Nigeria’s election shows that technology won’t save broken democracies

Protesters hold banners during a demonstration against the suspension of governorship elections in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, on March 11. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters hold banners during a demonstration against the suspension of governorship elections in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, on March 11. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

In the run-up to the recent elections in Nigeria, an article in Quartz Africa declared that “it’s become much harder to rig elections in Nigeria thanks to technology.” Looking on from about 3,000 miles away, Kenyans would be excused for stifling a laugh. The two countries share a history of electoral malpractice, and technology had been hailed as a guarantor of the credibility and integrity of the election in Kenya as well. The reality, however, turned out to be quite different. As the dust settles on Nigeria’s elections amid reports of technology failures and violence, it is clear that digital elections are no panacea.

Across the continent, digital election technology has come into vogue in the past two decades. According to a paper by Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis published last year, approximately half of all national elections in Africa involve digital technology such as biometric voter registration and electronic results transmission. The adoption of digital elections has been driven by three primary factors: efficiency, transparency and credibility.

This technology tends to cost an arm and a leg (Kenya’s August 2017 election was billed as one of the most expensive in the world), which inevitably leads to the question of whether Africans are getting value for their money. Many certainly seem to think so. A 2016 survey by Afrobarometer found that on average, two-thirds of Africans felt quite sanguine about the quality of their elections. But this figure masked huge disparities between countries; in Nigeria, for instance, less than half of those surveyed shared the optimism.

One of the impetuses for the adoption of technology was to reduce the violence associated with elections. By making the polls more transparent and tamper-proof, the thinking went, technology would mitigate the trust deficit that most elections management bodies on the continent suffered from, leading to a higher likelihood of acceptance even by losing candidates and consequently less violence.

That’s not exactly how it turned out. A study released last year by the Nordic Africa Institute found that while multiparty elections have emerged as the most legitimate route to political office, in recent years the violence associated with them has actually increased. The study attributes this to the winner-take-all nature of political competition on the continent, which incentivizes politicians to use any and all means to acquire power, including incitement, intimidation and violence. These are clearly issues with the design of the political system, which electoral technology cannot even begin to address.

Further, as researchers have found, digital elections are hardly foolproof. They can often be ineffective at boosting public confidence. Worse, they can be sabotaged or possibly even weaponized by the very institutions they are meant to shore up.

Kenya’s past two presidential elections are a case in point. Following the violence that accompanied the disputed 2007 election, the country had opted to adopt technology to avoid a repeat. In 2013, the technology failed completely: Almost every critical measure employed to ensure the credibility of the election — from biometric voter identification kits to the electronic results transmission system, which was meant to be updated in real time — collapsed, leaving a frustrated nation staring at frozen screens for nearly a week.

Five years later, while voting went on relatively smoothly, the real-time results that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission displayed on its public portal and fed to national TV networks were significantly different from the final vote results. In fact, the commission would later downplay the tallies at the Supreme Court, famously declaring they were not results, but rather just “statistics.”

As the Nigerian election results now head to the courts, with Atiku Abubakar contesting the reelection of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, technology will once again be in the dock. Whatever the outcome, one thing remains clear: Technology cannot substitute for democratic failure.

“You know a democracy is in trouble when two out of three voters don’t bother to turn up for a presidential election.” opined Remi Adekoya in the Guardian, alluding to the low turnout in the election. “The relationship between the Nigerian government and its people is broken. Apathy prevails. Trust is scarce,” he averred. These are not problems election technology can fix.

“Technology cannot purchase public trust,” warns Nanjala Nyabola in her book, “Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics.” Yet across the continent, instead of repairing broken democracies and addressing the real reasons for the loss of trust — such as a lack of both accountability and popular participation in governance in the years in between polls — societies are trying to salvage the broken elections they produce. This will continue to be an exercise in futility.

Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.

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