Anatomy of a misinformation episode

Photo courtesy: The Namibian / Nampa


The Electoral Commission of Namibia has mishandled its public relations and lost the communication battle at various critical points, consequently stoking widespread criticism and rumours, after news broke of electronic voting machines (EVMs) having suspiciously gone missing in 2017.


In mid-October 2019 it emerged that four electronic voting machines (EVMs) in possession of the Electoral Commission on Namibia (ECN) had been missing since mid-2017.

According to reports, the missing EVMs had been lent out on request to the Swapo Party Elders Council (SPEC) for an elective event at Outapi, in Omusati region, in early July 2017. The missing EVMs were apparently part of a large batch of EVMs and related equipment destined for the SPEC event.


Sequence of events
18 October 2019

The Namibian breaks the story of the missing EVMs. ECN chairperson Notemba Tjipueja refuses to respond to questions and ECN chief electoral officer Theo Mujoro provides no information. Namibian Police deputy commissioner Edwin Kanguatjivi says part of one EVM was located outside Otjiwarongo and returned to the ECN. A police investigation was reportedly conducted.

20 October 2019

The ECN issued a statement which did not fully explain what the circumstances were surrounding the disappearance of the EVMs. The ECN stated that there were “ongoing investigations” being conducted by the Namibian Police and that it could thus not release more information.

22 October 2019

In a Namibian Sun report ECN chief electoral officer Theo Mujoro once again claimed: “The ECN is not at liberty at this stage to divulge any further information on the missing EVM units given the ongoing police investigations.” However, in the same report, it stated: “The chief spokesperson of the Namibian police, Commissioner Edwin Kanguatjivi, said the ECN must provide a case number if the matter had been reported to the police. According to Kanguatjivi, the only police investigation he knows about is a piece of an EVM that was found outside Otjiwarongo in 2017.”

23 October 2019

At this stage the missing EVMs had become a full-blown electoral controversy. Political commentator and Institute for Public Policy (IPPR) director Graham Hopwood is quoted in The Namibian saying: “The disappearance of the EVMs is disturbing. It is unclear to me why the ECN kept quiet about this from May 2017. Even if there is an ongoing police investigation, why should that stop the ECN from being open and transparent about an issue that is clearly of national interest?” he questioned. How can the public be sure that other EVMs have not gone missing if the ECN is so tight-lipped about this situation? The whole episode suggests that the ECN has poor control procedures and lacks transparency. Swapo should also provide answers as to what has happened to the EVMs”.

24 October 2019

Justice minister Sakeus Shanghala issued a statement, confirming that he had approached the ECN on behalf of the SPEC to use the EVMs in an internal SPEC election. He stated that he took “full responsibility for the loss of the EVMs” and that the ECN and Swapo Party had reached an agreement whereby the party would reimburse the ECN for the lost EVMs, and that an amount had been paid.

25 October 2019

With the case of the missing EVMs now dominating public discussion, the Windhoek Observer reported that the leader of the official opposition Popular Democratic Movement (PDM), McHenry Venaani, had written to the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) chairperson, Tanzanian president John Magufuli, in an attempt to lobby against the use of the EVMs in the 27 November 2019 elections. The same day, the Affirmative Repositioning movement wrote to the ECN demanding to borrow EVMs for its AR Activists Electoral Assembly, to be held on 7 November 2019 at Oshakati, in Oshana region, since the ECN was loaning out the EVMs “indiscriminately”.

During all this, the ECN did not provide any further information, but the issue had escalated publicly, with all sorts of rumours and conspiracies swirling and going viral on social media, such as the following:

And this, which mocked how the EVMs were apparently lost:

30 October 2019

Two weeks into the controversy, the ECN issued a detailed statement under the name of ECN chairperson Notemba Tjipueja. The ECN statement largely confirmed most of what justice minister Shanghala had stated the week before, and also acknowledged that no criminal case had been registered at any point with the Namibian Police. The statement also recognised that the whole affair had potentially tarnished the credibility of the ECN and the upcoming elections to some extent and was an attempt to assure the public of the ECN and the elections’ integrity. The statement also blames the media for disseminating inaccurate information.

What we learned:

While the story is far from over, it is clear that a lack of openness from the start by the ECN caused confusion, and created the conditions for suspicions, rumours and conspiracies to emerge and escalate. Indications are that the ECN was not intent on misinforming the public, but it still managed to do so by issuing inaccurate statements and remaining silent when it should have engaged proactively and transparently.

NOTE: This is a developing story.