An inept poll and the gruesome murder of a senior voting tech official in 2017 still haunt Kenya ahead of next week’s elections.
The head of the independent election commission has repeatedly tried to reassure a skeptical public that his team could cast a credible vote, but at the same time warned of a coordinated campaign to disparage and intimidate his staff, especially on social media.
“Our staff on the commission, especially [those in] ICT is now scared… I just want to encourage the people behind it to stop what they are doing,” Wafula Chebukati told reporters.
He has good cause for concern: five years ago, then head of technology Chris Msando was abducted and brutally murdered along with his 21-year-old friend, Carol Ngumbu.
Their bodies were found in bushes on the outskirts of the capital, Nairobi, and no one has been arrested or charged for the murders, which remain a mystery.
“With a professional police force and a professional and effective government, we can somehow close this issue… The nation doesn’t know who killed an election official who ran a very sensitive part of the election,” Amnesty International Kenya said in a statement. Executive Director Irũngũ Houghton recently told a local TV station.
With a candid and calm demeanor, Mr. Msando was regularly featured on local television channels, demonstrating the measures he had taken to ensure that the election was not rigged.
“The dead voter will not rise under my watch,” he said in an interview.
He relied on biometric data to verify voters using fingerprints and an electronic system to transmit results.
The use of such technology was adopted after 2007 polls, accusations of filling ballots triggered weeks of violence in which at least 1,200 people died and nearly 600,000 people left their homes. The chairman of the electoral commission at the time even admitted that he wasn’t sure who had won.
This election, too, looks set to be a contentious presidential race – between long-time opposition leaders Raila Odinga and Vice President William Ruto, who are running for president for the fifth time.
‘Technology is not democracy’
Making things more dramatic, outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta supports an ally, Mr. Odinga, who has turned into a foe after his relationship with Mr. Ruto deteriorates.
Voters will also elect governors, senators, lawmakers and county councillors.
Yet the increased use of technology in three polls since 2007 has not provided credibility – and in 2017 led the Supreme Court to cancel the vote and order a new election.
“Despite the failures in 2013, more technology was purchased in 2017. The cost of the election skyrocketed to $10. [£8] At $25 per registered voter in the first election, the restructuring gave Kenya the dubious honor of holding the most expensive elections in Africa, technology and governance analyst Nanjira Sambuli told the BBC.
“Technology is not democracy,” said Ms. Sambuli.
The Supreme Court described the August 2017 vote as “null, void and invalid” as nearly 10,000 polling stations failed to transmit the votes.
“This was a significant number, plus the electoral commission made excuses when they were asked to open computer servers for a review of what had happened,” constitutional lawyer James Mamboleo told the BBC.
“They said the commission should be accountable to the public in all processes, from voter registration to an effective transmission system.”
The decision shook confidence in Mr. Chebukati, but he managed to stay in business despite relentless pressure to resign.
This time, the commission will reuse tens of thousands of voter verification kits purchased for the October 2017 repeat and tightened up its procedures.
The electoral commission had planned to use only the electronic system to identify voters, but a last-minute court decision ruled that a physical printed record must also be available should the biometric system fail.
Results will be sent digitally from more than 50,000 ballot boxes instead of text message, which was the method used previously.
Things will go like this for the presidential vote:
All voters will need to be verified using a fingerprint or ID card
After the polls close, an image of the results form signed by the chairman and party representatives will be electronically transmitted to the census centers at the constituency and national levels using the integrated voting kit.
A copy of the form will be given to the party representatives and hung outside the polling station.
Voter verification kits will be geo-locked to individual polling stations to prevent fraud
The winner will be announced only after the physical result form is received by the commission to verify against the first submitted photo.
“This election we will make it very difficult for people to go to court to challenge our results because we are so transparent that even if they wanted to go to court they would be too embarrassed to do so, Election commissioner Justus Nyangaya told the BBC.
He also said the voter ID kit would send information to the national counting center every two hours, which would hinder attempts to fill the ballot boxes.
The head of the election commission, still in agony of the last election, also urged the media, political parties and civil society to do their own counting of votes.
Political analyst Hesbon Owila said: “Chebukati intends to make changes by taking full responsibility as president and establishing a system that will guarantee free, fair, transparent and verifiable elections to clear himself of the legacy of the president who is known for incompetent elections.” He told the BBC.
“As individuals he has learned from the past, but as Kenyans we can be… vigilant.”
Mr. Mamboleo agrees: “Did the electoral commission try to meet the high standards set by the 2017 Supreme Court ruling? In my view, yes. They engaged political parties, candidates, and the public in ways we had not seen in past elections.”
A call for justice
By law, the electoral commission has seven days after the vote to announce the winners – and by encouraging the media and others to calculate the results, Mr. Chebukati hopes transparency will justify him and the commission.
If this happens, it will definitely be an important turning point for Kenya.
As Mr. Msando and Ms. Ngumbu’s families celebrated the fifth anniversary of their murders last month, they reiterated that Kenyan democracy should be based on the rule of law and hoped that one day they too would get justice.
Mr. Msando’s family wrote in an obituary in one of the local newspapers, “We pray that one day we will learn the truth.”
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