Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Africa Elections Project at Digital Bridge Initiative, Abuja, Nigeria

Eric Osiakwan, a man of many talents and almost as many responsibilities, discusses his
African Elections Project. Like Juliana, Eric was in Kenya during the electoral crisis. He found himself wondering, "How do we avoid these situations?" Somewhere between the polling stations where local vote counts were announced and the electoral commission, the vote count changed.

Eric and his friends realized that there's widespread interest in these elections, and widespread enough use of SMS that SMS could be used to report on and help cover these elections. The African Elections Project is built around a simple idea - let's take announcements made in local areas and broadcast them widely to help prevent the theft of elections. This involves reporters at polling places, SMS as a transmission mechanism, and the use of broadcast technologies like newspapers and radio to disseminate the information, as well as the internet. Eric is clear that this is a journalistic, reportorial project, not a monitoring one.

Based around this simple idea, AEP has grown to include a much wider set of information around elections. Sites for different country's elections include pictures from polling places, blog posts, links to news stories and a broad range of information sources about these events.

The main problem with AEP has been a fundamental problem with African elections - the project has been prepared to monitor elections in the Ivory Coast and Guinea, but both elections were put off. So far, the project has monitored Ghana's elections as well as Malawi's.

Ghana's election was close enough that it presented some real challenges for Eric and his colleagues' team. Their vote count suggested that the opposition was going to win, but the electoral commission hadn't yet certified the vote. They held off announcing, while one of their media partners went ahead and declared their projections, which angered the sitting government, which lost power.

Eric fields a thorny question about when one reports results - in Nigeria, it's possible that reporting these results before announcement would be illegal. He's very clear that the project stays within what's legal in each country, but tries to collect as much data as possible, for forensic reasons as much as publicity ones.

AEP's great success may be the replicability of its model - based on AEP training, a team is currently monitoring the Mauritanian elections using the AEP model.



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