Imagine, for one moment, that the recent Kenyan elections went peacefully. That voting went smoothly, results were counted on time and in an orderly fashion, and there was general calm. Then, following declaration of the winner, local NGOs make their own announcement – of widespread corruption, ballot-box stuffing, destroyed votes. Their proof? Thousands of text messages sent in from monitors, spread around the country, keeping a watchful eye on events. All hell breaks loose, and we see riots and widespread violence on an unimaginable scale.
This isn’t quite what happened, but it could have been.
My knowledge of Kenyan politics is limited – I’ve only been to the country once in early 2007- although I do have a number of politically active Kenyan friends. But despite my amateur status I, like everyone else, never expected this. Hundreds dead, a hundred thousand fleeing their homes, tribal violence and accusations of genocide. Years of progress in one of Africa’s most stable countries reversed in an instant, and no end in sight.
For a while there was interest in Kenya in repeating the use of my FrontlineSMS system, which helped monitor the elections in Nigeria last year. That election was relatively peaceful, despite widespread accusations of corruption. Although FrontlineSMS didn’t feature, the whole subject does raise some awkward questions. The very work that I do, despite being thousands of miles away from where it is usually applied, does have consequences. And very real ones at that.
I’ve been thinking more and more about this over the past few days. How would I feel, or anyone come to that, if they developed technology whose ultimate use lead to this level of violence and loss of life? This didn’t happen in Kenya, but it could have.
A few people have spoken to me about this over the past couple of days. Interestingly, while I was concentrating on the negative, they were thinking more positively. If something like FrontlineSMS had been used, they argued – and more reliable exit polls published as a result – wouldn’t that have helped reduce the ‘shock’ of the result, for the opposition at least? After all, much of the initial violence was sparked by disbelief at the result, where early polls had indicated a strong lead for the opposition candidate. Could something like FrontlineSMS have allowed results to be trickled out to the public more slowly, reality-checking anticipated results on both sides?
Election monitoring with mobile phones is still in its infancy, and there are a number of different schools of thought. Some organisations concentrate on equipping official monitors with the technology, while I believe more strongly in engaging citizens in the process. A mixture of the two is probably most likely the way forward – it doesn’t need to be one or the other. But what NMEM did in Nigeria was a breakthrough. According to White African:
“This type of election monitoring is ground breaking in Africa. I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued to be a case study for future monitoring efforts around the continent – it perfectly showcases how technology can be used to circumnavigate government and organizational inefficiencies by going directly to the people”
And the consequences of this kind of monitoring? Well, I remain convinced that mobile technology has a significant role to play in spreading democracy and improving the democratic process, and not just in developing countries. Indeed, the positive impact of mobile phones in this area – and many others – has been well documented. But with all things technology, we need to be aware of the negatives.
Even mobile phones, as great as they are, have some.