Friday, August 6, 2010



By Jerry Okungu

Nairobi, Kenya

August 6, 2010

Mark Twain once said, “Do the right thing. It will gratify some and astonish the rest.”

I remembered this quote when I started reflecting on what transpired in Kenya during the referendum poll. I’m sure many Kenyans and our friends abroad have equally had time to reflect on the unprecedented transformation that seemed to have taken place in the way we conduct our elections.

Yet, as I wrote this article, I found it difficult to come to terms with the thought that just two years ago, we conducted our national elections using tired old men whose idea of new technology stopped at the landline and a fax machine. How did we move from Stone Age election Management System to the 21st century electronic device? Were these facilities available two years ago? How could we have made such a leap of faith in such a short time?

Ahmed Isaack Hassan, his commissioners and the Secretariat made this leap for two reasons. The leadership of the IIEC was young and exposed. But more importantly, they were not afraid to take the leap of faith and dive headlong into the world of new technology.

Apart from being adventurous, they seemed to have bought into the idea that being in the Knowledge Age, they were aware that knowledge is no longer the power source to be hoarded. In the present world, knowledge is like fresh milk that must be used on time or it goes sour. For this reason, they realized that it was better to share the referendum results with all Kenyans and indeed the rest of the world in real time. And in so doing, they would kill two birds with one stone; increase transparency and accountability in our electoral system as they restored public confidence in Kenya’s electoral process.

When Ahmed Isaack Hassan and his team decided to equip every polling station with an electronic gadget, link it to the constituency tallying center then to the Tallying Center in Nairobi, they inadvertently networked the whole country. And with this little device, two thirds of votes cast were al in Nairobi and known to Kenyans and the rest of the world in two hours after the poll stations closed down.

At the beginning I was very concerned about the way the three main media stations were relaying the results. At some point Citizen TV was showing that Greens had 41, 420 votes as Reds trailed with 17,111 votes. At that moment, KTN was showing 49,506 for Greens as the Reds trailed behind with 12,532 votes. Meanwhile on NTV screen, Greens had 38,315 votes counted as the Reds trailed with 17,759 votes cast. It was only after the IIEC reigned in on these networks and ordered that they could only relay what the IIEC screen was showing that order returned to the relief of many viewers. And it was better that IIEC took that decision because at that moment they were miles ahead with their tallying already clocking 1.7 million votes for the Greens against close to 1 million votes for the Reds. But more importantly, these distorted figures could have sent viewers thinking that someone was up to some mischief with the results.

Although the three main TV networks fumbled at the beginning with numbers and graphics that were hardly visible, they eventually put their act together and conducted a superb vote monitoring.

In this area, Citizen outdid all its main competitors because it appeared to have been fully prepared with a well equipped parallel tallying center that was also linked to the IIEC Center at Bomas of Kenya.

For this reason, Citizen Studio could receive poll results directly from every polling station and compare them with the IIEC results. This way, they acted as the public watch dog against any possible irregularities.

Yet with all this elaborate technological and logistical preparation, it was difficult to understand why 24 hours after the poll stations closed, the IIEC could still not receive official results from returning officers in three constituencies. Even more intriguing was the fiasco at Embakasi Dooholm polling station where close 1000 voters went away because their names were not on the voters’ register. And even when they were finally allowed to vote, it took forever to finish voting in that center. With the kind of elaborate plans the IIEC had gone to great lengths to put in place, one wondered whether the fiasco in a polling station within Nairobi could have been incompetence on the part of the field officers or just plain sabotage.

Indeed when late in the night the Reds complained of electronic transmission of votes from the polling stations, Chairman Hassan stood his ground and reminded them that “ politicians don’t conduct elections; they contest them. It is the work of the IIEC to conduct elections.”

There was one peculiar thing that also happened with this referendum. Much as the international media descended on Nairobi and other so called hotspots hoping for another round of mayhem as happened in 2007, when they realized that Kenyans had decided to vote peacefully and go home to wait for results, they folded their cameras and went away. By midday the next day, there was hardly any news on Kenya’s referendum in any international networks. Just goes to show that only violence, hunger and civil strife sell for Western media.

Yet to a discerning news hunter, there were many peculiar aspects of this referendum they could have reported on. The death of a returning officer, an IIEC hired boat near capsizing across River Tana, election vehicles getting stuck in impassable roads and the use of donkeys to transport voting materials in rough terrains of Northern Kenya could still have intrigued the civilized world. Yet the international press glossed over these incidents as they strained their cameras on “hot spots.”