What we know about the key observer groups watching Zimbabwe’s election

Observers have started mobilising for next week’s election in Zimbabwe. These include local observer groups, and those from Africa and beyond. Here, we take a look at the main observer groups that are deployed in Zimbabwe, who is leading each of them, and what they said of the election in 2018.

SADC: Zambia opposition stalwart leads regional group

SADC launches its observer mission on Friday morning.

The mission is led by Nevers Mumba, who has arrived in Harare. Mumba is the leader of an opposition party in Zambia, the MMD, and served as Vice President of that country before. He was appointed to lead the mission by Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, a political ally with whom he was in a coalition in 2016.

SADC uses the regional bloc’s Principles and Guidelines to observe elections. This is a set of standards for how democratic elections should be run by member states.

In 2018, SADC said Zimbabweans had largely been free in the poll. However, it raised concerns over the late release of an analysable voters’ roll, criticised state media for being “in favour of one political party”, and also noted concerns over the role of traditional leaders in coercing rural voters.

African Union: Former Nigerian leader heads AU mission

Former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan will head the joint African Union and Comesa Election Observation Mission. He will lead 73 observers.

In its 2018 report, the AU mission said it had previously recommended equal access to ZBC, but “regrettably, these recommendations were not implemented”. The AU also said ZEC should release the voters’ roll “within a reasonable time to allow for a comprehensive voter audit and verification”.

Commonwealth: Smaller mission for Club

Amina Mohamed, a former Kenyan Minister, is leading the Commonwealth election observers. The Commonwealth is sending 15 members, less than the 23 it sent in 2018.

This will only be the second Zimbabwe poll that the Commonwealth observes since 2002. Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in 2003 after a row over rights violations and land reform. Zimbabwe is seeking readmission into the club.

In 2018, the Commonwealth observer said there had been “several positive aspects of the election”. They said parties then had been able to campaign freely, compared to previous campaigns, and that the voting process on election day had been managed well. However, the playing field was “unlevel” due to state media bias, intimidation, the “unfair use of incumbency privileges, and the August 1 shootings.

The Commonwealth said due to those shortcomings, “it was unable to endorse all aspects of the process as credible, inclusive and peaceful”.

ZESN: Biggest observer group

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) is the biggest group of observers. It is a coalition of local independent observers. In 2018, it had 7240 observers around the country. It also did an audit of the voters’ roll for that election.

In its report, ZESN noted “improvements which are in line with SADC, AU, and international guidelines for credible, free, and fair elections, but also missed opportunities which did not meet these standards.”

ZESN noted “widespread intimidation” of people during voter registration, partisan traditional leaders, use of food aid for politics, biased state media and ZEC’s poor communication and stakeholder engagement.

ZESN also did a Sample Based Observation (SBO), which used samples of results from around the country to compare with ZEC’s official results. The sample’s results were in line with ZEC’s numbers; ZESN’s sample showed Chamisa winning between 43.8% to 47.8% and Mnangagwa winning 48.7% to 52.7%. The official tally had Mnangagwa winning 50.6% (2,456,010 votes) and Chamisa with 44.3% (2,151,927).

EU: ‘No interference’

The EU deployed its mission in July. It will have 150 observers by voting day.

This is only the second time that the EU is observing Zimbabwe’s elections in over 20 years. In 2002, Zimbabwe expelled the head of the bloc’s electoral mission ahead of that year’s presidential election.

In its report on the 2018 election, the EU said there had been an “improved climate” compared to previous campaigns, but that voter intimidation and a lack of confidence in the electoral process had undermined the poll. In 2022, the EU said there had been “slow and limited progress in the implementation of the recommendations” that it had made after observing the 2018 election.

Aware of the Zimbabwe government’s sensitivity to Western governments, the EU has stressed in its press releases that it will not “interfere” with elections but only observe.

“We will not correct any possible shortcomings and we will not endorse the results or make any other statement about the quality of the process until respective stages are completed,” the EU mission says.

Ex-Nigeria election chief leads Carter Centre mission

An observer group from the Carter Center, based in the US, is being led by Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, the former head of the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria. The Carter Centre sent in 14 long-term observers at the start of the month, and more observers are expected on Friday. The mission includes observers from nearly 30 countries. In 2018, the Carter Centre only sent in a small group, an “election expert mission” that had limited scope.