The Administration of Elections
Strengths of the institution
The administration of elections in Burkina Faso is the primary task assigned to the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI). The CENI is a permanent institution in charge of organizing the entire electoral process from the production of electoral lists to the announcement of the provisional results. It was created because political parties did not trust the organization of elections by the Ministry of the Interior which they accused of not being neutral or impartial. For this reason, the CENI was created on a consensual basis following the request of the political actors and civil society. The CENI in its present form was created in 2001 following the proposal of reforms by the Collège des Sages. Indeed, after the assassination of the journalist Norbert Zongo, Burkina Faso had sunk into a serious social and political crisis which seriously shook President Compaoré’s regime. To alleviate this crisis, the President created the temporary institution of the Collège des Sages, which, thanks to the virtues of dialogue, made several recommendations on political and social reforms one of which was the creation of an independent institution in charge of the organization of elections.
The CENI is composed of fifteen members: five are delegates from the opposition, five are delegates from the majority, and five others are from civil society. Delegates from civil society are chosen from leaders of religious organizations (Catholic, Protestant and Muslim), traditional leaders, and human rights activists. Members of the CENI serve a five year term in office which is renewable once. CENI members are nominated but must be appointed by a decree of the President. They must also take an oath before the Constitutional Council.
The president of the CENI is elected by the members of the commission from the representatives of civil society. The current president represents the Catholic community, before him (between 2001 and 2011) the institution was headed by the human rights organizations’ delegate. In accordance with the oath each member must take, CENI members are required to perform their functions with the following obligations: impartiality, neutrality, integrity, objectivity and transparency. By requiring members of the CENI to take an oath, the legislature most likely wanted to highlight the importance of this strategic institution for the advancement of democracy. Indeed, it is worth remembering that only the President of Burkina Faso takes an oath before the Constitutional Court prior to taking office. At the administrative and technical levels, the CENI is backed by a Secretariat headed by a Secretary General who is a civil servant by profession and appointed by the Council of Ministers upon proposal from the President of the CENI.
In order to effectively carry out its missions the CENI is decentralized at the local level through branches called the Provincial Independent Electoral Commission (CEPI) the Communal Independent Electoral Commission (CECI) or the District Independent Electoral Commission (CEIA). These branches consist of two representatives from the majority, two from the opposition, and two from civil society – a total of six members. Their members, whose mandate lasts the duration of the election period, take an oath before the high courts of their jurisdiction before taking office. Their oath is subjected to the same obligations as members of the CENI. The branches of the CENI are 45 at the provincial level and more than 350 at the municipal level. These branches are in charge of implementing the decisions of the CENI regarding electoral matters at the local level.
Despite that the overall manner in which the elections are held in Burkina Faso lacks scenes of extreme violence – as is often the case in other African countries – the CENI is still weakened by two factors: lack of professionalism and a lack of autonomy.
Weaknesses of the institution
In principle, the obligation imposed upon the members of the CENI and its branches to take an oath should have protected the CENI from ethical problems that are harmful to the transparency of elections. However, serious ethical problems often hinder the actions of the CENI. Members of the CENI and its branches are often accused of failing to perform their duties impartially, neutrally, or objectively. They are accused of promoting particular political groups. For example, the press and political opposition parties have criticized the mediation attempt by the president of the CENI following the controversial submission of two electoral lists by the ruling party in one commune of Burkina Faso (Gourcy, a city located in the north of the country). Indeed, in this district, internal contradictions within the ruling party led to the submission of two electoral lists; which is contrary to the electoral law. This would normally result in the invalidation of both party lists. However, following the intervention of the President of the CENI and a court decision, one of the two lists of the ruling party was retained. The retained list was headed by the father-in-law of President Compaoré. Based in part on this incident, a local newspaper, l’Evénement, headlined that the President of the CENI was one of the guardians of the “Compaoré Temple.” Even if one does not question the good will of the President of the CENI in this case, it acknowledged that the sensitive position of the institution on such matters requires that its members be cautious and attempt to be equidistant from political forces. Only after this will public opinion begin to have a better perception of the CENI.
It must also be acknowledged that problems of conduct and ethics are often associated with low levels of competence amongst some members of the CENI. The issue of the CENI’s professionalism was raised by on its agenda in 2001 after the subsequent elections. In its 2007 parliamentary elections report, the CENI itself identified this situation, stating that: “It is unfortunate that political parties and civil society do not always offer appropriate choices for their representatives on the CENI and its branches. Indeed, in some cases, they select people who have very low levels of education, sometimes even illiteracy. Yet these are the people who are responsible, among others, to transfer training and instructions to enumerators, those who distribute voter cards, and members of polling stations.”
In order to ensure the neutrality and impartiality of the CENI and its branches, the legislature has suggested that the president should be a member of civil society. Yet, experience shows that civil society in Burkina Faso is more politicized than many political parties, to the point where its participation on the CENI has been questioned. Many actors in Burkinabè civil society are actually activists or sympathizers of political parties. Part of the opposition and civil society consider, rightly or wrongly, that most presidents of the institution are close to the ruling party. Consequently, civil society must change if it wants to continue to enjoy the confidence of political actors.
The CENI depends heavily on the government for its financial stability. Indeed, the government has the power to provide the institution with financial resources for its daily operations and more importantly the organization of elections. The budget of the CENI and that for elections is subject to arbitration by the officials of the Ministry of Finance who sometimes cut spending. These budgetary constraints, even if justified, may have an impact on the successful organization of elections. However, it should be noted that usually the Ministry of Finance still remains responsive to the concerns of the CENI during election periods. Although permanent, the CENI hardly functions between elections. Its operating budget does not enable it to carry out activities such as civic education.
Useful links and documentary resources
- Official website of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI): http://www.ceni.bf
- Commission Électoral National Indépendante (CENI), août 2012, « Le code électoral & textes d’application »: http://www.ceni.bf/sites/default/files/02%2008%202012%20Code_%C3%A9lectoral-BF-2012.pdf
- L’Evénement, 30 décembre 2012. « Les trois gardiens du temple « Compaoré » : Kéré, Millogo et Béa »: http://www.evenement-bf.net/spip.php?article423