Local Election Monitor at a Polling Station in Bissau.

Local Election Monitor at a Polling Station in Bissau.

Image by OneWorld

Historic for Portugal's former West Africa colony because no democratically elected president there has ever completed his term - all have been assassinated or deposed by coups - and because the vote has been held to restore democracy after a coup was staged between the first and second rounds of last year's elections.

Historic, too, because this is the latest test for an election monitoring system described by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as "perhaps the most sophisticated monitoring programme ever deployed in Africa or anywhere else".

From last Wednesday about 400 specially trained "citizen monitors" have been reporting on what is happening in their neighbourhoods by sending coded SMS messages to a "Situation Room" set up by OneWorld in the capital, Bissau.

The monitors have been looking out for acts of violence, suspected fraud or corruption, and any interruptions of the voting process that they witnessed or learned about from trusted sources.

Their information was decoded, verified automatically and published online at www.bissauvote.com.

A data verification team of about 15 people from member organisations of the Group of Civil Society Organisations for the Elections (GOSCE) - which the OneWorld platform is supporting - were on standby. Their job was to phone individual citizen monitors to manually verify any messages that arrived with irregularities or to request more information about any important incidents that were reported.

Monitors also reported from electoral campaign events and civic education activities, while others reported on radio coverage.

All this information has been giving civil society groups real-time information from hundreds of localities in every one of the country's 37 sectors. The idea was to spot problems as soon as they occurred, instead of leaving problems be the subject of claims and counter-claims long after the election is over.

For the first time, monitoring groups had solid information about the conduct of campaigning (Did campaign events have proper security? Are women participating? Are campaign messages peaceful?); the quantity and quality of civic education activities run by the National Electoral Commission and civil society organisations; and media coverage (was it partisan or inflammatory?)

In the wake of the polls, the monitors - all of whom are Guinea Bissau citizens - are continuing to report on potential areas of tension or acts of violence.

"Local election monitoring organisations have some real advantages over international monitors," says OneWorld's Jeffrey Allen in Bissau. "They can be everywhere; they know the terrain; they speak the language; they can recognise when something is not right because they know their local area, the local people, and the local dialect."

In the past their impact has been limited because they have been unable to use most of the information they collected until weeks - sometimes months - after the elections.

"By the time they know enough to comment meaningfully on the conduct of an election, the world has already decided what it thinks and moved on," Allen explains. "And often their own citizens have made up their minds based on rumours and conjecture - and in some cases even taken to the streets."

Now, he says, OneWorld's election technology - previously used in Senegal (www.senevote2012.com), Sierra Leone (www.salonevote.com) and Mali (www.malivote.com) - "enables monitors to react to events as they are happening and comment publicly on the overall conduct of the elections, backed with hard evidence.

"This process is helping local civil society take back control of the narrative of how elections are conducted in their own country."


* Media monitors are associated with the media training organisation Voz de Paz (Voice of Peace), which is one of the six GOSCE member organisations participating in monitoring. The other monitors are associated with Tiniguena, Alternag, National Youth Council (CNJ), Guinean Human Rights League (LDH), and ASV-CPLP.

** The project is being implemented by OneWorld and GOSCE with funding from the European Union.

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