Zimbabwe: NGO's battle for accreditation

JOHANNESBURG, 6 February (IRIN) - The process of accrediting observers for Zimbabwe's hotly contested presidential election has not been without stumbling blocks, local non-governmental organisations told IRIN on Wednesday.
Getting foreign and local observers accredited and speedily deployed is seen as key to ensuring a free and fair election. An election in which Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe faces the toughest challenge to his two decade rule in Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The poll is to take place on 9-10 March.

However, the accreditation of observers, which began on Wednesday, appears to be riddled with administrative hiccups.

Some have pointed out the irony that the government gets to choose who to invite to observe the elections, while at least one of the cash-strapped Zimbabwean NGOs has complained that the accreditation fee is too high. International observers would be required to pay US $100 each while Zimbabwean observers will pay Z$1,000 (US $18 at the official rate) per person.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) monitored Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections and is set to deploy thousands of observers throughout the country for the presidential polls. However, the ZESN is still awaiting an invitation from the government that would allow their observers to start work.

ZESN's Reginald Matchaba-Hove said: "For now we have not formally received a letter but we did meet with the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) secretariat and things appear to be on track. However, there are some administrative hiccups on their side. For example, it's not clear whether it is the ESC who invites people (to observe the election) or the minister of justice. We are trying to get to the minister of justice, in view of fact that local observers are supposed to get accredited on Thursday (7 February)."

As to the accreditation fee, Matchaba-Hove said: "The major impediment is that the fee is Z$1,000 per observer for locals, so if we field a minimum of 12,000 observers that adds up to Z$12 million (US $218,000). We believe that's exceedingly exorbitant. We are going to have to talk to our donors to see if they could authorise that. Our role is to monitor so we will have to pay but certainly it is exorbitant."

He added, however, that a high accreditation fee was not unexpected. "We had suspected it would be prohibitive," he said.

Accreditation of foreign observers could also prove problematic. Matchaba-Hove said: "There are certainly administrative delays, whether that is deliberate or not is another question, but (foreign) observers should actively seek their invitations.

"There is poor coordination between the ESC and the justice and foreign affairs ministries," he added. "The only foreigners who have letters (of invitation) are the Libyans, Nigerians and the Commonwealth observers. I believe the EU (European Union) letter may be ready but there are many others, including our African colleagues, who have not received a letter. We would advise them to get in touch with the foreign ministry, today! If they wait for the letter they will still be waiting until after the elections."

The importance of actively assisting Zimbabwe to hold free and fair elections, not just observing the elections, was underlined by Claude Kabemba, senior policy analyst with Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA). "We really cannot change (Zimbabwean) legislation and sanctions would have no impact on Mugabe and his ranks at this late stage. When the voter goes into that voting booth and places his vote, that's where we need to be," he told IRIN.

The international community should shift their focus to strengthening Zimbabwean civil society and building the capacity of the ESC to manage the poll, he added.

The EU had threatened Mugabe and his ministers with targeted sanctions, that would include punitive measures such as travel bans, after a series of warnings to Mugabe over actions and legislation that was increasingly seen as dictatorial. While Britain still appears to favour sanctions, the EU will not institute sanctions unless its election observer mission is hindered by Mugabe's government, Brussels said in a statement this week.

Said Kabemba: "We must look more at things on the ground. How (freely) is the opposition going to be able to campaign? How free will people be to vote and how secret will that vote be? We must make sure of the fundamentals. As external observers we must not re-enforce the instability in that country. Even if the EU applies sanctions now it's too late, they will have no effect on whether the elections are free and fair."

The Southern African Development Community's (SADC) electoral commission forum is to send a team of about 120 observers to Zimbabwe and EISA itself will field a team of about 50 observers. EISA, meanwhile, will go a step further and send a technical support team to assist the Zimbabwean ESC in managing the election, as soon as it gets accreditation.


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