A woman walks past election posters in Harare, Zimbabwe, on July 19, 2018. File photo: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
A woman walks past election posters in Harare, Zimbabwe, on July 19, 2018. File photo: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO

The digital age presents African countries with new opportunities and new threats as they face the continent’s next big challenge on the road to entrenching democracy: the holding of consistently free, fair elections that are accepted as legitimate by both voters and outsiders.

With Nigeria, Malawi, SA, Senegal and Guinea among those holding elections in the first half of 2019, the use of digital technology is about to be thrown into sharp relief.

Disputed election outcomes, such as those that have beleaguered Kenya, Zambia, Liberia and Zimbabwe, and widespread scepticism about the outcomes of several other elections can fuel popular disenchantment with what are often seen as superficially democratic elections where the outcome is in fact decided by elites and not the voters.

Technology offers benefits and yet poses fresh challenges to elections, democracy and good governance.

The first big advantage is the speeding up of vote counts, reducing the time between voting and the announcement of results. A long delay between voting and the results is widely seen as a signal that the count is being rigged or negotiated by elites. If India, a country with 540-million participating voters, is able to count and release results within 24 hours of polling, there is little reason why this should take longer in African countries with far fewer voters.

These “days of waiting” between voting and getting the result provide fertile ground for the planting of seeds of discontent — sadly, often justified — that threaten the credibility of polls.

The digital tabulation of results allows information to flow faster from peripheral voting stations to the centre where results are announced.

But there are drawbacks. Ghanaians, who participate in transparent vote-counting at polling stations, have faith in a manual process; that their votes will be counted when they are sent from polling stations to the centre via what are called “pink slips” – sheets of paper where the agreed-on count outcome is recorded. A digital transmission process may be less transparent.

More significantly, as has occurred in Kenya, digital transmission opens the door to manipulation. In the election petition NASA placed before the supreme court is evidence that an algorithm was introduced that digitally altered the result tally as it was transmitted to the centre, tilting the result in the governing party’s favour. The line between e-voting and e-rigging is becoming thinner.

Information and communications technology (ICT) can be a good servant or a bad master contributing to instability and bad governance, depending on how it is used by election agencies.

A deficit in the election process will translate to a deficit in politics (and vice versa), which in turn will impede sound governance, a much sought-after element in the development of Africa.

Professor Attahiru Jega, who ran Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission in that country’s 2015 election, oversaw the introduction of a voters’ card, which used fingerprints to confirm the identity of each voter in an effort to reduce the number of those voting twice.

The system appears to have vastly improved the credibility of the voters roll. Illustrating the extent of the challenge he faced, Jega observes that he had found the names of Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson on the old voters roll.

But the voter card has problems of its own. It was reported that children who were clearly not of voting age used the cards to vote while officials turned a blind eye.

And, as Jega has recounted, equipment failures dogged the registration process. The sensitivity of the fingerprint device had initially been set too high, making it impossible for voters to register. The equipment had to be recalibrated and the registration process restarted.

“We must constantly remember that use of ICT in elections is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. That end, perhaps, is electoral integrity for deepening and consolidating democracy. We need to constantly deploy measures that can ensure secure and sustainable use of ICTs in our electoral processes. We must think carefully, choose well, and make haste slowly.”

SA’s Pansy Tlakula, who ran the Independent Electoral Commission for 14 years, has pointed out that elections were regarded as legitimate because voting and counting was observed and signed off by all parties. Results were digitally transmitted to the election centre but these could be verified against the paper records that had been signed off.

Tlakula, who now heads an information regulator overseeing the security of digital communication, warned that election agencies now face a new problem: the hacking of their data bases, which would compromise the privacy of those registered to vote.

The best antidote to the hacking of election hardware and software might be to do the counterintuitive thing and expose it to manipulation so mistakes and hacks can be detected and security improved.

Instead of rolling it out every four or five years for transmitting and tallying results, software could be used continuously to update the voters role, exposing it to external threats that can then be countered by improving the software, rather like a person developing immunity to diseases after being exposed to them.

ICT systems can help with voter training and registration, and offer election agencies the opportunity to communicate directly with voters in an unprecedented fashion, improving voter turnout.

And the advent of widely used social media has improved the ability of electoral bodies to communicate with voters in a direct and personal way.

But here, too, there are downsides.

The “weaponisation” of social media to spread fake news that undermines the credibility of electoral agencies, candidates and parties has become widespread. There are “guns for hire” who will, for a large fee, work under cover to produce and disseminate false articles that challenge the integrity of rivals. In seeking to undo constitutionalism, this new generation of mercenaries is no less destructive with no greater moral scruples than its military antecedents. 

ICT expert Abdul-Hakeem Ajijola has pointed out that fake news and hate speech now provide a “simple, elegant and cost-effective path for disseminating and perpetrating radical narratives”, making it much easier to implement Sun Tzu’s dictum: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Because they use manufactured identities that can easily be substituted with others if they are exposed or removed from platforms, it is very difficult to stop such manipulation.

The answer lies in creating greater public awareness of fake news and its sources by supporting fact-checking agencies and improved education.

Some sort of “credible validation” of legitimate websites as well as search-engine optimisation to “ensure that the accurate narrative appears first during internet searches” should be implemented, says Ajijola.

Unless African countries rise to the challenge of understanding the opportunities and threats that arise from advances in technology, they risk becoming the playground of dark forces that are intent on abusing democratic elections to fulfil their unpleasant ends.

• Former presidents Obasanjo, Mahama, and Koroma and Prime Minister Odinga led a high-level working group meeting in Abeokuta this month on ICT and African elections, on which this is drawn.