic Processes or Institutions in Zimbabwe.’
As announced by the US president, Donald Trump, ‘the actions and policies of these persons continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.’ One reason given for the renewal of the sanctions is the inability or refusal or delay in making changes to Zimbabwean laws restricting press freedom and prohibiting protests.

What is noteworthy about the renewal of US sanctions is that it is also coming on the heels of that of the European Union. In 2002, EU Common Position 2002/145/CFSP imposed sanctions, including arms embargo, on Zimbabwe allegedly for the increasing violence and intimidation of political opponents and harassment of the independent press. The Common Position of 2002 was replaced in 2004 with EU Council Regulation No.314/2004 and in 2011 by Council Decision 2011/101/CFSP (as amended).

In February 2016, the EU lifted its sanctions against Zimbabwe (78 people and 8 entities). The sanctions, particularly against Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Grace Mugabe, were essentially on asset freeze and travel ban. However, on 19th February, 2019 the United States renewed the sanctions placed on Zimbabwe for one year but removed the names of Happyton Mabhuya Bonyongwe and Augustine Chihuri from the list.

In reaction to these sanctions, the Information Ministry Secretary, Nick Mangwana, said the sanctions are regrettable and that ‘Zimbabwe has no history of aggression against any nation, so the statement that “Zimbabwe poses an extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States” is absurd… The continued unilateral imposition of sanctions against Zimbabwe by the United States is a travesty of justice against Zimbabwean people.’

Without doubt, Nick Mangwana could not have been more correct, the renewal of the sanctions were a resultant of a unilateral imposition to which this column is drawing public attention. It is the same situation with the current crisis in Venezuela which is increasingly threatening global peace and security.

The experience of Venezuela is quite interesting but most unfortunate. It is interesting because there was the time in the 1970s when Venezuela had the highest growth rate and lowest inequality in Latin America. In the words of John Polga-Hecimovich, a political scientist, ‘thanks to an oil bonanza, the government was able to spend more money (in absolute terms) from 1974 to 1979 than in its entire independent history. Indeed, during this time, this Gran Venezuela had the highest per capita GDP in (the) region.’ And perhaps more interestingly, ‘Scotch whiskey consumption was the highest in the world, the middle class drove Cadillacs and Buicks, and the free-spending upper class jetted off on shopping sprees to Miami, where they were known as “dame dos” (give me two). Politically, the country was one of only three democracies in Latin America in 1977, along with Costa Rica and Colombia.’ (vide Origins, Volume 10, Issue 9, June 2017; vide also origins.osu.edu).

Today, the story is different in the face of politico-economic and humanitarian crises. The inflation was put at between 290 and 800%. In December 2016. Venezuela became the seventh to experience hyperinflation in Latin American history. Thus, before April 2013, when Nicolás Maduro was elected, Venezuela had always been challenged by serious economic problems of poverty and insolvency. In fact, President Chavez declared an economic war on June 2nd, 2010 because of the deepening shortages. Thus, the problems were not only inherited by Maduro, but also became more complicated after 2013, especially with a drop in oil production and low oil prices in early 2015. The bbc.com has it that the crisis deepened ‘amid growing efforts by the opposition to unseat the socialist president, Nicolás Maduro. The South American country has been caught in a downward spiral for years with growing political discontent further fuelled by skyrocketing hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine. More than three million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years.’

From the perspectives of the https//en.m.wikipedia.org, there were shortages and rationing of gas in some parts of Venezuela which the Government said was meant to combat smuggling of cheaper fuel to Columbia. More important, it said that ‘in 2014, oil production was estimated to be near 207 million barrels per day (which) was 13% lower than when Hugo Chávez took office in 1999. And more disturbingly, the Venezuelan currency lost its value by 90% four times since 2012.

What eventually broke the camel’s back was the 20 May 2018 election organised by President Maduro which many observers considered as shoddy. President Maduro was re-elected for another six-year term. The election was initially scheduled to take place in December 2018 but rescheduled to take place earlier in April, before it was finally fixed to take place in May 2019.

From the observation report of Professor Francisco Dominguez from the University of Middlesex, UK, who took part in the British international observation mission to Venezuela, he expressed surprise that the Venezuelan electoral system was fraud-proof and that contrary to press reports, the May 20, 2018 elections in Venezuela, was peaceful, free and fair, especially in the four polling units he was assigned to. On the basis of available press reports before travelling to Caracas, he expected violence, but everything was peaceful on arrival. Campaign posters of various candidates, he said, were not vandalised and that President Maduro won with 68% margin.’

The re-election of Maduro is what is currently what makes electoral diplomacy an issue. The Lima Group (comprising 11 Latin American countries and Canada: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru) did not accept the validity of the election and opted to punish Venezuela. They expressed recognition and support for the 35-year old opposition leader, Juan Guaido, who is the President of the National Assembly, and who not only declared himself the interim President of the country but is also insisting on the organisation of a new election. The United States and several EU countries supported the opposition leader’s demand for a fresh election, which President Maduro has rejected.

In this regard, for example, British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, gave an 8-day ultimatum to President Maduro to organise a fresh election without which Britain would give active support to Juan Guaido. As Mr. Hunt put it, ‘after banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply flawed election, it is clear Nicolas Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela.’ More important, Mr. Hunt said ‘@jguaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward. If there are no fresh and fair elections announced within 8 days, United Kingdom will recognise him as interim president to take forward the political process towards democracy. Time for a new start for the suffering people of Venezuela.’

The position of the British clearly shows that they cannot be honest brokers in the matter. How would Nicolas Maduro have organised an election within eight days, especially reckoning from the time of issuance of the ultimatum? Without election, it is clear that the British already prefer the opposition leader. The position of the United States is not different. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, directed in his address to the UN Security Council that ‘either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem. Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games.’ The United States also wants the international community to ‘disconnect their financial systems from the Nicolás Maduro regime. Again, this is another unilateral imposition in electoral diplomacy.

What Future?

Electoral diplomacy, as it is currently conducted and managed, especially by the big powers, has a domineering character, and therefore the potential of serving as a catalyst in evolving a new Cold War. The Venezuelan case clearly shows a struggle between a Russo-Chinese supported Nicolás Maduro, on the one hand, and Juan Guaido, supported by the United States and its allies. Thus, the electoral dispute is less of election rigging but more of an ideological struggle between Maduro’s socialism and Guaido’s quest for a Western-ruled Venezuela. Consequently, there is the need for greater caution in how to promote democracy in such a way that the factor of a unilateral action and imposition of a national interest on another sovereign State does not become another major dynamic of a new world war. As it is today, international peace and security is gradually threatened by the mania of election monitoring and the manu militari approach to solving election disputes.