Africa's election aid fiasco

It’ll take more than mobile phones and biometrics to make Africa’s elections fair and trusted

20 April 2013

9:00 AM

20 April 2013

9:00 AM

The development industry is as fashion-prone as any other. Fads come and go. There are a few giveaways when it comes to spotting them. Deceptive simplicity is one indication. The idea should have a silver-bullet quality, promising to cut through complexity to the nub of a problem. Even better, it should be a notion that can be rolled out across not just a country, but a region.

Covering the Kenyan elections, which climaxed with the inauguration last week of Uhuru Kenyatta as the country’s fourth president, I suddenly realised I was watching a fad hitting its stride: the techno-election as democratic panacea. We’ll see it again in Mali’s elections this summer.

Like most of these trends, it is premised on the best of intentions. Like many of them, sadly, it has the potential to create a fresh host of problems, wasting millions of dollars in donor funding, because it makes the classic mistake of confusing symptoms with causes.

When the Cold War ended in 1989, it was the beginning of the end for a generation of African Big Men propped up by Moscow and Washington. Multiparty elections hit the continent with a vengeance. What was delivered ended up being a lot less than promised. Dictators brazenly repackaged themselves as democrats and either effortlessly won many of these contests — owning the mass media and controlling the security forces helped — or else smoothly passed the baton to hand-picked acolytes.

But those days have passed. In a growing number of African countries, elections are bitter, close, and can actually end up overturning administrations. So the mechanisms of the polls themselves have come under unparalleled scrutiny, both from those bent on rigging and those determined to see some resemblance between public opinion and eventual outcome. Hence the technological craze. In Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Somaliland and Ghana, electoral commissions have all recently introduced biometric technology — which recognises fingerprints and facial features — to draw up new electoral registers. Mali and Togo plan to follow suit, and there have been calls for Zimbabwe to do likewise.

A ‘clean’ register, the theory goes, eliminates thousands of ‘ghost’ voters who sit unnoticed on manually compiled registers. It prevents over-voting and ballot-stuffing, two favourite rigging techniques. Biometric registers might eventually allow citizens to vote wherever they happen to be, geographically, come election day.

Kenya went even further with its 4 March election. In what was billed as Africa’s most modern poll, voters would not only identify themselves biometrically. To ensure complete transparency, each returning officer would transmit the results, using handsets provided by the country’s biggest mobile phone network, directly to a giant screen at the tallying centre in Nairobi.

At subsequent press conferences, EU and Commonwealth election monitors hailed the system as a marvel of its kind, an advance certain to be rolled out across the rest of Africa and possibly Europe, too. The enthusiasm was baffling, because almost none of it worked.


Biometric kits failed to recognise thumbs, forcing ID card numbers to be typed laboriously by hand. The classrooms routinely used as polling stations in Africa rarely come equipped with power sockets, so when the batteries used to power laptops loaded with the electronic poll book — another innovation — expired, they could not be recharged.

As for electronic transmission, exhausted returning officers forgot identification numbers needed to access the system or found that their figures would not transmit. The main server had crashed, overwhelmed by the relatively minor amount of data it was being asked to process. No backup had been catered for.

Was it cock-up or conspiracy? The supreme court, in confirming Uhuru’s win, indicated the former. But the electoral commission’s slowness in purchasing the equipment, testing it or training staff triggered accusations that the system was always intended to fail, allowing old-fashioned rigging in by the back door. ‘This election was meant to be manual from start to finish,’ wrote Maina Kiai, UN special rapporteur.

What’s shocking about Kenya’s technological fiasco, which formed the kernel of the legal petitions that unsuccessfully challenged the result, is that something stunningly similar had already taken place three months earlier. In Ghana’s presidential election in December, biometric kits also failed, forcing voting to be extended into a second day. ‘I queued for seven hours to vote in Accra because the biometric equipment broke down three times,’ says Nana Yaa Mensah, who supported the losing candidate. ‘If it was like that in the capital, God knows what happened in cut-off villages up north.’ In Ghana, too, the loser has challenged the outcome in the supreme court, citing irregularities.

If Sierra Leone’s 2011 election was judged a success, few view the DRC elections as credible, although failures there extended well beyond the technology. In Somaliland, the biometric voters’ register caused such a furore in the presidential polls, organisers reverted to manual for local elections.

This new technology does not come cheap, and only donor support makes these purchases possible. In DRC, the elections cost a staggering $360 million, with $58 million of that spent on biometrics. In Ghana, the figures were $124 million and $76 million respectively. Kenya’s elections cost $293 million, with donors putting in $100 million.

In established democracies, polls cost an average of $1 to $3 per head. In Kenya, where six ballots were staged on the same day, they cost over $20. Western taxpayers are paying dearly for systems that spectacularly fail to deliver and which, ironically, are deemed superfluous back home.

The question of funding raises a key issue. In the countries where technological solutions are being embraced, state procurement has always been a favourite method of corrupt enrichment. The tendering process for the various Kenyan contracts was shrouded in controversy, few doubt that ‘eating’ took place. The more equipment that must be bought, the greater the opportunities for rake-offs.

The new systems share another awkward characteristic for anyone who is either over 40 or does not enjoy regular access to a computer: mind-fogging opacity. Kenyan newspapers ended up publishing complex diagrams which tried to explain to puzzled readers exactly which foreign companies had provided the relevant apps, SD cards, EVIDS (Electronic Voter Identification Devices), BVR (Biometric Voter Registration) and VPN (Virtual Private Network). Responsibility for failure slips away when those doing the commissioning have no real grasp of who provided what.

Jonathan Bhalla, from the Africa Research Institute think tank, says the technology itself is rarely to blame; the issue is one of poor preparation and inappropriateness. ‘In Sierra Leone, for example, most rigging isn’t done by over-voting, it’s done by sending thugs round to scare voters away. So having a clean register doesn’t make a huge difference.’

The ‘legacy’ left by the new systems is often vaunted by both electoral commissions and donors. But when a country ends up staging not one but two successive biometric registration exercises, as happened in DRC in 2007 and 2011, it’s not clear how much remains. ‘In my view, the money would be far better spent training electoral commission staff, creating a bedrock of experience and professionalism amongst people who can then be employed again,’ says -Bhalla.

Mensah agrees that excitement over new kit diverts attention from mundane but key tasks such as training staff and drawing up clear rules of engagement. ‘You have to sit down and think through the worst-case scenario at every single step of the way — what happens if the power fails or the canoe carrying election materials overturns?’ At which point, one might suggest, the advantages of high-tech over manual start to look thin.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the techno-election is the way it is over-sold to the voting public. Assured they have been provided with a ‘tamperproof’ system, citizens let their guards down, blithely assuming that the hoary practices of the past no longer apply. What was striking in Kenya, sophisticated home of mobile phone banking, was how few questions were asked as the tallying process collapsed. As one business analyst remarked, no customer transferring money up country would have accepted such poor performance from a private IT supplier.

Many of the countries introducing these systems boast only modest electorates: Kenya and Ghana have 14 million voters each, Sierra Leone less than three million. Which raises an obvious question: just why is it so hard to stage a fair election, given such relatively small numbers?

The answer goes to the heart of why the current fad can be no more than a glitzy red herring. Thumb pads, apps and mobile phone transmission do no harm in themselves, but they cannot replace a society’s generalised buy-in to the democratic process. The reason political parties rig elections so enthusiastically in many African countries is because winner-takes-all systems of government and imperial presidencies make the rewards so enormous and punish failure so severely. Now fixing that is a lot harder.

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Show comments
  • MRMcMurchy

    Does The Continent of Africa require a New Electoral System? by Monte McMurchy

    An electoral system is [merely] an administrative logistical process designed to ensure that an expressive choice by an entity is both registered and designated to a specific individual or organization without bias or any other form of administrative intimidatory malfeasance.

    Africa does not require ‘a new electoral system’ in that the fundamental civic electoral ontology of probity and trust is no different than that element of trust with the requisite administrative conduct which is required in other electoral jurisdictions whether in North America or Europe.

    The civic electoral administrative system ought not be suborned to a particular geographic or ethnic region. An electoral system to be effective must be deemed ‘trust worthy’ and be held to strict public administrative disclosure ensuring that the expressive choice has been expressed in the manner indicated by the elector.

    African electoral systems do require localized ‘tweaking’ to ensure that the local African electors are capable of registering their intent without fear or favour. Such tweaking may include pictographs for those people unable to read or write.

    Logistical extensions in terms of time may be built into the African indigenous electoral process recognizing that transportation of the electoral materials do require time as weak fragile local infrastructure may require additional time to ensure full delivery material compliance.

    Media and related public policy concerns must be addressed to ensure that the localized conditions are appropriately represented and addressed ensuring value neutral respect of the civic electoral administrative process.

    This in no manner indicates that the essential electoral process is different or requires fundamental intrinsic modification as the essence of the process is no different. Choice registered–choice counted–choice expressed without any external bias or corrupt manner of practice designated to confer an unwarranted advantage to another.

    In regions of political administrative fragility, greater concern must be addressed to the electoral system fundamentals ensuring that the fundamental civic electoral integrity is not compromised which ought to be an essential consideration for all electoral systems in the world.

  • http://twitter.com/Joh_nnos Oti

    “As one business analyst remarked, no customer transferring money up
    country would have accepted such poor performance from a private IT
    supplier.” – Quite true. However due to the 2007 post election violence, questioning the process effectively meant you were “disturbing the peace” so a lot of people (including the press) decided to let it go.

  • onelife2live

    African elections are not a charity. Why do you think anybody in Africa should care about your opinion regarding their elections. You do not realise that elections are one factor in choosing leadership of a country but its not the only factor. So for you to write a whole article stating the obvious shows your lack of knowledge about the subject you wish to write about. Instead of this simplistic article maybe you could have written something useful like is governance getting better or worse, you even admitted that elections are getting competitive does that not demonstrate that the public is getting more confident in the conduct of elections? If you have nothing to say its better to keep quiet.

    • Eddie

      Or maybe he could write the truth: that most aid gets stolen by the African elite in their plutocracies and kleptocracies; that all African’s problems are caused by itself, especially its inability to tackle its massive over-population (but also its innate corruption and tribal brutality).
      Africa should get no aid at all unless it adhers to policies – such as saving the wildlife that no more belongs to Africa than the sky belongs to Europe, and halting the over-population that creates many, and makes worse all, problems it has.

      • onelife2live

        You are obviously ignorant and biased. A dangerous combination.Trends are more important than taking a static picture which this article does. What are the elections now taking place in Africa like compared to elections in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s? Did she say anything about that? No, well if she had researched that she would have realised that there is a definite improvement on the management of elections which has nothing to do with any charity organization. I also find her lack of reference to the people who matter the most when taking about an election as ridiculous. Can you talk about British elections without any comment about the British electorate. I won’t address the rest of the rubbish you said. African economies are the fastest growing in the world in 2013, ask the World Bank.

        • Eddie

          Wrong is right. End of.
          Now, get back to wiggling and rattling your begging bowl in your self-constructed ghetto gutter and blaming the white man for the fact you are a sad pathetic loser incapable of understanding reality.

    • Gixxerboy

      What on earth is wrong with you? African elections, in their new techno guise, ARE a ‘charity’ because they are funded massively by western aid. So, why should anyone in Africa care about western opinions on African election efficiency, transparency and fairness? Because we bloody paid for them, mate, to give Africans a chance of real freedom under the rule of law.

      Michela has raised legitimate issues, not widely known or disseminated, and all you want to do is shout the author down, proclaim there’s ‘nothing to see here’ and tell those who disagree with you, “its [sic] better to keep quiet.” Yeah, that’ll work.

      • onelife2live

        Let me help you out mate, because your knowledge of Africa is obviously limited. You are not responsible for elections taking place in Africa anymore than you have a say in who the leader of China is. You can save your white saviour complex for another issue not elections in Africa. In case yo do not know, your countries fought to prevent the ‘natives’ from being involved in leadership so there is no rule of law you are talking about. Rule of law was brought by the independence movements across Africa.

        • Gixxerboy

          Oh dear, chippy troll. Apologies for feeding it.

        • Eddie

          Utter and complete piffle. The British Empire for the most part gave Africa great things – rule of law, education, technology, trade, education; it replaced the barbariuan monstrous savages who now seem to have reverted to type since the Brits willingly left you all to it.
          You are clearly a fantasist moronic twerp and quite likely a massive racist hypocrite too. Read some history, wipe the scales from your eyes, and accept that all of Africa’s present problems have been caused by Africans themselves – the tribally loyal, violent, corrupt, incompetent brothers you so romanticise.

  • onelife2live

    Is the quality of life in Africa getting worse or is it improving? Generally speaking things are getting better. So I do not understand why some people are painting a picture of things getting worse. Sorry but the facts do not support your beliefs. Life in Africa is better now than at any time in the last century, for the majority of the people, that is. Also more money is coming from Africans working abroad than from aid so maybe you are just upset that soon Africans won’t need aid any more than any other society.

    • Eddie

      There’s grateful for yah!
      Can you repay us all the aid we’ve given you over 50 years then (and which corrupt thieves, no doubt like your own family, have pilfered)?
      You must love the new fascism of the Chinese coming into your country, taking its wealth, growing food for China on its land and killing all the wildlife (which belongs to the world). I hope they eat you with rice, you silly!

      • onelife2live

        Your countries are going broke anyway. You were used to living off stealing resources from Africa. Portugal, England, France, Spain no more colonies. You are now coming to Africa to look for jobs

        • Eddie

          Yes, that’s right. Hoardes of whities from Britain landing in Africa with their 7 kids and claiming benefits, free housing, government jobs and healthcare.
          No, wait a minute…
          ‘Broke’ is relative. What’s the GDP and average life expectancy in African countries again? Even in Botswana, 33 is the average age of mortality.
          Enjoy your new status as the slaves of China.

  • Simon Semere

    Hello Michela, I was given one of your books as a present when I was young but never got round to reading it (I was more into video games etc). The bit that I did read – the first chapter – I really did love and always promised myself I would complete that book, which I will!

  • onelife2live

    Maybe if you taught your kids how to stop playing video games and to procreate you wouldn’t need immigrants to keep your population from declining.

    • Simon Semere

      If that was directed at me, I’ve never taught anyone (child or adult) to play video games, I was talking about me as a child. All the author has done has shared a few views and insights to the voting system in Africa which is on it’s way up through advancing technology (like South America). I just don’t see the point of you ranting all over the page with nearly more words than the author to prove you’re either in Africa, or from Africa, just calm down

  • Eunice Kilonzo

    Very true. Pithy, this.