Sleight is Right: Cyber Control as a New Battleground for African Elections

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Is voting rigging shifting from the manual to the cyber arena? How prepared are election monitors and political parties to deal with electronic manipulation of ballots? Michael Amoah shares insights from his recently published article in African Affairs: Sleight is Right: Cyber Control as a New Battleground for African Elections’.


Across the globe, election management bodies (EMBs) face the unenviable expectation to deliver, and maintain public trust in an increasingly difficult environment. As stakeholders, including incumbents, opposition parties, electoral commission (EC) officials, civil society, and international monitors master the art of policing manual ballot processes, election cheating has shifted from the manual into the cyber arena. In the cyber arena, reputable data mining firms are cashing in on social media platforms to manipulate voter attitudes, and eventually voter choices. 

When it comes to actual vote counting, it appears that whoever has control over the electronic data aggregation has the upper hand. In cases where strategic scheming works simultaneously to produce paper ballots that match the hacked statistics, stakes get even higher. This was the case in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections in Kenya. The election process was characterised by missing polling station forms upon which declared results where supposed to be based on. In cases where forms were submitted, they were photo copies, did not have the EC stamp, were illegible, not signed by the returning officer, did not have the watermark or relevant security feature, or even serial numbers. 

In the same Kenyan election, the EC’s data systems experienced 3,395 failed log-in attempts from hackers, and 3,851 successful log-in attempts on the EC’s servers, including from unidentified strangers, as was revealed by the Supreme Court (SC) investigations, which eventually nullified the results – and this was the first time in African politics that a court had nullified the electoral result of an incumbent’s win. The incumbent subsequently took away the SC’s right to adjudicate over election results, and went ahead to conduct another rigged election to remain in power. 

The article in African Affairs demonstrates that where the incumbent has control of the EMB electronic aggregation process, the incumbent can guarantee itself a win, or suffer a loss if the situation was the contrary, by discussing four case studies (Gabon, Ghana, Kenya and Gambia) each with its own peculiar circumstances.

Although it is now commonplace for international monitors to monitor the manual processes, they cannot access or participate in the electronic processes because there is no legislation, convention or established protocol for it. 

Hence the article concludes that “one solution is to establish and institutionalize internationally agreed ICT protocols that would allow real time ​electronic monitoring access to EMB data management processes,​ and to which countries can sign up, so that independent election monitors​ could conduct forensic audits to investigate hacking claims and counter​ claims. Otherwise when a country gets stuck in an electoral dispute, there​ would be no agreed norms or template for the international community to​ follow even if that state would like international intervention.”

The 2018 presidential election in DRC (not discussed in the article) is another example of an incumbent-controlled Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) manipulating the election and announcing whatever results suited their purposes. Life is tough when the gatekeeper is the one abusing the system. An internationally established ICT protocol or convention (if it existed) could expedite a forensic audit of CENI’s end-to-end election management activity, and prove whether the DRC election was rigged or not. 

The recent May 2019 presidential election in Malawi could also benefit from such a convention, in order to silence all post-election violence and agitations. That said, it is being alleged in both political and analytical circles, that former president Joseph Kabila whose party has the current majority in the DRC parliament is contemplating a legislative move that would change DRC’s constitution to adopt parliamentary voting to elect future presidents, as happens in Angola currently. While it appears that determined politicians are proactively plotting to stay ahead of their game, it is about time the rest of the world also woke up to establish a means of gatekeeping the abusive gatekeepers.

Michael Amoah is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa, LSE, and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS University of London.



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