With support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) in collaboration with its partners Panos Institute Southern Africa and Gambia Press Union are implementing a project aimed at promoting Transparency and Accountability in electoral processes in Africa. Following long years of military coups and one-party systems, the holding of regular elections to choose political leaders including presidents, members of parliament, and local government administration has over the past decade become part and parcel of democratic processes in Africa. This follows the adoption of key instruments like the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, African Peer Review Mechanism, and the African Governance Architecture which among others outlaw unconstitutional change of governments and promote the holding of regular, free, fair, and transparent elections.
Despite this progress, the electoral processes have largely been characterized by a lack of transparency on the planning, conduct, management, and the announcement of election results. Citizens’ participation has been greatly affected due to the lack of or limited access to electoral information on the appointment of members of the election management bodies, registration of voters, nomination of candidates and conduct of campaigns, polling dates and candidates, funding for political parties, and candidates, all of which are critical in enabling the electorate to make informed choices on their leaders.
The significance of the right to information is underpinned by the fact that it is a cross-cutting right that is necessary for the realization of other human rights, including the right to participate in government directly or through freely chosen representatives, as guaranteed by Article 13 of the African Charter. Thus, to meaningfully participate in elections, citizens need access to information.
Recognizing the significance of access to information in elections, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa during its 61st Ordinary session on 10th November 2017 which took place in Banjul, The Gambia. The Guidelines provide direction to the relevant electoral stakeholders who have a duty to proactively disclose information in their possession or control that are necessary for safeguarding the integrity and legitimacy of the electoral process
. In its preamble, the Guidelines state:
“Access to information empowers the electorate to be well informed about political processes with due regard to their best interests: to elect political office holders; to participate in decision-making processes on the implementation of laws and policies, and to hold public officials accountable for their acts or omissions in the execution of their duties. ……access to information is a foundational requirement of the practice of democratic governance. It has been rightly stated that: ‘No democratic government can survive without accountability and the basic postulate of accountability is that people should have information about the functioning of government”.
The ACHPR Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa further indicate that recent experiences across the continent illustrate the dangers that the lack of information during the electoral process poses to peace, security, and stability and that failure by relevant electoral stakeholders to proactively disclose information breeds distrust and lack of confidence which is usually exhibited through violence when voters express their frustration at real or perceived disenfranchisement.
.. A cardinal principle at the heart of the right of access to information is that of proactive disclosure. The principle of proactive disclosure requires that those who hold information of public interest must routinely provide such information to the public even without being requested to do so. Such information must be provided in easily accessible formats and it must consider the needs of its intended users. Proactive disclosure of election-related information is thus a tool for fostering accountability and transparency of key election stakeholders and for guaranteeing the credibility and integrity of the electoral process.
As Uganda, Zambia and The Gambia prepare to go to the polls in 2021, critical issues arise regarding the countries preparedness towards this most important democratic process. To enable an informed choice on the future leaders of the country, access to information is critical in the electoral processes. Through this project, therefore, AFIC and its partners will promote citizens’ access to information in electoral processes, increase citizens’ participation, enhance disclosure and responsiveness of election management bodies political parties, among others.