Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Texts a New Tool in Guinea’s Historic Election

Mobile phones turned citizens into election observers in Guinea's landmark presidential election. The technology will also be used to help voters in the upcoming September run-off poll.

By Kwami Ahiabenu II

On June 27, 2010, Guinea held what is widely being hailed as the nation's first freely run democratic election since gaining independence in 1958. A run-off between the two presidential candidates earning the most votes will take place on September 19, 2010. Another first in this landmark election process is the use of mobile phone technology.

Mobile phones have become a preferred means of communication in Africa because they are convenient and affordable relative to other methods. Most countries on the continent are now recording the use of mobile phones by all key stakeholders in their elections: from electoral officials, political parties and individual candidates, to electoral security agencies, civil society organizations, and local and international observers.

Candidates use mobile phones to raise funds and campaign. Voters can use mobile phones to verify their registration information and correct it if necessary before going to the polls. Mobile phones are also used to inform citizens about voter registration, and to inform registered voters about when, where and how to vote. And, in Guinea, phones have been used as a tool for election observation.

"If you have a problem during voting, send a text message to 8080." During the first round of elections in June, this was the message that Guineans around the country received at public forums, on the radio and in newspapers. The message advertised an election-monitoring service based on SMS text messages. The SMS service used a short code number, "8080," which enabled all mobile users in Guinea, regardless of their mobile operator, to send election-related queries, comments and report problems. The service was implemented by a coalition of government, private and business partners. These included the nonprofit group Alliance Guinea, the African Elections Project, Guinea's National Independent Election Commission (CENI), mobile operators (Areeba, Cellcom, Intercel Guinee, Orange or Sotelgui) and African Business Services.

Commenting on the SMS election-monitoring service, U.S. Ambassador Patricia Moller said at a briefing before the June election: "The United States is committed to ensuring that these are the freest and most transparent elections in Guinea's history. This innovative initiative will help to make this vision a reality…By providing voters with the means to protect their vote, we have helped to place the future of their country in the palm of their hands. This technology will allow CENI, local and international observers, and security forces to respond to incidents in real time."

After voters went to the polls, Alix Davilmar of the Guinea-based African Business Services, the providers of the short code service, declared the service a success. Davilmar said: "We received about 4,000 SMS [messages] before the day of election and on the day of elections there were approximately 8,000 SMS entries. After the Election Day, over 2,000 SMS entries also came in. These messages were all posted online and distributed as e-mail alerts to election administrators and observers, international media, civil society organizations or the general public."

The election did experience some glitches, according to the Carter Center, a U.S. NGO with expertise in observing elections which was on the ground in Guinea. In a statement, the Carter Center described some of the problems observed, "Confusion about several important aspects of voting and counting procedures, delay in allocation of polling stations, and late delivery of essential voting materials negatively affected the quality of polling."

Despite these difficulties, the period following the election has been calm and the results respected by all parties. The Carter Center itself declared the elections a success and noted, "the elections were marked by broad political participation, a spirit of open campaigning, and transparency."

Now all eyes are on the September poll, as Guineans prepare for the country's return to civilian rule.

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