Technology denial in political process dangerous

BY PETER WANYONYI You can take this to the bank: at some point on the 7th of August or in the early hours of the 8th of August, the Government of Kenya will shut down internet access to most parts of Kenya. Every indication is there that the government, through the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), has put in place all the technical devices and processes required to pull the digital plug and leave Kenyans in internet darkness as the General Election takes place. As this happens, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the organ charged with overseeing and carrying out the elections, will have refused to publish the full voters register – even though the law requires them to publish it. A recent audit of a small bit of the register by a Kenyan accounting firm found extensive discrepancies in the register, including dead and ghost voters, underage voters, incorrect ID numbers, voters registered more than once, and so on. Let us take a step back and consider the reasoning being employed here: why is the government so scared of people communicating with each other just before and on Election Day? Perhaps a clue to the answer was given by the CA Director, Francis Wangusi, when he purported to “caution” Kenyan media houses against releasing the election results “ahead of the IEBC”. Wangusi is, of course, singing for his supper – his is the unenviable position of pandering to the government by acting as their mouthpiece while knowing very well that CA lacks the legal mandate required to issue or enforce such an order. He is like a dog barking on behalf of his owner, and must be ignored – the real owner of the message Wangusi was barking out is in fact the government and therefore the President and his minions. It is only in poorly-run third-world countries like Kenya that technology denial is counted among the tools a sitting government deploys to try to win an election. In the rather strange reasoning of the people that run our elections and their bosses, denying people access to information serves to stop those people from knowing exactly what is going on. In this line of reasoning, it is imperative to ensure that only IEBC will release any election tallies. The problem with this, of course, is that there will be news reporters and voters at every polling station, and they will all have phones plus the ability to send out those tallies independent of IEBC. This makes it exceedingly difficult for the IEBC, acting on behalf of the government, to create fake tallies that favour one side or the other. And so, government’s reasoning goes, if people cannot communicate, they cannot then realise if there’s a countrywide vote-stealing effort, and will only realise this too late – after the President is sworn in and the armed forces are brought out to deal with any protesters. In the words of Martha Karua at the time when Kibaki stole the 2007 election, “the protesters can go to court if they are unhappy with the result”. This said, obviously, with a dripping disdain based on the knowledge that the courts are totally compromised in favour of the ruling party and any such suits are therefore doomed to fail. What the government fails to take into account is that information vacuums are even more dangerous than an overload of information. When it is clear that something is going badly wrong, but people are not allowed to check and confirm for themselves, rumours take hold. People begin to panic, and panic leads to chaos. Misinformation leads to violence more often than not, and this is to blame for a lot of the violence Kenya experienced in January 2008 – when the Kibaki government unplugged mobile phone access and oversaw the killings of over 1,500 people. Their blood is on Mr Kibaki’s hands to this day. The government of Kenya is threatened by the fact that Kenyans are so adept at using social media to exchange information and communicate with the outside world, and is afraid of what will happen if it does go ahead to steal the election – which, by current indications, seems to be the only way Uhuru Kenyatta can be re-elected. As a result, the internet will be disconnected more or less fully around the election period. This will have massive consequences, as it will also affect businesses and the flow of money, leading to significant losses. However, as happened during the Arab Spring, this will fail because any such disconnection only happens in the virtual world: in the real world, people will get together, they will talk to each other and exchange information the old fashioned way, and we will know if the election has been stolen. And, as happened with the Arab Spring, that is when the real repercussions for any election thievery will be felt by those who dare steal the vote.

Sign Up