The role of civic technologies during elections is to stimulate and strengthen citizen engagement, increase transparency, accountability and democratic governance
The use of online and digital technologies in many African democracies is growing at a steady rate, enabling citizens to engage and hold their governments to account. The emergence of these technologies is often instigated by citizens who want to be heard and see a change in their communities.
CTIN interviewed three founders of African civic tech initiatives, two from Uganda and one from Ghana to get their views on the role of civic tech in the recent national elections in their respective countries. Ghana held its presidential elections on the 7th of December in 2020 and Uganda held its elections on the 14th of January in 2021.
The role of civic tech platforms during the Uganda elections
“The role of civic tech is to sensitize the masses especially the rural citizens about their rights and expectations of them during the elections”, said Ivan Louis Pinno, co-founder and chief operations officer of Digital Women Uganda. Digital Women Uganda is a civic tech and digital rights advocacy organisation for women development.
The organisation used an online radio platform, to communicate with people in rural communities about the elections along with a shortcode which is a form of SMS to communicate information with the community members. The challenges the organisation faces in increasing political participation through technology is that “citizens are still digitally illiterate in these areas of use of technology let alone embrace it,” says Pinno. He also said that due to restrictions around policies, government and the internet, there was a lack of accountability and transparency during the elections.
Pinno admits that there aren’t enough people participating in political matters using civic tech platforms. Pinno explained that the engagement between citizens and political leaders was great but came to a halt with the shutdown of the internet. On the eve of the Ugandan presidential elections, the Ugandan government shut down the internet and when it was restored, all social media platforms remained blocked. Bobi Wine, the presidential candidate for the opposition party accused President Yoweri Museveni of voter fraud.
Nathalie Dijkman, co-founder of Sema, an SMS chatbot that facilitates feedback about public institutions and public service delivery said, “civic tech organisations tried to report on human rights abuses, especially on Twitter. Twitter is the most used platform in Uganda to share news and issues related to the election”. Adding that “during the elections we had an internet shut down so obviously we could not use any of the media during and after the elections for a while.”
Dijkman explained that the internet shutdown is one of the measures the government uses to contain dissent and civil society adding that civic tech activists risk being shut down if they raise their voices. Ugandans’ voices were silenced during the internet shutdown which was an infringement on freedom of speech, said Dijkman.
The engagement between citizens and political leaders is ‘quite mediocre,’ said Dijkman and that political leaders in Uganda are not active. She said that political leaders use civic tech platforms “to voice their own agendas and do not engage with citizens such as answering questions and having a dialogue with them”. Even though civic tech platforms may provide more of a voice for people it is limited as “the internet is controlled by the government and civic tech needs to be smarter than just online — ie. using hardware and offline mobile solutions like SEMA does is necessary to get most of the population to participate meaningfully,” said Dijkman. Technology can increase political participation by adapting technology to the people who are being reached out to and knowing who the target users are in order to amplify these voices.
The role of civic tech platforms during the Ghana elections
Nehemiah Attigah, co-founder and principal lead of Odekro, a platform that informs and empowers Ghanaian citizens on the work of parliament through open data analysis said their role during the elections was three-fold: opinion polling and reshaping, virality, and fact-checking.
Independent media organisations used their social media platforms for opinion polls on election issues such as key manifesto promises. Further, political parties utilised the poll results to ramp up the advocacy of key policy proposals. When the online commentaries were not favourable, both sides of the two main political parties employed a combination of misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies to win back public opinion. In such instances, civic tech organizations played a fact-checking role.
Attigah said that the use of civic tech during the election helped to an extent however at least 50% of Ghanaians are not online or do not have access to reliable connectivity therefore the reach of civic tech is limited. In order for technology to increase political participation, “we need to get a critical mass of Ghanaians to be politically conscious and active; train them on how to use tech tools effectively to score political goals, explained AttigahAdding that the use of technology will “leverage and catalyse the effect of their political activism to achieve critical public goods, political transparency, and accountability”.
Attigah added that civic tech provides more of a voice for citizens than other traditional media engagements, as “it removes the arbitrary judgement of gatekeepers in deciding whose voice gets heard and provides multiple mediums for citizens from all walks of life to express themselves.”
Civic tech can increase political participation however due to lack of access to the internet and government restrictions, it is a challenge for these platforms to strengthen citizen engagement. Civic tech needs the support of the government and the participation of citizens to effectively play a role during elections.
More African countries will be having elections this year, these include Ethiopia, Djibouti, Gambia, Chad, Benin, Cabo Verde, Somaliland, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Morocco. With the proliferation of civic tech around the continent, civic tech initiatives are bound to play an important role during elections.