The Kenyan Supreme Court’s ruling that nullified the results of August’s presidential election was a watershed moment for the African continent. Kenya became the first African country to have its election results invalidated and a fresh election ordered by its highest court. Citing widespread “irregularities” in ballot counting, the unreliability of electronic voting machines and the absence of transparency at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, or IEBC, which oversaw the vote, the court declared that “[if] candidates do not respect the rule of law; if the average citizen, political parties and even candidates themselves do not perceive them as free and fair, elections can, and have led to instability.”
The technological challenges that seemingly doomed the election from the outset have been a subject of intense debate in recent weeks. But that debate has tended to ignore the lack of good governance and respect for democratic rights that prevail in Kenya—the larger context, in other words, that caused the election to fall well short of democratic standards in the first place. Understanding these issues and deriving the key lessons from Kenya’s latest democratic experiment are essential before the country’s election rerun, tentatively slated for Oct. 26.
From a solely technological standpoint, it would appear that Kenyan officials either ignored correctable mistakes made in past elections, or were unconcerned with their consequences. To the government’s credit, and presumably in order to address past complications, a French-based company was contracted to verify and authenticate the voting process in August. However, the IEBC failed to follow simple instructions, prescribed by Kenyan law, to transparently transmit the election results from polling stations to the vote-tallying center. When the political opposition and civil society groups called the IEBC to account for the discrepancies, it outright refused to open itself up to scrutiny. According to the Supreme Court, the failure to ensure a verifiable transmission of results, and the refusal to be transparent about the process, “negated the will of Kenyan voters” and formed the crux of the court’s decision to annul the election.