On Wednesday evening, a public lecture that promised a bizarre discussion was scheduled to take place at the University of Nairobi’s law school in Parklands.
The school’s Sheria Hall, which has attracted many a prominent lawyers, was full, so much so that orderlies had to draw out the curtains separating the hall from the dining area to create more space for inquisitive students.
At the dais sat a constellation of legal minds, including the Dean of the School Prof Kiarie Mwaura, Prof Ben Sihanya, former Deputy Chief Justice and now law lecturer Nancy Baraza, Prof Patricia Kameri-Mbote, Dr Nkatha Kabira and Dr Collins Ondote.
They all sat with bated breath, waiting for the lecture: “How to rig an election” by Nic Cheeseman of University of Birmingham and founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of African Politics.
After fielding expectations and asking why those in attendance showed up, Prof Cheeseman dropped the bombshell, it was bound to break hearts: “This is not really about how to rigelections but to show you the tricks used to subvert democratic process.”
Indeed, the headliner was quite the catch. It is also the title of his new book co-authored with Brian Klaas, an assistant professor of global politics at University College London.
In the book, they expose the limitations of elections as means of recruiting leadership. Cheeseman not only explained the tricks but also presented findings which point to increased poll rigging at a more complex level than ever before.
“The way to fight manipulation of the vote is to collect own data, demonstrate incredibility and to engage from a position of strength. Anything less than these three will not take you anywhere,” Cheeseman said.
The tricks unveiled range from the established vote buying malpractice, use of disappearing ink to invalidate votes, ballot stuffing which was found by the researchers to be a last minute resort, intimidation of rival stronghold supporters to the much more complex gerrymandering, named after former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry.
“The traditional intimidation has mutated into what we are calling ‘shaking the matchbox’ and where the threat of violence is much more subtle but equally effective,” Cheeseman said.
Rigging was now being done within the limits of the law, he said.
But it was use of technology which was more intriguing, not just in the way it is being deployed to rig but the immense opportunities for rigging it affords. The researchers named digital manipulation among the three emergent threats to democratic elections.
The other two are international disengagement where promoters of democratic ideals are increasingly turning a blind eye to undemocratic practices and “constituted confusion” where voters wake up feeling conned but without knowing how exactly they were conned.
He also cited examples of recent election in DR Congo where the outgoing President pulled a fast one on everyone: “It is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of electoral manipulation in recent history,” he said.
Baraza said it was important to popularise the tricks so that the voters can be ready to counter them.