Co-opting AI in elections could enrich or mutilate Africa’s democracy scorecard

Saturday April 06 2024

One study by Afrobarometer indicates that 75 percent of Africans support open, fair and honest elections as the best way to choose their leaders. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


This year, 20 African countries will yet again troop to their polling stations to elect leaders of various ranks. That regularity of elections can often define whether a country is growing or regressing in democracy.

But what if tech was employed to make it easier for voters to choose their leaders?

At a forum in Nairobi last week, experts and policy makers discussed the feasibility of using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to address the chaos that often surrounds African elections. Though voting is now more frequent than coups, the chaos related to voting material distribution, counting of the votes and securing the ballots have all made it harder for newcomers.

The forum included officials from the African Union (AU), electoral bodies from across the continent, tech companies, election practitioners, citizen observer networks and regional entities.

Read: Kenya, Uganda score poorly on democracy index

There won’t be an AI-led election this year yet, but these officials were assessing whether that will be possible at all, in future. A Regional Working Group on AI and Elections in Africa was also launched to advocate for a framework for regulating AI use in elections.


If implemented, it will not be cheap. Experts warned that transitioning to AI electoral processes in Africa might not be a walk in the park.

Grace Githaiga Director for KICTANect, a Nairobi-based think-tank on ICT, noted that it will require deliberate, “coordination at continental and regional levels, strengthening the Association of African Election Authorities and standardisation of legal and regulatory frameworks for AI integration.”

“We need an adaptive regulatory framework where we allow the regulations to evolve, have regular reviews, consult with stakeholders, engage with regulatory authorities and discuss the emerging ethical concerns.”

Countries such as Russia, have had some form of digital voting where voters don’t need to leave their homes to cast their ballot. But those who have, including Kenya’s own use of digital remission of vote results, have experienced internet problems or even hacking attempts.

For AI, the problem is that no one ever tried it. And no one knows what should or should pass.

“There should be regulations for AI in Africa. Governments should invite big tech companies — not for them to direct them on how to regulate but — to help them understand technology,” explains Microsoft Government Affairs Director, Akua Gyekye.

“There is a need for public awareness for reasons of public interest, because you cannot regulate what people do not understand. What, therefore, is so intelligent about AI?”

Dr Ojwang Ochieng, a lecturer at Kisii University in Kenya, cautions that an AI electoral framework will only be as reliable as the individuals involved since it will still need humans to operate it.

“We must always start with ourselves as human beings because if you say that machines are going to be more intelligent than you then you are wrong. We are citizens and we have the right to make value addition and ensure that political value addition works for us.

On privacy, security and inclusivity, AI comes out as a necessity, experts explain.

According to Yiaga Executive Director, Samson Itodo, African electoral commissions should ensure they stay a step ahead in matters technology through stakeholder forums to gain knowledge on AI tools utilisation.

“The importance of staying ahead in the technological field with a focus on understanding the technology and its application rather than merely employing it. Electoral Management Boards should avoid merely playing catch-up and instead ensure they are well informed and proactive in their approach to technology and AI.”

One study by Afrobarometer indicates that 75 percent of Africans support open, fair and honest elections as the best way to choose their leaders. But it also said the number of Africans who see elections as the only method of choosing leaders has reduced lately.

The study shows a striking weakening of support for elections in the continent.

Out of all the 39 African countries in which the 12-year survey was conducted between 2011 to 2023, Sierra Leone is the only country that recorded increased support for elections by 13 points, the findings show.

Although Kenya is among 11 countries in Africa leading in trust for their election bodies, over half of its population (53 percent) trust the election body “just a little or not at all” as opposed to 45 percent who expressed “somewhat or a lot of trust.” Tanzanians top the list with 79 percent.