Iremember this incident with great perspicuity of mind like it happened yesterday. It was the 27th day of June 2010. It is not because I was a salaried employee who had been paid, Hell no! I was still in university trying to make head or tail of my engineering course units, by the way. It is because of the atrocities which were committed against one team on the football pitch that overshadowed the auspicious tournament that was that year’s world cup. It was the eternal rivalry between Germany and England replayed not on the arena of the World War II battleground but an exhibition of footballing artistry. For England every manifestation of Murphy’s Law of the universe was coming to pass. Everything that could go awry did just that. Despite intrinsically focused effort; England found themselves two goals down in their last 16 clash against Germany in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The great defender Matthew Upson; not so revered by the Arsenal fans of yore but more ardently by their West Ham United counterparts pulled a goal back. Then in a flash the match seemed to have been turned on its head when Frank Lampard looked to have equalized with a long range effort that ricocheted off the bar and over the line-with goal keeper Manuel Neuer well beaten. Jubilation in the England camp knew no bounds. But this was brought crashing to the substratum of the 40,000 capacity Free State stadium when referee Jorge Larrionda failed to acknowledge the legitimate goal. There was immutable gloom interspersed with raw fury among the England faithful when they went on to lose 4-1. Familiar failings but only fire and brimstone can aptly portray the scathing tirade delivered by one England fan about the refereeing of the tournament. “Absolutely farcical and a disgrace,” he exploded. He was not wrong. Rumour has it that the aforementioned referee could only mutter, “Mon Dias – Oh my Lord” at the review of the goal footage. The controversy that ensued from this fiasco was instrumental in the football world governing associations’ Fifa’s decision to introduce goal-line technology for the next tournament. Larrionda was barred from involvement for the rest of the tournament, scant consolation for England. But, I digress.
On Saturday, 26th November 2011, the Standard newspaper ran an article about the use of ICT deepening democracy in Kenya. An argument was adduced and prosecuted to its logical conclusion that the use of Information and Communication Technology will not only increase administrative efficiency but also reduce recurrent costs and enhance the transparency of the electoral process. Many of us have only gruesome memories of the 2007 polls which were littered by panoply of irregularities in the tallying and transmission of returns for the various positions. This is the quintessential case study of how inadequacies in the proper use of technology and weak electoral systems can trigger civil unrest, conflagration and disillusionment with the entire process of democracy. The absence of a procedure to authenticate democratic choices will only invariably lead to accusations and counter-accusations of impropriety by the losing party. Hope parallels can be drawn with my World cup anecdote.
But even with that said, technology alone cannot solve electoral problems. Indeed, former USSR dictator Joseph Stalin once quipped, “those who cast the votes decide nothing, but those who count them decide everything.” Even in despotic pride he still captured the hot mess that is the electoral system in many countries that purport to exercise democracy. In the absence of safeguards, independence, fairness, integrity and justice; the incumbent will always have a colossus-like influence hovering over the entire process. In Kenya, even before the elections the opposition leaders were already up in arms over perceived irregularities in the appointment of the commissioners. In their eyes the team looked to have been hand-picked by the incumbent with the sole aim of doing his bidding. Assurances on the automation of voter registration and transmission of result were given by the outgoing Chairman of the electoral and boundaries commission pursuant to the provisions of section 44 of the IEBC Act of 2011. Come 2017 elections the electronic vote management and transmission system was up and running. It seemed to operate like clockwork. This was until some glaring ICT related issues were brought to the fore by one of the presidential candidates whom the results looked to be heavily steeped against. For the issues of legality, he would have found someone to rebuff his claims. But when matters came to Servers, SQL, Admin rights, DLL, Oracle, Logins and other technical ICT stuff rejoinders became mumbled and far-in-between. “An attempt was made to hack the system but was unsuccessful,” was all the Chairman could proffer. This is a half-hearted and unconvincing retort insufficient to assuage any skeptic who already had innate and niggling misgivings about the process but that is all they came up with on that front. Here; surprisingly for career Lawyers and Public relation practitioners, speech became silvern as silence was golden. Then it dawned upon me that none of the commissioners had sufficient skill, competencies or even a passing inclination to matters ICT.
All these ladies and gentlemen are people of great renown in their fields. Wafula Wanyonyi Chebukati is an advocate; a lawyer of
many years experience and unquestionable standing. As a Corporate lawyer, he helped develop Kenya’s maritime policy while working as the managing partner of a prestigious legal practice in Nairobi. Consolata Nkatha Bucha; the Vice-chairperson, holds two diplomas in Public relations and business studies from the London Chamber of Commerce. She also has a Master of Science degree in Public relations. Dr. Roselyn Akombe is an accomplished professional with a PhD in Global affairs with experience as an Under-secretary at the United Nations headquarters, New York. She is laden with 15 years experience in global electoral practice. Mr. Boya Molu has degrees in human resource management and business administration. Dr. Paul Kibiwott Kurgat is a former ambassador to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. He holds a PhD in History from Moi University, a Masters Degree in International relations from Kiev State University and diplomas in peace, security and conflict resolution. Margaret Wanjala Mwachanya has a Masters degree in Swahili studies, having studied in Kenya and Israel. Prof Abdi Yakub Guliye has a PhD in animal nutrition from Scotland. He has previous election experience managing the Egerton University, Njoro campus elections. Even Ezra Chiloba, the Secretary to the Commission and CEO of the IEBC, who prima facie looks like an IT geek and guru is not one. He possesses a Masters degree in Public policy and is a Doctoral candidate at University of Nairobi in Political Science and Government. After a Bachelor Degree in Law he distinguished himself in the civil society and United Nations projects.
Looking through their profiles one question itched my conscience like a very determined louse. Where is the ICT professional commissioner among all these veritable individuals tasked to chaperone an ICT powered election? Who is likely to explain with even intermediate level cogency when any query relating to technology arises? And true to form these questions arose and no one stood up to be counted. So now we have an election petition in the Supreme Court premised upon issues surrounding the Kenya Integrated Elections Management System. Director of ICT in the organization, now the dearly departed Chris Msando disappeared onee week to the elections roiling an already muddled mix. It may neither be here nor there, but this has raised a genuine concern about if his cruel murder was a ploy to sabotage and irrevocably compromise the KIEMS system. Only time will tell. This only serves to add impetus to the opposition’s claims of electronic vote tally manipulation using the late Msando’s credentials.
But the real question here is why the role of ICT has to be this relegated in the hierarchy of the organization? This is no doubt a scathing indictment on a body that was trying to put a front as the harbinger of Information Technology and automation to its peers. Going forward, it will be prudent to have a fully fledged Commissioner who is technically adroit and can unequivocally field questions from the gallery on matters IT, run a computer simulation and even shock the audience by successfully trouble-shooting the system silencing any chatter-box naysayers for posterity. I have watched the Canadian Prime Minister; Justin Trudeau, academically extinguishing a journalist on Computer Science matters a feat I would have been proud to witness at the IEBC briefings. Instead we were put through the excruciating charade that was Ezra Chiloba being hounded off the eligible bachelor and knight-in-shining-armour pedestal which was an inexcusably self-effacing distraction by his colleague, if I should be kind to the lady. If not we risk disenfranchising professionals in the technical field who will view a career path with the electoral commission as a virtual dead-end, a path to perdition. Who then will run tests that will ultimately yield a fool-proof system we can all be proud of? Will we import human capital too in the face of all this unemployment? With advancement in technology we will eventually join the bandwagon of countries with fully-fledged electronic poll systems. As has already been manifested, will we put these systems under individuals who have no inkling of the goings-on, cannot perform a cost-benefit analysis of the system and who can only fire a blank and look to the sky when the system inevitably decides to fail? As our very own Attorney General once put it while trying to defend the manual voter backup register use for electoral purpose, “all electronic systems ultimately fail!” Denigrating the toil and functional integrity of other professionals is a staple for the consummate lawyer, indeed.
In summary, we need not put our democracy under trial. We must cherish it as to aspire never to sacrifice it at the altar of manipulable and under-managed electronic systems. Any technology no matter how advanced will only function effectively with well greased mechanisms and effective manpower around it for audit and control, most crucially at the higher echelons of the organization. Near perfection will only be a consequence of consistent, organized and well intentioned improvements.