Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The fallout from the 8 August 2017 general elections in Kenya is only now starting to become clear. As is usually the case in Kenyan elections, the controversy has focussed on who won the presidential poll because this is the position for which the political stakes are highest.”  

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Although President Uhuru Kenyatta has been officially announced as the winner, the main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, has rejected the results and confirmed that he will take his party’s complaints to the Supreme Court.

This action will shine a spotlight on the performance of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) tasked with managing the polls. So, how was the IEBC’s election? Over the last few months has it been a winner, or a loser?

The election seemed to start well. New technology had been procured in the shape of the Kenya Integrated Election Management System (KIEMS) kits, which were tasked with biometrically registering and verifying voters, and transmitting the results to a live stream carried online. Early on in the day, the vast majority of them seemed to be working. 

I was in Kenya conducting research as part of a broader project on the impact of elections in Africa. Talking to voters in Nairobi, it was clear that the fact that the technology boosted public confidence in the process, at least in the short term. The situation began to look better still when the kits began to transmit data and it appeared – disaggregated at the polling station level – on the IEBC’s website.

As a result, my early evaluation, like many of the international election monitors, was largely favourable. However, after this promising start a number of poor decisions and communication failures called into question the IEBCs credibility. Most notably, the failure to provide copies of the 34A forms, which are signed by electoral officials and party agents and confirms the result at the polling station level, quickly changed the narrative from one of success to one of suspicion

How could the results be announced if all of the 34A forms had not been collected? And if they had been collected and used to aggregate the vote, why was the IEBC doing such a bad job of collecting and sharing them?

It may be that we subsequently find out that any problems with the missing forms are not sufficient to change the result, but even in this case the IEBC has a case to answer because the way in which it handled the situation contributed to the perception that the electoral process had been undermined. There were other problems too, including the fact that it quickly became clear that the number of rejected votes being recorded by the live stream was not realistic, and so something had clearly gone wrong with at least a part of the system. 

The response of the opposition was predictable. Odinga and his National Super Alliance (NASA) rejected the vote, accusing the IEBC of colluding with the government to manipulate the polls. From that moment on, the atmosphere in Nairobi became more fraught as people waiting to see if the opposition’s statement would lead to protests and reprisals from the police.  At the time of writing, the level of violence has been far below the levels seen during the “Kenya crisis” in 2007/8, but nonetheless it seems that around 50 people have lost their lives, predominantly in the opposition strongholds of Kibera and Kisumu.

As so often in politics, what matters is perception as much as reality. Ahead of the elections the IEBC’s commitment to political reform had been called into question after it contested some of the initiatives advocated by the opposition. During the election, it also made decisions that appeared to favour the ruling party. Most obviously, as darkness began to fall on the 11 August the IEBC declared President Uhuru Kenyatta to have won the election by a margin of over 1 million votes.

The timing of the announcement was unfortunate for a number of reasons. First, with thousands of forms 34A outstanding, it suggested that the IEBC was not prepared to take seriously the concerns of the opposition. Second, announcing the result at night increased the chances of unrest, and went against the advice of international observers and civil society groups alike. As a result, the declaration created the impression that the IEBC had succumbed to pressure from the ruling party to bring the process to an end.

As I write, some six days later, over 6,000 of the forms 34A are still missing, which will hamper the oppositions efforts to put together an effective election petition. Whether this is intentional or not, the fact that it has coincided with a government crackdown on civil society organizations assisting in the collection of data on election abuses has created the impression that somehow, somewhere, something is being covered up. Thus, in the eyes of opposition supporters the IEBC has gone from being a potential solution to the country’s electoral woes to part of the problem.

On this basis, one might say that this was an election in which the electoral commission snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

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