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ECOWAS/SADC regions: Opportunities and challenges of ICT deployment in elections

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Participants at the International Conference on the use of Technology in Elections

For four days, electoral management bodies (EMBs) from West and Southern African countries gathered in Abuja (April 9-12) to discuss how deployment of ICT has enhanced elections in their countries, the opportunities and challenges they have encountered and how to overcome them.

From the contributions, there was a consensus that technology has become increasingly vital to ensuring effective management of elections. Therefore, more of it is welcome, except that the cost of it is also prohibitive. Sharing experiences was thus crucial to understanding the nature of the challenges and perhaps, using group approach could be a smatter way of dealing with it.

Welcoming participants, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu noted with relief that all the countries in the two blocs have subscribed to democracy as a system of government and are all showing keen commitment to entrench it.

On deployment of ICT, he said: “Election Management Bodies in our sub-regions and beyond have deployed technology in one way or another to improve on the processes, administration and outcome of elections ranging from training and capacity-building for electoral officials, promotion of inclusivity in the electoral process (youths, women, PWDs, IDPs and out-of-country/diaspora voters), the biometric registration of voters, delineation of electoral constituencies, geo-referencing of existing as well as the creation of new polling units, establishment of robust electronic databases, accreditation of voters during elections, actual voting and the speedy and more accurate collation/transmission of results.”

He added: “The deployment of technology has also empowered citizens, more than ever before, to organise, mobilise and protect their mandates using various social media platforms to track result transmission and undertake Parallel Vote Tabulation (PVT).”

And so, it was time to hear how technology helped to deliver at the most crucial period in recent election history. It was time to hear from Kenya, where a main presidential election was disputed. The re-run was equally controversial. But at the end of the day, a government was sworn-in and hell was averted all within two months.

Wanyonyi Wafula Chebukati, Chairman Independent Electoral And Boundaries Commission Of Kenya, explained that the opposition led by presidential candidate Raila Odinga disputed the election on the allegation that there was infiltration of the data base by ‘computer-generated leaders‘ which compromised the election in favour of Uhuru Kenyatta. According to Chebukati, that incident “aptly captures the misapprehension and misconception with which deployment of technology in elections face.” But if appropriately deployed, with all stakeholders having a buy-in, technology could enhance integrity of elections.

Yakubu

The right way to start is to have in place enabling laws to support ICT deployment. In the case of Kenya, the journey to electoral technology began in 2013, having accommodated it in the 2011 Elections Act. A biometric voter register, electronic voter identification, electronic candidate registration management system and electronic transmission of result, were progressively accommodated.

Chebukati says EMBs have a duty to raise the integrity level of elections, especially in Africa where politicians do not accept outcome of elections unless they are declared winners.

He said: “EMBs must necessarily adopt measures that credibly debunk this unfortunate state of affairs through their adoption of processes and methodologies aimed at redressing electoral shortcomings both real and perceived. This relook would commence right from voter registration processes, inspection and verification of voter [details], authentication of voters before polling, casting of the ballot, counting and tallying of the votes cast and ultimately transmission of results. Demystifying and alleviating opacity in the electoral processes is certainly a most opportune focus in enhancing electoral management and democracy – the question that I pose for this conference to answer is – can technology facilitate the actualisation of this objective?”

On real challenges facing electoral technology, Chebukati listed security and integrity of database, infrastructure and network connectivity, cost, role/responsibility of third party players (suppliers of the technology) as some obstacles to overcome.

Taking a look at cost of elections and using Nigeria and Liberia as instances, Professor of Political Science, Adele Jinadu, cast a wider net to drag into the mesh moral and spiritual deficits in the political space, translating into a political culture with attendant cost implications for whatever else that exists in the political space. He sees this cultural space as being predominantly un-democratic, in the sense that the commitment of the elite class is too suspicious to advance higher goals that could check soaring material and other political costs.

He said: “It is a political and legal culture that, through its spill-over effects, has not only weakened and corrupted institutions in state and society but also has diminished social capital and trust. More corrosively this unwholesome combination of an undemocratic political and legal culture has escalated the integrity cost of elections, which now accounts as a major factor in the spiraling cost of elections in both countries. It partly explains why there is more and more use of high technology as an investment in building trust as a social capital and in advancing high technology as an investment in not only building trust but also advancing electoral integrity, despite the Janus-faced nature as a medium which can be used properly to strengthen, or to abuse and to undermine, electoral integrity.”

Due to lack of integrity, according to Jinadu, the politics of budgeting and procurement processes take a huge toll on the entire electoral stretch, breaching the independence of EMBs and stagnating their capacities. At the end of the day, fatal backlashes are recorded across the continent.

He said: “The process is embedded in prolonged discussions between electoral commissions, executive branch agencies such as the ministries of finance and procurement agencies, and the legislatures in both countries. The discussions typically take place within a murky environment, characterized by the complex combination of bureaucratic red-tape, diminishing revenue flows to the government, competing demands from ministries, departments and agencies of governments, and significantly mutual distrust that is fed by assumptions of rent-seeking opportunities in contracting and in procuring election materials. The bargaining and delays, sometimes deliberately engineered, and opportunities thrown up by it for rent-seekers, contribute to the escalating cost of elections in both countries. What the process also brings up is the political problem of the administrative and financial independence of the electoral commissions, so necessary to build trust and confidence in the impartial and transparent management of the electoral process and the conduct of credible elections that comply with the requirements of electoral integrity.”

Since the subject matter of the day had to do with appreciating the lace of technology in elections, as well as managing cost, what efforts are on ground to transfer the technology to Africa, so that high procurement cost and associated headache of technology malfunction would be eliminated?

There seemed no direct answer to this poser, as participants were more preoccupied with procurement from India and China, forgetting that India and China used to be at par with many African countries some years back on ICT. Indeed, some Chinese vendors were very visible at the venue, and even distributed fliers and brochures. There were no single technology R&D personnel from companies of African origin to take notes and exchange ideas on how to develop homegrown tech solutions to growing need for IT in elections.

Chebukati however, suggested that Africans should be interested in transfer of knowledge and license and rights to develop systems. But he noted: “This involves transfer of perpetual licenses to the secondary use of the system. However, experience has shown that many vendors do not fully transfer the systems to the end users for fear of loss of their intellectual property rights and business revenue. For instance in Kenya the conduct of continuous Voter registration is facing a challenge, due to this limitation. We must go beyond sharing challenges to now engage in technology development. This way, we shall create new ideas that are relevant to the African situation.”

But for Prof. Jinadu, it is more integrity cost than material. He said: “At what point does the high integrity cost of elections become an unbearable price to pay for democracy and development? Taking high technology, a pertinent question to pose is, ‘how much high technology, and at what cost?’ Is high technology demanding to be bought, being pushed for rent-seeking purposes in an age of the globalization of democratic transitions? What alternatives are there to high technology? What cost saving options are there to reduce the administrative cost of elections, such as in the recruitment and honoraria of ad hoc staff? What strategies should we pursue to achieve the medium- to long-term objective of reducing or stabilizing rather than deepening the cost of elections?”

After sharing experiences of what obtains in their various countries, the meeting took a look at the adoption, deployment and use of technology in elections over the last three decades; and resolved that EMBs of ECONEC and ECF-SADC regions bear the burden of discharging the sacred duty of organizing free and fair elections, bearing in mind the consequences of a well conducted election and one poorly conducted. It noted that loss of life and properties have hallmarked disputed elections across the continent.

The meeting noted the place of technology in elections, as well as its costly nature. It requested that the private sector, which needs a peaceful and stable political environment to flourish, should share in the cost of elections.

The meeting expressed need for appropriate legal frameworks to support use of technology in elections, in order to adequately secure it and have buy-in of all stakeholders. Participants stressed the need for training in order to take care of technology gaps among EMB personnel.

The need for inclusivity was stressed, to engage full participation of women, youth, people living with disabilities and other marginalized groups, including internally displaced persons, and the Diaspora.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES), Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC Countries (ECF) and ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commissions (ECONEC-RESAO) partnered to stage the meeting.


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INECMahmood Yakubu
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