Africans Don’t Trust Elections. Here’s How Tech Could Help

By Tom Jackson AFKI Original Published: January 30, 2017, 7:55 am
Africans don’t trust electionsNamibia in 2014 was the first African country to use electronic voting. Photo: thehindubusinessline.com

Only 34 percent of Africans believe their votes are always counted fairly at election time, according to a recent Afrobarometer report. Yet very little is being done to persuade people this is not the case.

While a number of countries including Kenya and Senegal have used technology for voter registration and identification, as well as transmitting the results from rural areas, electronic voting remains a pipe dream in most places.

Ahead of the last Nigerian election, the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission said it was prevented from implementing e-voting by law. Other countries have talked about introducing the process, but made no progress.

At the 2013 Kenyan election, even the use of electronic equipment for registration and transmission was mired in controversy, as the systems collapsed early on election day.

Yet the potential for cutting down on fraud is obvious. The same Afrobarometer report says the use of electronic voting in Namibia in 2014 — one of the few cases where it had been used — improved fairness perception among voters.

It is important that this process continues, and that e-voting becomes more common. Though democracy has on the face of it been on the march in Africa since the early 1990s, a number of non-democratic throwbacks remain, such as Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Angola’s Eduardo dos Santos, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

There are dangers of regression, too. The number of liberal democracies in the region actually fell between 2005 and 2012, while the Mo Ibrahim Index has reported a five percent decline in political participation since 2007, according to Freedom House.

Africans, then, are right to distrust their systems. Even aside from e-voting, there are other major issues with the day-to-day functioning of democracy on the continent. Official reports are not readily available, and people are therefore mostly unaware of what their elected representatives are up to.

Tech is proving its worth here, however, suggesting it could be used even more extensively to make African democracies more accountable and elections fairer. Non-profits such as Indigo Trust are actively supporting sites that make parliamentary information more accessible to ordinary people.

These include Kenya’s Mzalendo.com, South Africa’s People’s Assembly, and Ghana’s Odekro.org. Such sites publish searchable transcripts of parliamentary proceedings plus information on parliament, committees and MPs. They allow users to keep up to date on what is happening in parliaments, and contact MPs. They play a huge role in making democracy more accessible.

Indigo Trust executive Loren Treisman said digital technologies enable information to be shared at a lower cost, faster speed and greater scale than ever before.

“They can enable citizens to access critical information about their parliamentary proceedings like budgets, elected representatives and legal information so that they can make more informed decisions,” she said. “Technologies can also enable citizens to participate in democratic processes more effectively through things like reporting service delivery issues, mobilizing more effectively and amplifying the voices of marginalized citizens.”

Rashaad Alli, monitoring and projects manager at People’s Assembly, says internet and mobile technologies have a particular impact when it comes to reaching the most remote areas and giving a voice to as many people as possible.

“Access to information is a great enabler to effect social change and deepen democracy. Technology tools help to increase transparency, expose corruption, enhance the capacity of political and social activists, strengthen democracy and hold governments to account,” he said.

“Through civic technology, organisations and governments are able to effectively engage 21st century citizens in the following ways: involving citizens in government decision-making; better connecting elected officials with constituents; managing election data; and fostering civic dialogue through social media.”

Alli said uptake of such tools has been on the increase, with positive signs People’s Assembly is being recognized by various actors.

“Internet access and ICT solutions are spreading across the world and Africa is no exception. Citizens and organisations are becoming exposed to what benefits are possible and borrowing examples from elsewhere,” he said.

Yet he said while citizens have begun to harness tech innovation, many democratic institutions have been slower to react, often using outmoded processes to respond to increased citizen demands. This has proven to be the case when it comes to e-voting.

“There is hope that down the line civil society and citizens will be able to lobby their governments to adopt best practice when it comes to transparency and ICT,” Alli said.

Triesman agrees that democratic processes will likely become more accessible as tech becomes widespread.

“As a greater proportion of the population of various countries come online and data costs decrease, we would expect to see a wider adoption of tools which enable citizens to access information on elected representatives and the laws that govern them and for citizens to feel increasingly empowered to use them to shape democracy and improve the communities they are part of,” she said.

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