Monday, 12 August 2019

Blockchain and democracy in Africa

Terence Zimwara

The African continent has made great strides in embracing the ideals of democracy and freedom but problems persist when it comes to managing electoral processes. Allegations of rigging and fraud are a common place on the continent where incumbents are known to abuse their position for the furtherance of their personal objectives.

Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe are part of an endless list of countries with disputed elections results and until now there has been no real solution to pre-empt this. Blockchain which hitherto, has been largely associated with crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, could potentially come to the aid of democracy on the continent and elsewhere.

Blockchain technology has many uses besides supporting digital currencies, it can be used in the insurance industry to enforce contracts, in the music industry to reward artists, for real estate management, solar energy management, maintaining academic certificates etc. There are ongoing projects exploring this and preliminary results appear to show immense benefits.

Now some crypto entrepreneurs are now suggesting the use of this technology in resolving electoral disputes and other controversial undertakings like the amendment of constitutions to suit interests a small minority.

For instance, some Blockchain specialists have suggested putting a country’s constitution on the Blockchain as one way of pre-empting the common abuses and the subsequent problems. When this important document is on a public ledger, which comes with the usual immutability and is decentralized, it means few individuals in a government cannot force amendments to the constitution without the knowledge or approval by the greater public.

To illustrate this point we look at Uganda. A few years ago, that country was plunged into chaos when long time ruler, Yoweri Museveni, sought to amend the constitution in order allow himself to run for office again by scrapping the age limit. The Ugandan leader had already served the maximum years allowed by the law but that was changed too in 2005 by using a parliamentary super majority. In Africa a dominant political party can change the rules even if that process is unpopular with the voters.

Had the Ugandan constitution been on a Blockchain years prior, this topic would not have come up for discussion to begin with. The Ugandan leader prevailed just like many others before him elsewhere, apparently democracy can be manipulated to suit interests of the elites, the minority. In fact, this problem is seen even in countries outside Africa like Turkey, where longtime ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed through a referendum that made amendments to the constitution. The amendments increased the powers of the president while reducing the influence of prime minister and parliament.

Now when a country’s constitution is on the Blockchain, it ordinarily means no one party—no matter how popular—will be able to freely change rules. A candidate who has already served a two term limit will be precluded from having his name on the ballot paper because the smart contract built into the Blockchain will reject it. So instead of resorting to demonstrations and violence as way of registering disapproval, citizens should insist on the placement of such an important document on a public distributed ledger.

The same should go for a voters roll, a document containing names and details of voters. Control of such voter records is seen as key for political survival by some political actors on the African continent.  For instance, in Zimbabwe, the voters’ roll is tightly controlled by the incumbent party while the opposition as well as pro-democracy forces virtually have no access to it. Access is only granted briefly during an election period and it is availed in the hardcopy format and as such, no independent observer has been able to verify or authenticate its contents in time to make a judgment before the election. It is on the basis that the country’s opposition has been alleging vote rigging for years, a process which it says is being aided by government’s control of the voters’ roll.

Therefore if such a voters’ roll becomes available on the Blockchain, it means individuals can check to see if their names are properly listed thus avoiding the common scenarios of voters being turned away on election day. When the number of registered voters for a particular county is known well before an election, possible rigging and ballot box stuffing is avoided because a Blockchain based voters’ roll will reject the extra ballots on election day!

So in a nutshell, Blockchain technology has the potential to enhance democracy on the continent and reverse the trend of resorting to armed struggles as a way of fighting dictatorship. Civil conflicts which are specifically rooted in disputed election results will be avoided. Blockchain technology is known to infuse confidence in a monetary system like that of Bitcoin and likewise it will instill confidence democracies thus help reduce conflicts.

Pro-democracy activists as well as the media have greater role to play in ensuring citizens become more knowledgeable about these possibilities. When enough people become aware a momentum will be created and governments will eventually be forced to consider Blockchain for the constitution and many other aspects of its mandate.

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