Politics and the missed tech opportunities

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BY PETER WANYONYI

Back in the early 1970s, the United States military required a communications network that emphasised robustness and the ability to survive sustained attacks. It was the height of the Cold War, and maintaining communications in the event of nuclear holocaust was a real concern that had economic and political consequences for the US and her allies.

The US government, through the military, recognised the importance of this work and commissioned the development of a robust packet-switched network whose basic principles included a protocol that handled the transmission of traffic using a deceptively simple but effective methodology. That protocol, and the network that resulted from it, evolved into what we call the Internet today.

All through the development trajectories of advanced countries, political and economic crises have served as a spur for the further development of technology. The inventions that we take for granted today were generally the by-products of efforts to move societies along the path of security and related indicators. As society evolves, it presents us with opportunities to do things in new ways, to change the way we look at ourselves and our society, and to accomplish what we have been doing in better, faster, more efficient and more economical ways.

Except in Africa, and particularly not in Kenya! Kenya is perpetually in political campaign mode from one election to the next. The day after the election results are announced, both winning and losing candidates immediately embark upon campaigns for the next election – which is five years away. For the subsequent 260 weeks, Kenya is in the throes of an expectant political labour, writhing and convulsing as politicians up and down the land do their best to obstruct any meaningful form of development in their quest to keep Kenyans as poor as possible, the better to be able to buy their votes easily come the next election.

Unfortunately, this obstruction extends to technology. The year is 2017; you can do business at the click of a mouse or the press of a button pretty much anywhere on earth. A businesswoman sitting in an office in Nairobi can order frozen cod from Iceland merely by logging onto her computer and fetching up the latest vendors and prices of frozen cod in Reykjavik. Kenya, according to internet content deliverer Akamai, has the world’s 14th-fastest mobile internet speed in the world – faster than the likes of the United States, South Korea, Austria, Taiwan and New Zealand, among many others. But even though our business sectors have embraced technology to the hilt, our political sector still gets in the way. This can be seen in many sectors: try accessing a “land file”, the documents related to a given plot of land, from the Ministry of Lands in Nairobi. It’s astonishing that a government ministry in such an otherwise tech-savvy country as Kenya can be so Neanderthal in its information management. It’s not just the absolute lack of computerised records, it’s also the unrelenting resistance to the digitisation of the ministry. The lack of political will to do anything about the Lands ministry speaks volumes about the people that benefit from lack of transparency at the ministry: top politicians whose pastime is grabbing public land and selling it back to the State at inflated prices.

But it is in electoral practice that our technological obscurantism plumbs ridiculous depths. When it’s time to vote, we want to go back to mlolongo, that’s likely the only voting mechanism that we would be happy with. No technological innovations are allowed to slip a word in sideways when we vote: no electronic voting can be contemplated. The reason for this is fairly obvious: Kenyan elections are always stolen. Everyone that wins a Kenyan election – from county to presidential level – always does so by liberally padding their vote count thanks to pliant electoral officers and an electoral commission that’s quite not fit for purpose.

This election year will be worse, because the stakes are so high: a sitting President is up for re-election at a time of extensive negative socio-economic indicators, a time so bad that Kenyans are having their fingers dipped in indelible ink to prevent them from buying more than a given quantity of staple commodities; a time so stretched financially that the urge to print money is slowly but surely reaching a tipping-point and the politicians, if they had their way, would have the incorruptible Central Bank Governor sacked and replaced by a pliable stooge.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why technology can never be allowed to play a part in our elections save for mobile phones used to call in the cooked election result tallies that will be the basis of our government for the next five years.

And the most distressing bit? It probably wouldn’t matter if the other side were in power: going by the shambolic nominations we witnessed, it appears we are doomed to having to pick one of two very bad options – neither of which cares very much for the probity and transparency that technology provides.