THERE was something familiar about The Gambia presidential elections Thursday. Hours ahead of the vote, the government banned the internet and international calls.
Blocking social media or shuttering the internet entirely is becoming a common feature of African elections, referendum votes, or politically restive periods.
Although, being The Gambia, with its autocratic eccentric leader Yahya Jammeh, who claimed to have concocted a cure for HIV/AIDS in the kitchen sink of the presidential palace, there was a unique twist:
Jammeh said divine intervention would give him a fifth term, although opponents charged his win was more likely to come from vote fiddling.
MARBLES AND DRUMS
Also, instead of using ballot papers, voters put a marble into a coloured drum for their candidate. The system, according to the Jammeh government, is aimed at tackling illiteracy and preventing rigging.
In The Gambia’s 2011 election, according to reports, only two votes were declared invalid after people placed their marbles on top of drums.
Discounting the marbles and drums, The Gambia election went to type.
It is in good company. In August Gabon shut down the internet following violence and the announcement that Ali Bongo was re-elected by a slim margin for a second term in office.
In October 2016, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in which it imposed a series of restrictions, including shutting down the internet.
Even Ghana, considered one of Africa’s democracy role models, in June surprised many when the country’s police chief announced the government intends to shut down social media on December 7, 2016 when the country goes to the polls to elect a President and Members of Parliament. The elections had originally been scheduled for November 7.
RECORD NUMBER OF INTERNET SHUTDOWNS
A recent report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), a leading centre for research on ICT policies in Africa, indicated that there had been 16 recorded incidents of internet shutdowns by the first half of 2016 in Africa.
In addition to The Gambia, Ethiopia, and Gabon, shutdowns have taken place in Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Congo Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Tunisia, and Mali.
Some of countries disrupt access to the internet many times. Ethiopia always has a finger on the switch, and Uganda blocked social media during its chaotic February elections, and then in May days before president Yoweri Museveni was sworn in for his controversial fifth term.
The result is that this year alone, there have already been more than 20 internet shutdowns in Africa, most related to elections and political protest.
Elections on the continent have historically favoured incumbents, who can call up state resources and outspend and out-message the opposition in lopsided races. Outside of the southern African countries of Malawi, Zambia, Mauritius, Kenya in East Africa, and further north Tunisia, opposition victories are a black swan on the continent.
The triumph of Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari over incumbent Goodluck Jonathan last year, was a first for the country.
It was also a rare regime change at the polls for a big African country, which are mostly dominated by military or liberation parties (as in Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola and South Africa) or entrenched long-ruling ones (Tanzania).
Often, repression is used to tilt election outcomes, with opposition rivals jailed or killed. In Uganda’s February elections, the main challenger to Museveni, Kizza Besigye, was arrested a record four times in a week ahead of the vote. His house has remained under police siege, and in all this year he has been in jail or arrested over 30 times.
However, elections in Africa are mostly outright rigged.
The rise of independent FM stations has proved a headache for ruling parties keen to steal votes, but the biggest disruptions have come with the internet, the growth of social media, and smartphones.
This has allowed voters and local observers to photograph results sheets and acts of voter fraud, and send out text messages of the count. They are shared online and distributed on social media like Facebook and Twitter, and encrypted instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.
Not only is it making it more difficult for incumbents and their ruling parties to cheat elections, but perhaps the bigger problem is that these hard-to-control messages provide a powerful narrative of illegitimacy and a permanent record on the web that governments can’t seize back, even if they are able to prevail at the elections.
In the past, opposition parties’ attempts to set up independent tallying centres, have been easily disrupted. The mobile phone and internet have overcome that.
These shutdowns are, therefore, likely to increase, rather than end. At the end of 2015, 46% of the population in Africa subscribed to mobile services, equivalent to more than half a billion people. Over the next five years, an additional 168 million people will be connected by mobile services across Africa, reaching 725 million unique subscribers by 2020.
Meanwhile, the number of smartphone connections across the continent almost doubled over the last two years, reaching 226 million, according to GSMA’s report on Africa’s mobile economy.
While the voting will still be done with paper – or marbles – in ballot booths for many years to come, the winners of future African elections will increasingly be decided over smartphones, social media, and the internet. This is because many times it is not the voters who decide the winner, but those who count and announce the results.
Governments will therefore certainly move a lot more resources to control the internet, and the opposition and activists will also spend a lot more energy and innovations to subvert them in cyberspace. Expect the battle to be furious – and ugly.
*The internet was opened Friday after the shock defeat of Jammeh.