Tech adoption in African elections 

on

Africa exists in a technological paradox. On the one hand, the continent is a technological laggard because of its slow progression in tech innovation, including AI. On the other hand, several African countries have, by default, been early adopters of highly sophisticated technologies due to foreign tech companies that treat ‘African elections as a testing ground11. The view that electoral trust is being compromised by big tech companies and technologists’ unregulated incursion of the electoral process2, cannot be dismissed. A cursory glance at some of the African countries that have been early adopters of tech does raise fundamental questions about why certain tech solutions are piloted on the continent. 

The view that electoral trust is being compromised by big tech companies and technologists’ unregulated incursion of the electoral process. Credit Freepik

How did Somaliland become the first country in the world to implement iris recognition tech in 2017 to register and verify voters? How is it that the scandalous Cambridge Analytica, which utilised micro-targeted advertising to influence elections through the unauthorised collection of Facebook data, was first piloted in Kenya and Nigeria before being deployed in the United States and the United Kingdom? One explanation for this pattern of early-tech adoption could be that the continent is an easy target for3 foreign actors seeking to evade more restrictive national regulations in favour of the advantages offered by less stringent foreign regulatory regimes. 

Beyond elections, there are other curious examples of tech adoption that don’t augur well for Africa’s agency or the democratic aspirations of its people. For instance, how is it that4 Ethiopia, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, has the capabilities of a highly technologically advanced, online censored and surveillance state? Why has the continent witnessed increasing5 unregulated acquisition, use, and control of personal data by foreign states in collaboration with certain African states that have struck authoritarian alliances for surveillance and monitoring technologies? Also, why are these surveillance and monitoring technologies being deployed6 and operated within the ambit of developing, underdeveloped, onerous, or vague legal and policy frameworks? The reality is that apart from being a testing ground, 7Africa has been the target of pervasive and unregulated digital practices like invasive data collection, achieved in part through weak legal standards. 

These emerging technologies not only have the potential to undermine electoral integrity and public trust but have, in some countries, been proven to do so. Credit Freepik

Why does the continent have such weak legal standards? In the case of AI regulation, some researchers have argued that AI regulatory efforts are premature because the technology is still nascent, and its transformative power is yet to be extensively exploited on the continent8. They assert that a functioning ecosystem is a prerequisite for the effectiveness of regulation so by virtue of its nascency, the ecosystem needed to effect regulatory measures is almost non-existent in most African countries9.  Although the nascency argument is valid, it is somewhat moot given that AI adoption is already transpiring, albeit un-uniformly, in different settings across the continent. For instance10, most African electoral commissions with a history of AI adoption have little or no regulations for AI uptake in elections. So, if AI regulation must be deferred until a functioning ecosystem exists, how can electoral processes be protected in cases where electoral commissions have adopted AI? These emerging technologies not only have the potential to undermine electoral integrity and public trust but have, in some countries, been proven to do so. Moreover, unregulated incursions into the electoral process raise concerns about transparency, accountability, and the potential for manipulation.

Apart from the adoption of technology, questions also arise about the procurement processes which tend to be opaque or can be dictated by foreign countries. For instance, in Kenya, the Canadian government helped secure the loans needed to pay for the introduction of digital equipment in 2013 only if it was purchased from an approved company, meaning Kenya could be11 locked into a particular technology solution and only able to continue using its digital systems by maintaining a commercial relationship with the particular vendor that provided them. Further, some countries’ ability to retain control over their electoral data is compromised by reliance on foreign tech companies. 

Kenya’s annulled 2017 polls had integrated technology across the different phases of the electoral cycle reportedly costing some US$499 million for a voter population of 19.6 million, bringing cost per voter to about US$25.50 dollars – that election has been said to be one of the most expensive in the world. Credit Freepik.

For example, in the case of Kenya, voting data was hosted on servers in France by the French technology provider OT Morpho, and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC’s) failed to open up the servers to scrutiny during the legal challenge to the electoral results, contributing to the Supreme Court’s nullification of the results. Kenya’s annulled 2017 polls had integrated technology across the different phases of the electoral cycle reportedly costing some US$499 million for a voter population of 19.6 million, bringing cost per voter to about US$25.50 dollars – that election has been said to be one of the most expensive in the world. In the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the country had to sue a Belgian company all the way in Belgium for electoral fraud in relation to the procurement of biometric voter registration kits for its 2011 election.

Trends in tech adoption have demonstrated that Africa’s technological advancement12 has been largely reliant on foreign technology transfer and acquisition, particularly in the area of AI. As Africa becomes a battlefield of ‘digital empires’ of global powers due to its virtually non-existent digital infrastructure, there are valid concerns about techno-colonialism13 which emanates from the subservient position of AI client states in Africa to AI Superpowers, namely China and the United States of America whose centralized control and ownership of technology can be used to exercise a form of domination. The concept of techno-colonialism draws attention to the influence of foreign tech companies and the dependency of African states on AI Superpowers which may undermine the continent’s ability to exercise agency. 

Delta-Lau Milayo Ndou is a political communications expert, specialising in political campaigns. In the last 4 years, she has devised and implemented communications strategies for 3 African Heads of State, contributing to their victory at the polls. In 2023, she was part of a technical team that piloted the use of AI in a Presidential political campaign in Africa and she devised the script for generating synthetic content in image, text, video and speech formats. She was senior researcher for the 2024 edition of the International Political Campaigns Expo (IPE24) where she led a panel on AI and political communications. Dr. Ndou has considerable academic and practitioner-based knowledge gained from working across many of Africa’s complex political and information ecosystems that have given rise to information disorders such as election-related disinformation and technology-facilitated violence against women. She has also consulted for UN Women as a tech, gender, and elections analyst in Africa, while interrogating the impact of technology in administering elections on the continent. She has conducted policy-relevant researched commissioned and funded by international organizations including the Mozilla Foundation and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Dr. Ndou holds a Ph.D. in Media Studies and her current research interests centre on the intersection of politics, technology and communications, particularly on the impact of AI in African elections and media narratives of the same.

  1.  Ekdale, B., & Tully, M. (2019, October 2). African Elections as a Testing Ground: Comparing Coverage of Cambridge Analytica in Nigerian and Kenyan Newspapers. African Journalism Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/23743670.2019.1679208 ↩︎
  2.  Artificial Intelligence and the integrity of African elections. (n.d.). International IDEA. https://www.idea.int/news/artificial-intelligence-and-integrity-african-elections  ↩︎
  3. Froomkin, A. M. (1997). The Internet as a source of regulatory arbitrage. ↩︎
  4. Authoritarian Alliances and the Politicking of Data in Africa        | Journal of Online Trust and Safety. (n.d.). https://tsjournal.org/index.php/jots/article/view/111/56 ↩︎
  5. Authoritarian Alliances and the Politicking of Data in Africa        | Journal of Online Trust and Safety. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2024, from https://tsjournal.org/index.php/jots/article/view/111/56  ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. Authoritarian Alliances and the Politicking of Data in Africa        | Journal of Online Trust and Safety. (n.d.). https://tsjournal.org/index.php/jots/article/view/111/56  ↩︎
  8. Made in Africa: An African Perspective on the Design, Development and Governance of AI. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2024, from https://qbit.africa/assets/files/made-in-africa-1-7cbb447e2915832ec907f56a36d864a8.pdf ↩︎
  9.  Ibid.  ↩︎
  10.  Artificial Intelligence and the integrity of African elections. (n.d.). International IDEA. https://www.idea.int/news/artificial-intelligence-and-integrity-african-elections  ↩︎
  11. Power, M., Khumalo, S., and Trott, W., (2022) Democracy 2.0: Procurement of elections tech. https://altadvisory.africa/2021/07/26/democracy-2-0-procurement-of-elections-tech/. ↩︎
  12.  Hlomani, H. (n.d.) African AI Observatory. https://www.africanobservatory.ai/projects/meta-bursary-abstracts ↩︎
  13.  The Road to Technocolonialism. (2021, August 28). https://www.internetjustsociety.org/the-road-to-techno-colonialism ↩︎
Share this
Tags

Recent Post

The Africa in London

Academia, education, culture, business, advocacy, and engagement—how well does Africa flow along the Thames?

Larry Rowbs Foundation works to reduce pollution in the fashion industry

The organisation is dedicated to tackling the problem of environmental pollution stemming from the textile industry and striving to lessen its impact. 

The Enduring Voice of the People: The Kgotla System in Botswana’s Policymaking

Botswana's democracy boasts a unique feature: the Kgotla system. More than just a historical relic, the Kgotla serves as a vibrant platform for public participation in the modern policymaking process.

More like this

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here