Biometric voter verification fails to ensure trusted election results in Tanzania
The shockwaves are still being felt after Tanzania’s elections on October 28, with opposition candidates arrested a week after polling day. There have been widespread claims of irregularities including voter fraud. Tanzania uses biometric voter verification which has been implicated in allegations of misconduct. From the beginning of the year, rights groups have also called out the country’s move to biometric SIM verification as problematic for the electoral process and during the election period, internet access and mobile services were indeed blocked.
The week before the election, the main opposition party, Chadema, accused the electoral commission of interfering with voter lists. “There’s massive BVR manipulation. Millions of ghost voters & polling stations; misplaced & or missing of “chosen” legitimate voters!” Freeman Mbowe, chairman of the Chadema party, tweeted to his 353,000 followers.
There’s massive BVR manipulation. Millions of ghost voters & polling stations; misplaced & or missing of “chosen” legitimate voters! NEC must come out with explanation & mitigating strategy. Anything short will electrify this country and render the election impossible ab-initio.
— Freeman Mbowe (@freemanmbowetz) October 23, 2020
The leader of opposition party ACT-Wazalendo, Zitto Kabwe, claimed almost 14,000 ghost voters had been added to the voter list in his constituency in Kigoma, reported AFP.
Mbowe has not tweeted since election day and was detained five days later alongside two other Chadema leaders, for planning violent protests according to the police, reports the BBC. The article states that Chadema had called for peaceful protest to demand a re-election. Chadema’s presidential candidate Tundu Lissu was briefly detained then released in Dar es Salaam. He had claimed the election was rigged.
Few observer missions – local or international – were allowed to witness the process. Analyst Dan Paget collates the unverified reports that have emerged in his piece for The Conversation on how the results suggest a slide into authoritarianism for the country.
The National Election Commission (NEC) announced a landslide re-election for incumbent President John Magufuli at 84 percent of the vote compared to Lissu’s 13 percent. This means the ruling CCM (Chama cha Mapinduzi) party and government which introduced biometric voter registration ahead of the 2015 election, continues as the only party in power since 1977.
Social media was blocked ahead of the vote and the government issued a directive to restrict text messaging, reports Quartz Africa. Not only did the government instruct telecoms providers Vodacom and Airtel to block bulk messaging between October 24 and November 11, it also required them to block any messages containing the names “Tundu” and “Lissu” reports Kahawa Tungu. The Tanzanian Elections Watch also noted the blocking of SMSs in its statement on the election.
Users on Twitter report messages including the names of other opposition candidates were also undelivered. All of Twitter and with WhatsApp were blocked for other users, the BBC reports.
Twitter itself announced the interference.
— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) October 27, 2020
Internet observer organisation NetBlock detected widespread interference with services on mobile networks.
Confirmed: Widespread disruption to social media registered across #Tanzania on eve of elections; high impact to Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and Google services on Vodacom, Airtel, Tigo, Halotel and Zantel; incident ongoing 📉 #TanzaniaElections2020
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) October 27, 2020
Mobile phones on cellular data are the principal means of access to the internet in Tanzania, which is why the biometric link to SIM subscribers is seen as so controversial. As early as February 2020, lobbying group, Article 19 Eastern Africa, warned of the potential for interference with communications during the election.
According to annual reports published a less than a fortnight before blocking services during the election, Vodacom announced a slight increase in revenues in the year up to the end of March 2020. Despite setbacks after the SIM registration deadline in January 2020 and lost revenue on 2.5 million blocked customers, Vodacom’s revenue still increased due to the growth of data use and M-Pesa, reports The Citizen.
Authorities encouraged more people to register their SIM card, extended the deadline and even recruited “biometric influencers” to promote the process.
Tanzania has been a strong voice in biometrics, and even hosted the inaugural ID4Africa summit in 2015. Its National Identification Authority has been bold in its registration efforts, quickly adding the majority of the population to its registry.
And there is even an ID4Africa event, rescheduled from this week to November 12 to accommodate the country’s inauguration, entitled “Spotlight on Tanzania’s Identity Ecosystem”.