How Might AI Reshape Democracy on the African Continent?

Artificial intelligence (AI) presents both opportunities and challenges for African democracies. According to a new RIA report, the democratisation impacts of AI will depend significantly on how it is governed through policies, regulations, and oversight that adhere to democratic principles.

Though AI adoption may bring about efficiencies in the democratic process, policymakers should evaluate claims carefully and remain aware of the new potential for abuse with regard to election integrity. AI can potentially improve democratic processes, like checking voter rolls, but can entrench existing inequalities if implemented poorly. Independent oversight is essential to audit AI systems used in elections.

Key trends include:

  • AI systems can subvert democracy if accountability is lacking. AI enables manipulation at scale and at low cost.
  • Major tech firms control key political participation platforms and develop/deploy AI. This raises questions around who controls AI and its political impacts in Africa.
  • AI interacts with rights around privacy, equality, expression, development, and access to information. Realising these rights remains difficult.
  • Due to the global AI political economy, the goods of AI may bypass African populations, worsening digital divides. Universal suffrage depends on equal participation, which is strained if durable inequality persists.
  • Some security forces are adopting advanced AI surveillance, raising election and human rights concerns.
  • The democratisation of AI depends on who shapes it by encoding values and priorities. The underlying quality of democracy greatly influences this.
  • Fair elections are crucial for democracy. Introducing AI risks excluding marginalised groups if not done carefully. AI itself will not resolve the root causes of democracy deficits like authoritarianism, division, and injustice. But with oversight, AI can assist elections by expanding participation. Without adequate governance, AI may undermine fragile processes. If developed inclusively, AI can strengthen African democracies.

Among RIA’s recommendations are:

  • Evaluate effectiveness and beware new opportunities for abuse. Election management bodies ought to have long-term communication strategies emphasising transparency.
  • Address opaque AI through independent election management bodies and civil society access for algorithm auditing and data scrutiny.
  • Adopt comprehensive data governance to ensure quality, security, privacy, and openness. The African Union (AU) Data Policy Framework can provide a good starting point for this kind of governance.
  • Assess and update laws and regulations to manage AI’s expected impact on democracy.
  • Involve civil society to build public trust. Ensure transparency and accountability for citizen participation with new election technologies.
  • Coordinate African regulations for consistent oversight while engaging with international AI governance.
  • Critique worldviews and assumptions informing AI. Complement technical audits with political, social, and economic analysis of root causes of ‘AI injustices’.
  • Develop contextual understanding of AI implications for African democracy to guide empirics, advocacy, literacy initiatives, and inclusive policies.

Suggested citation: Timcke, S., Hlomani. H. (2023, February). Decoding the Ballot: How Might AI Reshape Democracy on the African Continent? Research ICT Africa, Report, 70pp.