More on Mobile Phones for Politics

This is one creepy dude...

"Hi Kids! Who wants to vote?!"

A while back I wrote about an interesting development in politics in Tanzania: the use of mobile phones to register members of political parties. A reader tried the service out and found that the safeguards and cost left something to be desired, but it served to illustrate an important point, that the rapidly spreading technology is being used in increasingly innovative ways to resolve the problems of distance, infrastructure and communication that so beset parts of the continent.

Zanzibar Leo, a Swahili daily, is reporting another clever use of mobile phones for the elections scheduled for October 31. The Zanzibar Electoral Commission is going to run a service whereby, on the days running up to the election, people can find out exactly where the polling station they have been allocated to is, though the service costs TSh 300 (approximately 2 cents – which means that this service could also be an earner for the Government). In Zanzibar, all voters are allocated a station and room to vote in; until now, they would have had to go to specific announcements boards to see which room they’ve been allocated, and would then have to try and locate it – not always an easy task in the labyrinth that is Stone Town.

The paper reports that the justification is to avoid ‘usumbufu wa kuhangaika’, literally the ‘disturbance of roaming around’. It’s not saying so explicitly, but there exist definite benefits to not being on the streets any more than absolutely necessary on election day here in Zanzibar. I think this service will prove pretty popular.

New Political Strategies in East Africa

The future of political recruitment?

New media is all the rage. Tanzania’s political class has been pretty excited over the last week or two by the formation of a new political party, CCJ (the name stands for Chama Cha Jamii, or Party of Society). There are a number of interesting things about this event, but one of wider interest beyond the confines of Tanzanian political discourse is their use of an innovative way of registering new party members, normally poaching them from other parties: text messaging and internet registration. The Swahili daily Nipashe ran an article about this a few days ago which I’ve only just noticed now, under the headline ‘CCJ Yazidi Kujitanua Kisiasa’ (‘CCJ are Growing and Widening Themselves Politically’). It writes:

“This strategy, unprecedented in the history of the whole of East Africa, relates to the use of news and communications technology [ICT] … as the service which allows citizens to join the party by electronic means wherever they are…”

(This and the rest of this piece is based on my translation of two pieces in Nipashe in Swahili – Swahili speaking readers can drop me an e-mail or a comment and I’ll transcribe the interesting bits so they can read in the original language).

How do they do it? Quite simple, really: mobile phones. Prospective members send a text to the number 15337 including the word ‘CCJ’, then their exact name, a star, their address, a star, their state, a star and their area. After three weeks, a registration card will be sent to the address listed. In the most amazing (and selfless) part, Richard Kiyabo, the chairman of the party in question, has said they are ready to provide technical support to other parties to teach them how to use the same system of registration.

This is a great idea, given the size of Tanzania. To sign up people in the villages and fields would require a huge investment in time either from the party (sending out activists far from the towns) or from the potential members (traveling long distances to register). Mobile phone use is very widespread here these days, and the great thing is you can just borrow someone else’s mobile to register yourself. CCJ are just a few weeks old, and this recruitment strategy is the central prong of their drive to ensure that they can participate meaningfully in the elections expected to be held in October.

That’s the technical side of things. The political implications of this new party, formed on the 2nd of March, are now becoming apparent. For those unfamiliar with Tanzanian politics, since independence and the unification of Tanzania and Zanzibar, respectively, only one party has ever ruled in either place: TANU, which became CCM after the Union. My reading is that in the mainland, CCM have had no real worries about their ability to retain power.

The arrival of CCJ didn’t seem like it would influence this much one way or another. But on March 31, Fred Mpendazoe, an MP from CCM announced his defection to the new party. By this defection, Mpendazoe (described as one of the men in CCM on the front line in the battle against corruption by the same paper) has drawn rare praise. It seems this defection is likely to cost him Tsh 45 millions (roughly $35,000) in benefits and other perks of Government membership. By foregoing all of this in order to join the new party he has made himself, and his new party, front-page news. This kind of publicity will perturb CCM, but I doubt it will change the final result at the ballots on the Mainland – but if CCJ succeeds in ‘harvesting’ more members from CCM, things could get interesting.

In Zanzibar, though, the situation is different. Zanzibar’s traditionally warring major parties, CCM and CUF have agreed on a coalition Government after the coming elections, an idea which the House of Representatives just a couple of days ago agreed to put to referendum. This worried me because with CCM and CUF joining arms in a new Governmental structure, Zanzibar would be left without any viable opposition. A complete lack of contestability in Government would be disastrous for political accountability. The remaining party, Chadema, never really seemed to me to be at the races much. The emergence of any new source of political contestability would be great: Zanzibar would enjoy the benefits of peace and better representation that the coalition Government will likely bring without losing too much of the contestability that is required for democratic politics to work.

It’s going to be an interesting few months for East African politics.

UPDATE: A reader has tried the service and found that he wasn’t asked for an exact address, as reported in the papers. It seems that the service may not be all its made out to be. He still got a membership number, though. And I imagine that boosting numbers to get on the October ballot is CCJ’s main aim, so perhaps they’re getting what they need out of it.

FURTHER UPDATE: It seems that registration safeguards on this system aren’t very strong, thanks to a bit of investigation from a reader. But the point about how this technology, once problems are ironed out, could be useful remains valid.