Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The ghost of the disputed 2007 presidential election and its ensuing violence was omnipresent during Kenya’s 2013 elections, and the overarching message was peace at all costs. Some argue this posture rendered other issues secondary

The 2013 election was pivotal in many respects. It was the first election under the new constitution promulgated in August 2010. It was the first election since the 2007 violence, for which two suspects, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, now president and deputy president respectively, will soon face trial at the ICC for their alleged role. It was also a transitional election — incumbent President Kibaki was not running, having finished his two constitutional terms lasting a decade.

This, combined with the overwhelming domestic and international desire to prevent any electoral violence, made the 2013 elections a hugely important event in Africa’s electoral calendar.


In his book, 'To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism' (2013), Evgeny Morozov writes, 'Recasting all complex social situations either as neat problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized — if only the right algorithms are in place! — this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.'

In its desire to prevent voter fraud similar to 2007, when allegedly over one million ghost voters voted, the new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) switched from manual voting, voter identification, and results transmission to an electronic system. Voters were registered through Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) — a system that captures voters’ details to prevent double registration.

The Kriegler commission, which was formed to investigate, among other things, the organization and conduct of the 2007 electoral operations, found that because of the level of irregularities involved it was impossible to determine who won the 2007 presidential election. Further, the commission said that 'high turnout in polling stations in areas dominated by one party is extremely suspicious and in the eyes of Independent Review Commission (IREC) is in itself a clear indication of likely fraud, most probably conducted through ballot stuffing, utilising local knowledge of who on the poorly kept voter register is absent, deceased or for another reason unlikely to appear to vote.'

This was argued forcefully to be the rationale for deploying BVR: it was thought to provide a foolproof register of voters. It automatically subtracts from the main national register voters who have voted and thus provides a running tally of total votes cast, and centrally integrates the register so that multiple voting becomes physically impossible.

Unlike manual voting, the Electronic Vote Transmission (EVT) was meant to relay the results quickly and efficiently to avoid a long waiting time between voting and release of the results. The longer the waiting period, the more tension builds. When unveiling the system the IEBC said, 'A mobile device will be used by each presiding officer to enter the data from those forms into a specially developed mobile phone application. This device will securely transmit these provisional results data over mobile data network to IEBC headquarters for consolidation and publication.'

This singular trust in technology without considering potential underlying structural deficiencies on which these technologies run made technology an end rather than the means. Technology is nothing but software; it needs hardware — infrastructure — on which it can run. For instance, Kenya’s electricity coverage is around 20 per cent, and the BVR kit’s battery needs to be charged. And Internet coverage outside major towns is not very reliable.

Fundamentally, the people are at the core of all technology, and if they are ill-prepared, as in this case, no amount of technological advancement can help.

Predictably, the systems failed in most polling stations on voting day. While some of the initial problems like the systems password failure were rectified, Electronic Vote Transmission from the polling stations to the main counting centre in Nairobi collapsed more than once, forcing the commission to resort to manual vote tallying.

One distinct feature of the switch to manual was the number of the rejected votes bizarrely dropped from over 300,000 to under 100,000. The electoral commission’s chair Isaak Hassan attributed the discrepancy to the fact that the electrical system was processing the rejected voters to a power of 8 (the machine multiplied every rejected vote by 8). If that is the case, mathematically the final figure of rejected votes after manual counting should be divisible by 8 as well.

The commission’s hype that the technology would make all problems in the previous elections disappear made the public uncritical. In the end the commission was long on promise, and short on delivery.


The monetary cost of elections in Kenya has always been steep, but the transition from manual to electronic election management made the cost even steeper. For instance, the BVR kit alone cost 8 billion Kenya shillings (approximately USD $93,567,200). IEBC has a budget of $226 million or $16 per voter, much of which is externally funded. Despite the huge amount of money spent, the commission failed to pull off a credible election compared to other African countries, such as Uganda in which the cost per voter was $4, and Ghana where the figure is even less at $0.70. This underlines the fact that neither money nor technology in and of themselves can deliver a legitimate election; rather, what is needed is trust in government institutions. If the institutions are seen to be operating above the board, people can live with some of their indiscretions. This is because not all social problems are computable and thus their solution is a linear application of a computer code or logarithm.


One of the distinct lessons of the 2007-2008 violence was that Kenyans, including their leaders, retained scant trust in the state’s institutions. This particularly undermined the resolution of the election dispute through the court.

In 2007, during the disputed elections, Martha Karua, who was then a stalwart of Kibaki’s administration and the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, told Odinga cynically that if he felt the elections were not free and fair, he should go to court. Knowing full well the courts were not reformed enough — they were still beholden to the executive, their appointing authority — to make any ruling that would go against the incumbent, Odinga replied that he would not be subjected to a kangaroo court.

This all but eviscerated any residual desire by the leadership, and by extension their supporters, to seek the court as an avenue for arbitration of the conflict.

But the judiciary was not the only institution that sorely lacked the people’s trust. The police were equally distrusted, if not more. The police have been the face of an entrenched culture of impunity in Kenya. The force has been accused of excessive use of force against citizens and of being eternally corrupt, eroding the law and the human rights culture.

For nearly half a century since Kenya obtained its independence from the British, state institutions have barely been reformed. Rather, they have remained extractive, personalised, and politicised, as opposed to professional, public service-oriented, and independent.

Most institutions were left at the beck and call of the executive, who used them to settle political scores with opponents both real and imagined. The treasury and the security sector are two institutions that have remained captive to the forces of the status quo, who view them as leverage to stay in power. As such, they have fiercely resisted any attempts at reform.

The hope that the electoral institutions would counterbalance these state institutions has not materialised, despite the introduction of multiparty politics in the 1990s. The electoral institutions have, except in rare cases, been largely beholden to the executive, which denies them their independence either through appointment or limited funding.

However, since the new constitution was enacted, both the police and the judiciary have been undergoing reform. While the pace and depth of reform in the judiciary has gone well, the police reform has remained symbolic, and to date substantive reform has not taken place. So far the appointment of the Inspector General of the Police (IGP) has been the most significant reform. Since it is the police that investigate, and the judiciary that arbitrates, if the quality of investigation is not above reproach the court’s rulings will be impacted.

It is a measure of how far judicial reform has come that the parties aggrieved as a result of the 2013 elections have filed an election petition in court rather than resorting to street demonstrations.


The electorate invest a great deal of fear and hope in elections. Hope that if a politician from 'their community' ascends to power, their lot will improve; fear that if they lose, their fortune will decline. This mindset has effectively reduced the election into a zero-sum game that politicians cynically exploit. By turning their individual loss into the community’s loss, politicians have conveniently avoided tackling hard questions through innovative policy interventions; they instead peddle hollow fears and non-existent hope. This mutually destructive loop creates antagonistic ethnic cleavages, leaving the country hugely polarised from one election cycle to another.

This also makes elections hugely expensive, both materially and symbolically. Consequently, both the electorate and the politicians scarcely accept the outcome of elections. The sooner elections are made less expensive through passing the Campaign Finance Bill, the better.

In electoral management and democratic governance, robust institutions are the first vanguard against fraud; technology should not substitute them, but instead complement them.

* Abdullahi Boru is a Horn of Africa analyst who has authored several reports on Kenya for different organisations.