‘Kenya is not one of those countries where people win elections by 99% of the votes’, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto declared to a room of foreign correspondents based in Nairobi.1
It was 17 October 2017, ten days before a presidential election rerun, and Ruto was speaking at a briefing for the Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa on progress towards the election following the invalidation of the election of 8 August. In an unprecedented turn of events, the Supreme Court of Kenya had ruled in a 4–2 decision that there were too many irregularities and illegalities to allow the first vote to stand. Kenyans needed a second presidential election, which was set for 26 October, so that the winner could have a clear mandate. Ruto had gathered the foreign correspondents at his office so he could assure them and their audiences that Kenya’s painful march towards full democracy was still on. Because the briefing was only for foreign correspondents the comment didn’t get much traction. It would be more significant after 26 October.
The story of Kenya’s 2017 election is the story of politics and technology promising great things and completely failing to deliver. By some estimates, this was the most expensive election in African history at $28 per capita before the rerun, which cost another $12 million.2
A big part of this cost was the development of an IT infrastructure for voter identification and result transmission.
The KIEMS featured the Electronic Voter Identification Devices (EVIDs),3
in which 40,883 tablets were used for biometric identification of voters. It also periodically transmitted aggregate statistics on turnout and participation to the National Tallying Centre in Nairobi. Combined with the RTS,4
the idea was that enhancing the technology would enhance the transparency of the election – a win–win for everyone.
During the tallying process, it became clear that the RTS system did update periodically as required by the IEBC’s regulations, and that the statistics it was displaying had nothing to do with the vote. I personally monitored statistics on the rejected votes – that is, votes that were cast but rejected by party agents for small lapses like checking outside the box or checking two boxes – and by the time counting ended, it was up to 400,454 nationwide.5
Later, during the Supreme Court proceedings triggered by the petition challenging the result, the IEBC disavowed the results, calling them ‘statistics’.6
The final number of rejected votes submitted and verified by the IEBC was 81,000, a significant decrease.
The period between the announcement of the result and the second presidential election on 26 October 2017 was filled with uncertainty, violence and fears of violence, as well as institutional failures by the IEBC. In the roughly two months between the invalidation of the 8 August vote and the October rerun, IEBC Commissioner Dr Roselyn Akombe resigned and left the country after receiving numerous death threats.7
She said that she was wary of overseeing both elections because of her concerns over the integrity of the process.8
Akombe claimed that the Commission was resistant to criticism and reform following the scathing Supreme Court decision, ignoring many of the amendments they were required to make, including on the use of digital systems in the election. But she was also scared for her life and didn’t think that the risk was worth it. The day after she resigned, the chair of the Commission Wafula Chebukati seemed to agree, telling a press conference that he could not guarantee a credible election.9
Some days after that, the CEO of the Commission went on three
weeks’ leave, meaning that three senior officials at the Commission would not be present during the actual vote.10
Ruto probably regretted his hubris on 30 October, when less than two weeks after he made his statement, his running mate Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner of the election with 98% of the votes cast.11
In Eastern Africa, only the authoritarian Paul Kagame in Rwanda had a more improbable winning margin (garnering 98.6% of the vote12
). In part, the outcome was because the opposition coalition National Super Alliance (NASA) had called for a boycott and main opposition challenger Raila Odinga withdrew from the race. According to figures released by the IEBC, turnout for the October rerun was 37.99%, down from 79.5% in August, meaning that more than half of the people who voted in August did not vote again in October.13
And even those figures were highly contested as individuals took to Twitter and Facebook to share pictures of electoral forms they claimed had been manipulated in various parts of the country, inflating the tally considerably.
It was even worse during the October rerun. The Commission did not use results from the KIEMS kits at all, and there was no RTS.14
The only digital element of the election was that the commission uploaded digital copies of the tallying forms onto the website, which allowed members of the public to scrutinise them.
Kenya’s big digital election was an enormous flop.
It is impossible to understand Kenya’s fixation with computer-aided politics without understanding its political history. The country’s first digital decade, bookended by two highly contentious elections in 2007 and 2017, triggered tremendous social and political changes in the broader society. Some of these changes include the birth and success of mobile money, the creation of Africa’s most vibrant tech scene, or the decision to computerise the election process. All of this is shaped directly – much more so than in similarly situated countries – by Kenya’s electoral politics.
At independence in 1963, Kenya was a multiparty state, but after a spectacular falling out between then-President Jomo Kenyatta and his Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a ban on Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union (KPU) meant Kenya became a de facto one-party state.15
After Kenyatta’s death in 1978, his Vice-President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi took over and formalised the one-party system four years later.16
In 1982, there was an attempted coup by the air force, supported by some university students.17
Consequently, Moi clamped down not just on the coup plotters but on the public sphere and any centres of power that he saw as challenging his authority.18
Between 1986 and 1992, thousands of Kenyans who dared to organise against the one-party state were arrested, detained, tortured or forced into exile.19
Many of these were journalists and academics like the late satirist Wahome Mutahi, former chief justice Willy Mutunga, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and opposition leader Raila Odinga – Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s son. The resulting climate of fear allowed the regime to survive for 16 years, but by the end of the 1980s the demands for multiparty democracy were too strident and focused to be ignored.20
Moi finally relented and at a party conference at the Kasarani Sports Stadium in December 1991, he announced that Section 2A of the constitution that made Kenya a one-party state was repealed.21
The first ten years of multiparty democracy in Kenya were characterised by an incremental opening up of the public sphere in the face of intense organising and resistance by the opposition, civil society and student groups.22
Although Moi had permitted parties to be organised, his ruling party Kenya African National Union (KANU) destroyed or compromised many of the public institutions that were necessary to a functional democracy, like the judiciary.23
Elections in 1992 and 1997 were characterised by widespread rigging and political violence that left hundreds dead and displaced. Although media was diversified, the state still retained majority control of the fourth estate through shareholding and state broadcasters.
However, in 2002 the fragmented opposition finally united to support a single candidate, Mwai Kibaki, a long-serving minister and vice-president under Moi who had defected to the opposition soon after Section 2A was repealed. In an unprecedented victory and in what would go down in history as Kenya’s most peaceful general election to date, Kibaki won against Uhuru Kenyatta – Jomo’s youngest son and Moi’s chosen successor.24
Kenyans were ecstatic. Kibaki’s swearing in was one of the best-attended public events in recent memory. The resulting euphoria challenged the ominous threats that Moi had been making since 1991 that multiparty democracy was inherently destructive in an ethnically pluralist society like Kenya.
The euphoria was short lived. By 2004 the coalition that had brought Kibaki into power was fraying, notably around the implementation of a new constitution which had been one of the opposition’s unifying issues.25
Kibaki had promised a new constitution within 100 days of taking power, but a national conference to debate the contours of such a constitution didn’t take place until April 2003.26
The debates were acrimonious and a draft document was not consolidated until March 2004, known as the Bomas Draft. After representatives from NGOs and from government walked out of talks, the remaining delegates designed a draft that ignored Kibaki’s reservations and created a strong prime ministerial position.27
Legislators loyal to Kibaki then passed a law giving themselves the power to amend the draft before subjecting it to a referendum as required by a court decision.28
At a retreat to finalise their proposed drafts to the constitution, legislators watered down the proposed Bomas Draft considerably, much to the chagrin of critics who saw it as political horse-trading rather than constitution making.29
Despite these and other criticisms, in 2005 the draft went to a referendum as required by law. Following an acrimonious campaign period characterised by protest, ethnic mobilisation and misrepresentation of the content of the document, the draft was rejected by voters.30
The referendum result would destroy the ruling coalition. As they were campaigning outside their parties, the electoral commission assigned each side a fruit as a symbol. Those in favour of the watered down draft campaigned as team banana. Those against were team orange. It was one of the most hotly contested electoral races in the country’s history. In the end, those against the draft won by 58% to 42% against, with a nearly 54% turnout.31
The result electrified Odinga and his supporters, who promptly left government to establish their own political outfit called the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). It united those who were frustrated with what they saw as increasing ethnicisation of government under Kibaki and those who regretted staying with KANU after Moi’s retirement only to be locked out of government. For Odinga, it hinted at the possibility that the presidency that had eluded him in 1997 and 2002 could finally be his in 2007.
2006 was a tumultuous year for Kenya that in many ways foreshadowed the disaster that would be the 2007 general election. Panicked by the loss of the referendum, Kibaki and his supporters began to undo many of the freedoms that had catapulted them into office. Notably, they went to war with the press. For example, in March 2006, armed and masked individuals raided the Standard Media Group offices in Nairobi.32
The then Minister for Internal Security, John Michuki, said the police raided the Standard Group because they were going to publish and broadcast a series of stories that would be damaging to the state. This upped the ante on the impending election, and put the press on a warpath with the state.
By the time the December 2007 election came round, Kenya was highly polarised. The government was nervous and on the defensive. The opposition was electrified and cocky. The press was predisposed to go against the government after a year of constant tension and humiliation. The stage was set for something major to happen.
The 2007 election created the conditions for Kenya’s most seismic social and digital change. On 29 December 2007, Kenya began its descent into what would later be called its worst crisis in history, shattering its reputation as an island of stability in a tough neighbourhood.33
By 27 December, when voting took place, none of the major political outfits from the 2002 election were still viable political vehicles. KANU, which had ruled the country since independence, was now a small opposition party and its party leader Kenyatta had defected and joined Kibaki on the campaign trail.34
President Kibaki himself abandoned his National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) for the Party of National Unity (PNU).35
Odinga had been removed from his ministerial role and was running as leader of ODM, taking with him several other ministers fired by Kibaki for supporting the orange campaign during the referendum.36
He was joined by William Ruto from KANU, who had served as a senior government official under Moi. Kalonzo Musyoka, who had served as a minister under both Moi and Kibaki, formed his own party, the Orange Democratic Party – Kenya, which reflected his decision to support the ‘no’ vote but remain independent.37
The tectonic plates had shifted, and some lava was about to make it to the surface.
On 27 December itself millions of Kenyans braved the scorching December heat to cast their ballots – the exact number remains unknown because the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) never made the results public. Although the campaign had been hard fought, voting day itself was peaceful. In the shadow of the successful 2002 election and the 2005 referendum, there was a great deal of expectation in the air. The sense was that Kenya was on track for another hotly contested but ultimately peaceful and representative election.
In the evening of the 27th the first set of results began to trickle in. Odinga slowly but surely began to take the lead against Kibaki. Some irregularities emerged.38
For example, constituencies in both government and opposition strongholds were returning results of 110% or 109% voter turnout, suggesting that the ballot stuffing that had been rampant under Moi had reared its head again.39
because it was happening on both sides, the expectation was that the impact of one would cancel the other out.
In the early stages of the tallying process, Odinga had a seemingly unassailable lead of over 1 million votes.40
But by the...