As Kenya’s electoral management body rushes to fill vacant positions in its secretariat barely five months to the elections, concern has continued to grow among human and civil rights defenders that the new officers will not have sufficient time to organise free and fair polls later this year.
The vacancies at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) include the office of the chief executive and the department of information and communication technology, considered to be vital for the successful conduct of credible elections.
The commission’s selection panel has shortlisted five individuals for the position of Chief Executive Officer/Commission Secretary, who will be interviewed on March 8, 2022. The IEBC has not had a substantive CEO since 2018, when Ezra Chiloba, the office holder, was sacked just a few months after the August 2017 elections.
The IEBC is also scheduled to fill the position Deputy Commission Secretary/Deputy CEO from a list of 10 shortlisted candidates.
The commission is said to have shortlisted candidates for top positions in four other departments, among them ICT, which do not have substantive heads although they are expected to play a vital role in the elections.
The other senior officers expected to be hired in time to conduct the elections include director of legal services and director for research, boundaries and risk management.
There has been growing concern among civil and human rights defenders and governance organisations about some of the vacancies in areas seen as vital for the conduct of free and fair elections, among them information and communication technology (ICT).
The new director of ICT will oversee deployment of the entire poll technology system, including the Kenya Integrated Election Management System (KIEMS) kits, complete with the results transmission system and servers.
The position has been vacant since 2020. The former job holder, James Muhati, got into trouble after the 2017 polls when opposition leaders accused him and the CEO of bungling the presidential elections. He defied a Supreme Court order to open up the election transmission servers for scrutiny.
Information and communication technologies and the critical role they play in the administration and organisation of modern elections came up during a recent conference organised by Journalists For Journalists, in cooperation with The Angaza Movement.
The conference aimed to explore the key information and communications technology issues around elections in Kenya; the preparedness of institutions charged with conducting the polls; and demystify the digital expertise, processes, and infrastructure that can be used to deliver a successful election.
Participants in the conference, whose theme was “Digital Infrastructure and Data for Elections in Kenya”, expressed concern about the vacancies and their likely impact on the impending elections.
They were worried that the new technology officer might not have sufficient time to set up a competent system to handle the upcoming elections and subject it to a thorough forensic security audit to identify possible weaknesses, as well as rectify any faults uncovered.
“IEBC has less than six months to come up with a competent technology officer and, if possible, another system that will be able to facilitate this particular election. So, the question becomes: do we have enough time to do all that? And if we do not have enough time, doesn’t it mean that we’ll be going back to the failed system that we could not open because it was somewhere else in Europe?” Jones George Baraza, the founder of IT services organisation, SWIFT Intellect Limited, asked.
Even if IEBC were to acquire a new system, there is not enough time to conduct a credible security audit, he added.
“It is important that any technology released out there to the public has a thorough forensic audit. In the security world, we call them penetration tests, where we try to hack the system so that we can expose its vulnerabilities. This can sometimes take years.”
Baraza expressed doubts about the IEBC’s capacity to identify the indicators of compromise.
Some participants expressed fears that the time constraints might oblige IEBC to deploy the less-than-perfect system used in 2017, thus perpetrating the irregularities that haunted the elections five years ago.
Technology Service Providers of Kenya Chief Executive Officer Fiona Asonga, one of the speakers at the conference, was concerned that the mistakes of 2017 – when she claimed that elections technology was deliberately set up to fail, or made to fail – could be repeated.
She explained that the use of biometrics to capture voter registration was effective, but the system failed to work during voting at a polling stations.
“Technology is as good as the people using it… The quality of the data builds confidence,” Asonga stated.
Saying Kenyans’ value system has been the biggest challenge in the use of technology for elections, she emphasised the need to have a clean voter register before the polls, with people who have died being removed from the roll.
These fears seem to be validated by recent reports that the IEBC has failed to fulfil the requirement to audit the voter register at least six months before the election, raising concerns that the roll could be manipulated.
Barrack O. Otieno, an ICT expert and general manager of Africa Top Level Domains, said it was vital to create trust among voters by educating them on the use of technology in the voting process.
“There is need to educate the masses on the difference between what is authentic and what is not. Education on electronic voting processes should not be done only when elections draw near,” he said, adding that Kenya has the technological expertise to deliver credible and competent elections.
“With the country’s interests at heart, we are not short of expertise and solutions as far as elections are concerned.”
During a panel discussion on the key issues around elections and technology in Kenya and the role of the media, Dan Kwatch, the East African region managing director of Africa Data Centres, told participants that Kenya has local capacity to host data and expertise to deliver the critical digital infrastructure that is the backbone of election technology.
“The things we probably need to also address are the intangibles… values… issues to do with personal integrity. You can only trust technology to the extent that you trust the people who are running that technology in terms of offering the service it’s meant to do,” Kwatch said.
In the last two election cycles, serious concerns have been raised about the security of the election management body’s platforms, with claims that they are prone to manipulation and interference.
Pamela Kadima Alula, the head of Mulembe FM radio station at Royal Media Services, said the electoral management body has sidelined vernacular media stations in matters around the elections despite the fact that such stations are the main news sources for the masses in rural areas and informal settlements
Patrick Gathara, curator at online platform The Elephant, emphasised the importance of training journalists across the country for comprehensive coverage of the upcoming elections, and ensuring that those reporting for vernacular stations are precise in their translation to the public to prevent loss of meaning.