The Role of Digital Technologies in African Elections

In the aftermath of colonialism, the African continent has faced a barrage of issues, including the overarching issue of rapid democratisation. Elections have taken place in countries across Africa, each with their own unique set of complexities. Now, in the contemporary era, another dimension has been added to that – the emergence of technology and the role that this technology plays in elections.

Written by Humairaa Mayet

Technology’s relationship with elections is prevalent not only in Africa, but around the world, and this is influencing citizen participation in elections, and even goes as far as influencing the parties and individuals for which civilians vote. The quality of elections in African states often comes into question and this has been inadvertently affected by digital technologies. On the one hand, technologies can be used to improve the electoral process, but on the other, they can also be used to stifle democratic proceedings. Many African states tow the line between these two ends of the scale.

Africa is the poorest of all the continents, and this undeniably determines the impact digital technologies have in the long-term. The most impoverished civilians are likely to be intimidated by the impact of digital technologies in the electoral process as many of them are unlikely to have encountered these. Just as citizens are impoverished, so too are the countries themselves. Many African countries have spent large sums of money on digital election technologies, money which they cannot necessarily afford to squander. Moreover, the literacy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa sit below 70%, and this, coupled with language barriers, could further complicate the process.

In the past, digital election technologies have presented an array of problems in Africa (see Mapunye, 2018). In the 2017 Kenyan elections, digital technologies were widely used for the first time. This, however, did not abate the contestation of the results by the opposition party. The Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2018, found itself under fire after attempting to use voting machines, many of which were set alight, in its elections. The 2019 elections in Nigeria were plagued by the untimely and inexplicable death of the head of Information and Communications Technology at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, alongside over 600 others. These are only some of the stumbling blocks encountered as a result of the emergence of digital election technologies on the continent.

Source: Photo by Element5 Digital

There are, however, not only negative aspects of digital election technologies. To a certain extent, they have improved the integrity of elections that were oftentimes compromised prior to the introduction of these technologies. The election administration, which was observed to be notoriously inefficient in African countries, can be made more efficient by digital election technologies. Despite the hindrances caused by poverty and low literacy rates, technologies have, in certain cases, led to an increase in citizen participation. Ultimately, digital election technologies have increased participation and made more efficient complicated processes, but have paved the way for African political administrations to potentially transform from democracies to technocracies.

One of the most significant problems of digital election technologies in Africa is the fact that technologies designed for developed countries are being used in developing countries. This has proven to be a significant issue, but not one which cannot be rectified. Digital election technologies should be designed with African contexts in mind. If anything has been proven by the myriad issues which have arisen as a result of digital election technologies, it is that there is a need for Africanist perspectives.

Ideally, digital election technologies in Africa would be designed by Africans, for Africans, instead of emulating Western models. Technologies would be available in all relevant languages, would make accommodations for the lower literacy rates, and would be available across countries, even in the most rural areas…read more

Also read What’s happening in African civic tech this week? and Exploring Artificial Intelligence Technologies for Enhanced Deliberative Democracy

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