Voting by phone

14 October 2020 | Opinion

Professor Eno Akpabio

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates indicate a mobile cellular subscription of 80.1 per 100 inhabitants in the African continent in 2019.

Quite a decent figure of the uptake of mobile phones, given that the global average is 108. But it is the creative and innovative use of the mobile phone and its democratisation potential that is the focus of the present reflection.

Mobile phones are used for money transfer in East Africa with Kenya accounting, according to Jeffrey James, for 80% of its use, much more than in Tanzania and Uganda. Its uptake is based on the perception that it is a safer way of sending money than through interpersonal means. Dejene Negassa Debsu, Peter Little, Waktole Tiki, Sarah Anne Guagliardo and Uriel Kit document the use of mobile phones among livestock traders and Borana pastoralists of southern Ethiopia who employ them to access information on grazing, the weather and market conditions.

Jenny Aker and Isaac Mbiti record its use by Ghanaians to learn about tomato and corn prices and by Nigerians to enquire about cross-border job opportunities before making the expensive trip to Benin. They report that in Malawi, people living with HIV/AIDS can receive text messages daily, reminding them to take their medication on schedule.

Citizens of Kenya, Nigeria and Mozambique are able to report violent confrontations via text messages to a centralised server that is viewable in real time.

Expensive elections

If cell phones can do all this world of good, why not deploy them in elections? I mean, we came up with all these cost-effective innovations without the aid of the West due to the peculiarities of our environment. Yet, when it comes to voting and civic participation, we go the expensive route. We print ballot papers which are thumb-printed en masse to rig the vote.

Elections are marred by violence and ballot-snatching, among other machinations of desperate politicians to deny the will of the electorate. It is about time we explored how to get people to register and vote by mobile phones, thus getting rid of the long queues and violence that is intended to disenfranchise them.

By the way, people are voting in their millions for reality shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator and voyeuristic interests. This is being done by young people from the comfort of their homes, as the just concluded Big Brother Naija reality show attests to, in spite of the chagrin of the older folks, religious and government figures who condemn the immorality that is on full display.

Voting by mobile phone might get more people engaged, improve the turn-out and finally give us leaders who are really the people's will rather than kingmakers who do not believe that the people should be allowed to use their dirty hands to choose those to govern them.


The auditing that is presently being employed in ensuring that votes for reality housemates are not rigged and that mobile money does not disappear into thin air can also be deployed in giving credibility to this style of voting.

While we are at it, can we also devise an African way of choosing our leaders from the grassroots up and ditch the party-based tribalism that is an evil wind blowing no one any good worldwide?

This way, leaders can emerge from the grassroots and these can congregate at the centre and choose a prime minister – a first among equals.

Our village leadership system from our glorious past can assist in this regard.

As a consequence, we will be adding value to democracy and civic participation, rather than just aping the West and their imported, unworkable system that is not attuned to the African context. It seems to cause more tribal and religious divisions, which disturb the peace and quiet we should all be enjoying.

*Professor Eno Akpabio is head of the media section in the department of information and communication studies at the University of Namibia. The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and not of the university he works for.

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