/ 13 May 2024

Do politicians deliberately sabotage ICT adoption in African elections?

The landscape of technology-driven elections is fast mutating. With the current deficits, there is a need for adequate digital skills if Africa is to be recognised for effective handling of elections.
The landscape of technology-driven elections is fast mutating. With the current deficits, there is a need for adequate digital skills if Africa is to be recognised for effective handling of elections.

In recent years, there has been a surge in the adoption of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools in global elections. Best practices in mature democracies around the world show us that technology provides a safe, effective and more efficient replacement for conventional voting processes. However, the successful adoption of election technology in Africa is slow and, in many cases, ineffective. Is it because of a distinct lack of ICT expertise among practitioners and decision-makers, or is it something more sinister like the deliberate sabotage of ICT adoption by politicians in some African nations?

ICT in African elections is a mixed bag

While mature electoral systems have successfully adopted ICT, African experiences have been mixed. There is conflicting evidence about the impact of ICT proficiency on the results of elections in Africa. The prevailing opinion is that adopting digital election processes is a no-brainer; however, in most cases, the results have been otherwise, raising doubts about the skills of those manning IT systems for electoral bodies. 

In Nigeria, for example studies show that voters reacted favourably to ICT in the electoral process, however, another study showed that Tanzanian voters’ felt the Internet adversely affected election fairness and may have skewed results.

In Kenya, the response was intense. The deployment of digital technology for electoral purposes was disputed three times in the Supreme Court of Kenya in the 2013, 2017, and 2022 general elections. Deployment of digital systems incensed voters so much that it led to the death of the Kenya Electoral Body ICT Manager after a demonstration of the ICT systems that would be deployed in the 2017 general elections. The trail of events on how ICT personnel were involved in electoral malpractice was cited by the Supreme Court Judges as part of orchestrated systematic failures aided by ill intent.

This led to the nullification of the 2017 Presidential elections and a rerun was conducted.  The Kenyan revealed severe flaws in the deployment (rather than ICT itself) in the voting process, from voter registration to sensitisation and result distribution.

Cameroon, a beacon of light

To avoid a repeat of the Kenyan experience, countries like Cameroon have created and adopted a workable ICT Implementation Strategic Plan. Implementing the strategy involves providing election officers with extensive training in digital technology, acquiring the appropriate ICT equipment and setting up a secure infrastructure in field branch offices.

ICT skills are regarded as an integral part of the successful implementation of electoral management. The glorification of ICT skills however is beginning to influence the attitude of constituencies and voters towards the outcome of electoral results, especially in African countries where elections have shifted towards  digital electoral systems.

Lack of ICT skills at the heart of bad adoption

Implementing systems like biometric voter registration and identification, e-voting, e-voter registration, electronic counting and related digital infrastructure have exposed major inadequacies in some African electoral processes. Chief among them is the lack of ICT Skills.

Research on Africa’s adoption of technology in electoral processes in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria all bear this point out. Even the UN Elections observers group in Africa notes that the bad implementation of electronic voting to boost political participation and public trust in elections has in fact, decreased voter confidence in election technology.

Cronyism and political interference at the heart of sabotage

That said, the problem goes a lot deeper than just a scarcity of skills. It  is also a symptom of the culture and design of elections management in Africa. Politically, most African elections, whether managed manually or electronically, are designed to favour the incumbents. 

This in turn opens the door to political influence over hiring choices. Technical proficiency, experience and professionalism should ideally be prioritised when hiring technologists for Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs); nonetheless, political factors in African elections often take precedence, as observed in the Kenyan context. Similar issues have been observed in Nigeria even when Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) appeared to prioritise ICT specialists over political appointments.

This inability to adopt technology promptly and meaningfully brings into question the legitimacy and efficacy of existing electoral processes in hotly contested elections particularly with regard to the timeous resolution of electoral disputes.

What skills are needed for the future of African elections?

The landscape of technology-driven elections is fast mutating. With the current deficits, there is a need for adequate digital skills if Africa is to be recognised for effective handling of elections. Proficiency in cybersecurity is essential for protecting election systems from cyberattacks, while data analytics skills allow for the intelligent analysis of voter data.

In addition, understanding blockchain technology improves election security and transparency, while understanding artificial intelligence and machine learning helps with anomaly detection and predictive modelling. Proficiency in mobile technology is essential for creating voter registration applications and sharing election-related materials, while knowledge of geographic information systems facilitates the process of drawing electoral boundaries. Furthermore, potential skills in electoral information management systems are necessary for thoroughly processing election data.

In contrast, proficiency in social media management is vital for promoting public awareness and refuting false information. Election officials must also be trained in digital literacy to guarantee they can use new technologies efficiently, and network infrastructure management is essential to the efficient running of online systems.

It is a long road to free and fair digital elections

The shortage of qualified individuals is a significant barrier to the effective integration of ICT in electoral procedures. System administration, data management and cybersecurity are just a few domains where competence is needed for the deployment and upkeep of complex systems. The lack of these experts presents a significant barrier that impedes implementation and leaves voting systems open to attack. Inadequate training for current staff members worsens the problem since they may be unable to use and troubleshoot new technology with the same efficiency and precision.

The challenge of precisely identifying the required ICT skills exacerbates this scarcity even further. This in turn opens the door to political appointees and cronyism. All of these elements play a part in Africa’s poor election administration.

How do we move forward?

In order to effectively tackle the issues of ICT proficiency and election oversight in Africa, it is critical to concentrate on confronting the obstacles to implementation, closing the digital gap and strengthening cybersecurity protocols. Underpinning this should be legislative amendments that prioritise skills-based selection for ICT roles to shape the legal environment for electoral management.

This requires drafting specific legislation to regulate hiring processes, staff training, updating of training materials and consistent upgrading of technology and credentials. Precise qualifying standards must be developed. To guarantee transparency, independent monitoring organisations should be empowered to examine and certify hiring procedures.  Public consultations on draft legislation for election management, highlighting the significance of ICT competency and promoting skills-based recruitment methods will help build trust in a sceptical voter community. By strengthening the EMBs’ legal basis, this all-encompassing strategy should make hiring highly skilled IT staff for electoral procedures easier.

Gedion Onyango is a senior lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Nairobi, Kenya. He is also a research fellow with the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa and The London School of Economics and Political Science. His research focuses on digital governance, public accountability, and public policy in African countries.

Japheth Ondiek is currently a Ph.D. student in Public Policy at the University of Nairobi. He is a digital transformation and technology researcher focusing on how digital policies influence accountability, decision-making and service delivery in public sector institutions.

Ondiek and Onyango are research contributors to the Wits School of Governance’s Tayarisha Centre for Digital Excellence

This article is part of The Digital Afrikan’s Elections Series – 2024. The Digital Afrikan is a journalism organisation with a mission to drive digital transformation in Africa. Visit our website or contact us on [email protected]