The International Foundation for Electoral systems (IFES) says it is working with African countries to enable their electoral commissions to gain independence to ensure free and transparent elections on the continent. IFES, which is a Washington based nongovernmental organization, seeks to entrench democracy worldwide by providing expert advice, providing tools to run effective democratic elections as well as working closely with civil society organizations to push for reforms in their various countries. Four experts from IFES appeared at the VOA briefing room yesterday to discuss elections and political challenges in the countries IFES works. 

IFES regional director for Africa Almami Cyllah tells reporter Peter Clottey that Africa has a great potential to transform its image into a democratic continent.

"Across Africa, I am hopeful. We have had setbacks of elections, but it's not the elections in many of those instances. It's mostly the announcements of the results after those elections. And as I said earlier, many African leaders would not want to leave power and we've been used to election results coming out in favor of those who are in power. If you look at the election in Zimbabwe, it is was stolen. But it's not the election itself. It's the result that the government or the leaders dictate and so there has to be a separation when people talk about elections," Cyllah noted.

He said IFES is working hand in hand with electoral bodies across the continent to gain independence from the executive.

"In terms of the assistance that IFES for an example has been giving to electoral commissions, these electoral commissions have been doing well. But then it gets to the point where also the governments in power or the leaders in power sort of control these elections basically. That is why IFES is really working with electoral commissions not only giving them the technical support, but also encouraging them to advocate for their own independence. We see a very good independent electoral commission in Ghana," he said.

Cyllah said IFES is working to strengthen civil societies in individual countries to push for changes in they want.

"We are working with electoral commissions themselves alongside with civil society that we have been working with. You see, it's not only elections.  IFES does a whole slew of electoral developments. For example, IFES provided a lot of support to the electoral commission in Liberia for the 2005 elections alongside other international organizations. But after the elections, IFES then went in to begin to work with civil society and the elected officials themselves to get them to understand the independence of an electoral commission. So we saw a lot of legal reforms so to speak in the electoral process," Cyllah pointed out.

He said the lack of independence of electoral bodies in African countries undermines their effectiveness.

"The lack of independence of these commissions.  For example they don't have financial independence. Every month, there are many of these commissions who would have to go to the ministries of finance to get their salaries for their staff. Therefore, you see a lot of exertion of power over them by the executive," he said.

Cyllah said IFES often encourages various heads of the electoral bodies across Africa to share their experience with other countries.

 "We also have what we call shared experience for example when the Sierra Leone elections were being held. We took the commissioners from Liberia and we invited other commissioners from Cote D'ivoire for an example to go and observe the elections in Sierra Leone. But not only to observe the elections in Sierra Leone, but to also give support to the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone so that they know that we are all commissioners and we give each other support. That is a start. So this is what IFES does to make sure that the transfer of knowledge takes hold," Cyllah noted.

He said IFES is also working with officials of the African union to establish the continental body's own electoral monitoring system.

 "For example with the Association of African Electoral administrators, we at IFES are working with them to be sure that they share experiences like the African Union office that we do have, which is helping the African Union develop not only an electoral observation unity, but also electoral administration professionals that would be able to look at various electoral processes and help those commissions to move forward," he said.