A report by Afrobarometer recently released jaw-dropping statistics on the state of electoral systems in Africa. Around half of Africans in 36 different countries do not trust their electoral commissions. In its key findings, the report says, “On average across 36 surveyed countries, just half (50%) of respondents say they trust their electoral commission “somewhat” (25%) or “a lot” (25%). Some of the lowest levels of trust are expressed in countries with closely contested elections in 2016 including Gabon (25%), São Tomé and Príncipe (31%), and Ghana (37%).” Unfortunately, some countries will go into their election periods with a heavy cloud of distrust in the democratic structures thus undermining results.
However, it is not all gloom and doom as, “Two-thirds of Africans rate their most recent election as “completely free and fair” (41%) or “free and fair, but with minor problems” (24%).” In a bid to make electoral systems better, African countries have migrated towards technological solutions. Though the effort is appreciated, most have failed dismally with only a few successes to take note of. One of the few countries that managed to successfully tap into technology in African electoral systems is Namibia, a country whose 2014 elections the Afrobarometer report says “calmed and focused the nation”. In fact, in this country, 74% of the people trust their electoral commission. There is a secret to be learnt from this beautiful Southern African country.
Most of Africa not ready for the electronic vote?
The confidence and excitement about the electoral process in Namibia has largely been influenced by the new electronic electoral system introduced in the 2014 elections. The report says, “In Namibia, the survey was completed during the run-up to the November 2014 elections, a period marked by optimism about the implementation of electronic voting machines.” Electronic voting machines have been known to fail in other parts of Africa but in Namibia there was a relatively higher level of success. In Nigeria in 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan waited for 50 minutes before the system recognised him. The commission then claimed he was only part of 0.25% of the voters who had problems but this is hard to believe. It was Nigeria’s first time using the biometric system which had never been tested and ended up creating problems for even the top leadership of the country. In 2011, the country had used fingerprint identification to prevent double-voting and introduced wide changes in 2015.
Such has been the problem with implementing technologically savvy reforms in electoral systems: most countries are simply not ready and the results end up being affected by the delays and system hiccups. In Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Somaliland and Ghana, electoral commissions have all recently introduced biometric technology — which recognises fingerprints and facial features — to draw up new electoral registers. Kenya also introduced an almost wholly automated system which was hailed by the EU and the Commonwealth as a marvel of its kind but its failures have undermined all the hype. In some places, the polling stations did not have power to support the systems and in some, the systems simply failed to identify people using fingerprints as they should have. Kenya, like so many other countries was not ready. Namibia, however, seems to have learnt from the failures of countries like Nigeria and Kenya but speaking from a continental vantage point, Africa should take technological solutions to votes step by step.
It has also been seen that biometric systems are costly and most countries cannot afford them. They are even more expensive when evaluated from the standpoint of what they succeed in doing and what they absolutely fail at. It is a no-brainer that these systems cannot solve such issues identified in the Afrobarometer report like suppression of opposition and pre-election violence. Computers do not descend into the arena and fix such flaws in the system. All they can do is prevent double registration and double voting but intimidation and force will still be used by some strongmen to stay in power. According to the Washington Post, “Biometric technology is costly. In Côte d’Ivoire, the French enterprise SAGEM received $266 million for the production of biometric identity cards for the 2010 elections. Côte d’Ivoire’s voting population is fewer than 6 million people, meaning the cost of a biometric identity card was more than $44 per voter.” Even after spending that much money, incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to recognize the electoral results, and the country relapsed into violence.
Technology is not and can never be the solution to philosophical disasters that dominate African politics. Where some leaders feel they are bigger than the democratic system, it does not matter how voting and registration are carried out, the result is always an imposition of illegitimate power and votes by coercive force. While the biometric era is welcome, Africa should not be disillusioned to think it is the total solution of every single electoral problem. Leaders should reform their ways in as much as electoral systems are reformed otherwise, the introduction of technology in the voting system will count to nothing. African countries should also create infrastructural support for such modern systems. Solar power and robust network systems are a necessity now more than ever as smart voting takes over.