Technological shutdowns as tools of oppression

Street scene in Togo Copyright: IRD / Marguerat

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Gisele Dodji Dovi says Togo’s recent presidential election shows how denying access to information and communication technologies can undermine democratic processes.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are increasingly being used to encourage fairness and transparency in elections, and many developing countries are now testing advanced electronic voting systems. Brazil and India, for example, both used electronic polling systems during their last major elections.

But the aims of these systems — to increase voter participation and the credibility of the process itself — are not universally valued. As Togo’s recent presidential elections showed, ICTs can equally be used to subvert the electoral process, when access to them is withdrawn.

The death in February of Togo’s president, Gnassingbe Eyadema, after 38 years in power, threw the country into political crisis. Eyadema’s political allies, with the backing of the government and parliament, appointed his son Faure Gnassingbe president — disregarding the country’s constitution.

The subsequent outcry meant Faure Gnassingbe had to step down and stand against three other candidates in the 24 April elections.

But on the evening of 23 April, people began having difficulty connecting to the Internet. Eventually, only international organisations and embassies using satellite links could access the Internet.

On voting day, many people called private radio stations alleging cases of electoral fraud, such as ballot box stuffing and multiple voting.

Then came another surprise: the telephone system went down, and for four days a few international incoming calls were all that came through. 

In the days immediately after the election, most private FM radio stations were suspended or allowed to broadcast music only, having been forbidden to cover the election.

News was available only through the official media or the international media on shortwave radio. The country’s borders were closed. Officially, national security was cited as the reason for these measures.

When Faure Gnassingbe was declared president, there were violent demonstrations. According to some sources, there were 58 deaths and 317 wounded — and to others, 811 deaths and more than 4,000 wounded. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said 30,000 people fled to neighbouring countries.

The election results were denounced as fraudulent by the European Parliament, and by national and international human rights organisations, as well as Togo’s main opposition parties and a large portion of the population.

Yet much hung on these elections: foreign aid from the European Union had been frozen since 1993 because of a ‘lack of freedom and democracy’, and only democratic and fair elections would have helped lift the sanctions. But it seems the government had a more pressing need — staying in power.

This might explains why appropriate software was not used to produce polling lists and cards.

Togo is a small country with a population of five million, about 45 per cent of whom are less than 15 years old. Appropriate data processing would have allowed the detection of errors and establish an accurate voter register. This would have been easy, as the expertise was available. But it did not happen.

The lists were processed manually, and many voters did not receive their cards while others reportedly received two or three. The total number of voters was estimated at 3.5 million instead of the 2.5 million it should have been.

On the eve of the election, masked men destroyed the independent computerised counting system set up by the main opposition party, eliminating any possibility of a simultaneous independent count.

The Internet and phone shutdown extended to private and independent communication companies, and this, added to widespread refusal to the public to witness the count, shattered hopes of a fair election and opened the way to the subsequent conflict.

In 2004, to encourage voter turnout and transparency, India introduced electronic polling for it’s 675 million voters. It all went smoothly. It is a system that could work in Togo too. Adult literacy rates there compare favourably with India’s, at 59.6 per cent and 61.3 per cent, respectively, according to the 2004 Human Development Index produced by the UN Development Programme.

But Togo’s voters didn’t need an e-poll system. Fully functioning telecommunications would have been enough.

The Togolese would surely have appreciated knowing the poll trends as they were happening, instead of having to wait two days before being told results that most of them were unable to check, or trust. They would have loved the electoral night they had been promised, just as the people of neighbouring countries have.

Instead, the people of Togo were denied telephone access to friends and parents during a period of tension. If there was an emergency, they were unable to call for help. They were also prevented from using ICTs for their work, whether they were researchers, academics or businessmen.

ICTs can be powerful tools for freedom and democracy — not just because they can bring transparency and credibility to elections, but also because they help mobilise people. Governments should seek to make the best use of them to enhance their countries’ development and the wellbeing of their citizens.

There is a risk now that other West African countries could try to imitate what happened in Togo, but as their populations have now learnt the lesson through news on TV, radio and Internet, I hope they will prepare themselves to respond appropriately.