Welcome to Africa Research Institute’s blog. Africa Research Institute is a strictly non-partisan think tank based in London. Our mission is to draw attention to ideas which have worked in Africa, and to identify new ideas where needed.

Friday 20 August 2010

This and that

Voting gone techy

The Kenyan referendum for a new constitution on the 4th August has been the source of much debate, both within and outside Kenya. The legacy of factional violence that followed the disputed 2007 presidential elections is fresh in the minds of most Kenyans. But, contrary to some predictions, the ballot passed with few signs of disruption or unrest. The historic ‘yes vote’ brings an end to a twenty year struggle for constitutional reform, despite concerted opposition from former president Daniel arap Moi and the churches. The new constitution guarantees the introduction of a Bill of Rights, land reform and dual citizenship. Most significantly, parliamentary oversight of the president has been strengthened – a real milestone considering progress made in this area in neighbouring Tanzania’s Bunge. Interesting perspectives on the referendum from Kenyan bloggers can be found here.

Less attention, however, has been paid to the role of technology used during the referendum. A litmus test for the interim independent electoral commission of Kenya, the ballot saw the adoption of fingerprint recognition technology for voters who registered electronically, greatly speeding up the voting process. Some 20,750 polling stations were provided with mobile phones with data transfer capability to submit voting results to the tallying centre in Nairobi as they were verified. The unfolding results were displayed on a big screen in Nairobi.

The launch of the online platform Uchaguzi – Swahili for ‘choice’ or ‘election’ – is the latest development in election monitoring. Uchaguzi – adapted from the better known Ushadhidi platform – enabled ordinary Kenyans to text, email or tweet real time voting updates to a central server – whether instances of unrest, a hate speech or even a positive development. The results were displayed on an interactive map in real time, and reports sent to relevant election authorities and security services. You can watch a short video about Uchaguzi here.

Rwanda’s election

The run-up to the Rwandan elections sparked far more controversy than the actual polls. The murder of vice-president of the opposition Democratic Green Party, Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, and the fatal shooting of Jean Leonard Rugambage, the acting editor of Umuvugizi newspaper, grabbed the headlines – and for good reason. But voting on 9th August came and went with little commotion. President Paul Kagame claimed a much anticipated landslide victory with 93% of the vote. The president’s rebuttal of accusations of intimidation and violence in the UK’s Financial Times can be read here.

Press freedom

In May, Patrick Smith at Africa Confidential wrote an interesting blog about press freedom in Africa. He argued that journalists in Africa are ‘under attack’, citing a spate of unresolved killings and disappearances of journalists in Cameroon, Nigeria Congo-Brazaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He calls for journalists' unions to dedicate a fixed percentage of their incomes to support legal and medical expenses journalists in Africa.

Recent developments in Zimbabwe and South Africa offer an interesting comparison. In May, an important milestone was reached when the Zimbabwe Media Commission granted publishing licences to four daily newspapers – most noticeably the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s leading newspaper before it was bombed and then outlawed in 2003. Although press freedom in Zimbabwe still ranks as the lowest in Southern Africa, an important precedent has been set.

In South Africa, by contrast, debate has raged over the proposed Protection of Information Bill, currently before parliament. The bill increases the power of ministers to classify information – such as "the protection and preservation of all things owned or maintained for the public by the State" – as top secret. State run utilities or government contracts could be exempt from scrutiny. Leading critics include South Africa’s Bar Council and Zwelinzima Vavi, the secretary-general of the Council of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

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