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.

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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.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated