Is election technology aiding vote rigging in Africa?

James Thembo         

What you need to know:

  • It is never too late for countries struggling to harness the advantages of election technology to benchmark from the few who succeeded.

Elections have increased in Africa as they have across the world, yet a few decades ago, they were very few on the continent. Today, almost every country in Africa holds them even when democracy seems to be retreating.

The problem is that talk of electoral rigging, perceived or actual, is so common in Africa and many would agree that the continent requires relentless innovations and improvements to deliver credible results that enjoy wider approval and universal legitimacy.

And so, to stem receding electoral fairness on the continent, adoption of digital technologies is becoming too strong to resist, even amidst limitations of resources and other capacities which such tools occasion.

A supposedly fair argument to the effect is that such adoption will leapfrog the process to cleaner and credible elections.

But just on the heels of election technology justification in Africa quickly comes a rock-hard view that election technology tends to refract attention away from more old-style tactics of election protection and that failure of digital checks and balances render electoral processes even more susceptible to rigging than the case was before.

Let the scope get a bit wider here: Even with usage of election technologies, two touchy issues remain at the heart of the debate about the quality of elections in Africa; one is the one-sidedness and ineptness of election management agencies. This revolves around the extent of human interference in determining the election outcome. Essentially, it’s a question of citizens’ lack of faith in election managers. The other is about the effectiveness of election managers delivering quality elections. There seems to be poor planning, slow and imprecise procurement of election materials, seemingly archaic tabulation of results and delayed declaration of winners.

Right then, many voters and disadvantaged aspirants continue to see vulnerability at the vote, just as it was or even worse than before the advent of election technology. In a technical sense, technology is neutral but it doesn’t run elections on its own. People, biased or not, run it. Here, the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” gains worth.

What then, if elections in Africa will be easily stolen “scientifically” away from the old rudimentary methods of militarizing election opponents’ areas, ensuring late arrival of election materials still in the opponents’ strongholds, creating thuggery of snatching whole ballot boxes by weed-chewing armed ruffians, vote buying, torture or murder? What?

Well, through early and cagy tactics such as compromising electoral commission officials—some of them ICT gurus smuggled from abroad, compromising procurements of election materials (including the now all-important biometric voter registration and biometric voter identification machines) to manipulation of results at collation centres, the objective is often one: That by hook or crook, a particular candidate gets announced as winner.

It doesn’t matter that the declared victor should have been second or third or last. Just declare them. His opponents may make noise or go to court if they want.  These “victors” know that after all, court processes can be manipulated or judges intimidated about the injurious political or other costs of nullifying a national election.

This matter cannot be concluded without mention of several recent examples to demonstrate vivacity:

In Kenya during the 2017 presidential vote tallying, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s director of ICT at the time, Chris Musando, vanished under unclear circumstances. He was later found lifeless. Raila Odinga, a front runner for the top seat in that election claimed that Musando had been murdered after he declined to surrender a password which was used to rig the elections. The supreme court later invalidated that presidential election and called for a fresh one.

Another election still in Kenya in 2022, in a manner of learn nothing, forget nothing, had comparable arguments of an alleged rigout—first and faster than anyone else rejected by majority members of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

Similarly in Nigeria in 2019, an issue of election result servers of the Independent Electoral Commission   became central in a case brought before the elections tribunal by the loser of that presidential election. Just a few weeks ago from another presidential election in the same country, similar complaints abound.   The matter might be settled in court.

 In DRC, the same controversies arose after the 2018 elections over the use of ‘voter machines.’ Martin Fayulu, a key contender in that election who strongly believed he won but his victory handed to current president Felix Tshisekedi bickered that through election technology, the electoral commission of the country and the African Union as key observers (for sanitizing the election) had betrayed the Congolese people.

In Uganda, presidential vote losers have many times alleged a mix of tricks used by the electoral commission to give the win to the incumbent Yoweri Museveni. Election technology here is however quite never singled out as the key trick.

In the 2021 elections, main opposition leader Bobi Wine had assembled twenty-six grounds for a court petition which he withdrew prematurely.

Only in one of these grounds had he mentioned, quite loosely even, that election technology was intentionally messed up. Bobi alleged “non-transparent tabulation, transmission and declaration of results” before adding that judges in a petition of a previous election had directed that all election technology be backed by relevant laws which hadn’t been done.

In all, it’s worthy noting that: In Africa more than elsewhere, courts of law are becoming more central in election outcomes than the ballot box. That citizens’ lack of trust seems to afflict not just the electoral management institutions but also public institutions at large.

Out of Africa’s 54 nations, only about 37, according to Freedom House 2022 assessment, are electoral democracies and only about eight would go home with a high accolade of organizing a free and fair election among other things through fairly using election technology.

It is never too late for countries struggling to harness the advantages of election technology to benchmark from the few who succeeded.

Mr James Thembo is a journalist and Lecturer of Mass Communication, Mountains of the Moon University.