"Providing all the essentials for election observers"

Chad goes to the polls

How do you carry out an election observation mission in a country such as Chad? akzente journalist Philipp Hedemann accompanied the EU's election observers during the country's parliamentary elections.

Douglas Tefnin stares intently at two giant screens, watching a green spot as it moves slowly from left to right along a dotted line. The green spot represents a crosscountry vehicle, the dotted line a desert track in southern Chad. The vehicle is carrying a Dutchman and an Irish woman, who have been sent on behalf of the European Commission to observe the parliamentary elections on 13 February in the former French colony, today one of the world's poorest countries. The French company GEOS and GIZ have been contracted by the European Commission as part of a consortium to ensure that - in a country three and a half times the size of Germany yet with just 600 kilometres of asphalted roads - the operation passes off smoothly.

'Everything's running like clockwork. No incidents at all so far,' beams Douglas Tefnin. The bright-eyed 55-year-old has been involved in more dangerous missions. As a colonel in the Belgian army, he has seen service in Somalia and Afghanistan, and came to Chad in 2008 as part of a European Union peacekeeping force. 'In those days there was still brutal fighting between government forces and insurgents; it was a very dangerous country,' says the former soldier, who now works for GEOS. But even today parts of Chad remain unsafe. Tefnin is resigned to the fact. 'I'm responsible for the security of all election observers. Certain roads and the regions bordering Sudan and the Central African Republic are no-go areas for our people,' the security expert explains.

He is a member of the election observation mission, which has completely taken over floor 5B of a large hotel in the Chadian capital N'Djamena. The corridor has been turned into a veritable assault course, cluttered with printers, photocopiers and additional telephone and internet cables bound with duct tape. Room 520, at the very back of the hotel, is where Eric Vandromme has set up his temporary office. There is now a desk where the bed would normally be, with two laptops, a telephone and two mobile phones. This is where the French GIZ project leader coordinates Mission Chad 2011.

At least one of his telephones is always ringing, sometimes all three at once. 'This mission is a real challenge,' says Vandromme, who has previously provided local logistics support for election observation missions on behalf of the GIZ consortium in Lebanon, Ethiopia and Cote d'Ivoire. 'I've never been in a country where everything is so slow.' Yet despite sluggish internet connections, rarely observed delivery dates and repeated equipment supply shortages, he can claim a minor victory: in a country with no proper car hire and at an airport with more UN aircraft than commercial planes, he has successfully chartered 43 cars, two minibuses, a coach and three aeroplanes, and procured 57 laptops, 90 mobile phones and 62 satellite phones. By the end of the mission, which has a budget of €4.8 million, his election observers will have visited nearly 600 polling stations in 18 regions and 37 departements.

At the invitation of the Chadian Government, the first experts arrived in N'Djamena in late November 2010. For the role of the election observation mission is not simply to monitor the opening of polling stations, the voting procedure, the counting of votes and transfer of results from individual regions to the National Electoral Commission in the capital. Long before polling day, the experts also scrutinise the registration of candidates and voters, the electoral campaign and media reporting. And even after the ballot boxes are closed the mission is Eric Vandromme, GIZ project manager, Chad 2011 far from over for the observers representing the EU member states, Switzerland and Norway. The experts also keep a close eye on the announcement of provisional and official results, as well as the reactions of voters and parties. Only three weeks after the polls have closed can the last member of the EU mission leave the country. And most of the 90-strong mission team will have to make do with a minimal level of comfort until then, since Chad is a country with few hotels.

Chad is a challenging country in a number of ways: on the Human Development Index this country in Central Africa is ranked 163 out of 169; and on the Transparency International Corruption Index, Chad comes 171st out of 178. One in five children never reaches its fifth birthday and the average life expectancy is 49.2 years. Over one third of the population suffers from malnutrition. Less than one third of adults can read and write. Over half of all children are obliged to work. With cholera and malaria claiming tens of thousands of lives each year, there is just one doctor for every 50,000 people. The east of the country has had to accommodate at least 250,000 refugees from the Sudanese civil war in the neighbouring Darfur region.

'The inadequate infrastructure has left us facing enormous challenges. The excellent contacts and years of experience of GIZ staff from other German projects in Chad were a great help in our preparations. Some of the desert tracks were so deep in sand that we could not rule out the possibility of getting stranded. That's why we equipped the vehicles with sand ladders. The election observers have several days' rations and camping gear on board. Let's hope they don't need them,' says Vandromme.

Louis Michel needs neither sand ladders nor army survival rations. The MEP and former EU Development Commissioner is the mission's chief observer in Chad. In order to visit as many polling stations as possible, he gets around this country of desert tracks in one of Vandromme's chartered aircraft. At 8:06 am his plane lands in a swirl of red dust at Moundou, Chad's second-largest city in the south of the country. Michel is here to visit a school housing no fewer than nine polling stations. In spite of the heat, the men and women wait patiently in line on the dusty schoolyard to cast their vote. 'I get the impression the elections are passing off peacefully. Up to now we've come across no trouble at all,' says Michel. 'The people are happy they are able to vote.' Wolfgang von Schmettau is also satisfied. 'Today's peaceful election comes after a fair election campaign,' says the economist. The 65-year-old has been part of 18 election observation missions in the last six years - no one in the Chad mission has more experience than him.

The European Commission also sets store by the extensive experience and competence of the mission team when it is in the process of setting up an election observation. 'There can be as many as five candidates competing for the bid when the tender is announced by the European Commission,' says Eleni Andrikopoulou. She has been responsible for EU election observation missions at the Brussels Office of GIZ International Services for more than three years and has already accompanied GIZ assignments on behalf of the EU in Angola, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire and Niger. Now she has come to Chad to provide support for her people in the field. In Eric Vandromme's improvised office she has set up a hotel table as a desk, opened up her laptop, visited polling stations. At the same time she is already planning the next mission.

It is important that the EU is having these elections in Chad observed, since in previous elections the opposition and international observers complained of irregularities. In protest at this the opposition had not put up an election candidate since 2002. Although the government and opposition parties then signed an agreement on domestic dialogue and electoral reform in August 2007, thereby bringing the country's political forces to the negotiating table and paving the way for the February 2011 elections, it was nevertheless important to have international observers present on polling day. Meanwhile, security chief Tefnin continues to monitor the dots on his screens. In the operations room of his Emergency Security Unit everything is running to plan. 'Every vehicle is equipped with an alarm,' says Tefnin. 'So far no one has needed to activate it. Let's hope it stays that way.'

Author: Philipp Hedemann is a freelance journalist living in Ethiopia.
The article first appeared in the GIZ magazine akzente, issue 02/2012.