Kenyans saw the fierce competition between President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga firsthand during last year’s presidential election, characterised by mud-slinging and political shenanigans.
But what the public didn’t know at the time was that foreign individuals thousands of miles away and in the comfort of their office were trying to allegedly tilt the outcome of the elections in favour of one candidate.
On August 15, six days after Kenyans cast their votes in the presidential election, an Israeli disinformation expert Tal Hanan was displaying “live intelligence” to three journalists who posed as potential clients to learn more about his company’s manipulation prowess.
“This is just an example,” said Tal Hanan, who admitted that he had been hired to influence Kenya’s elections, as he had done in dozens of elections across the world. Hanan is the head of “Team Jorge,” whose disinformation operation was exposed by an international consortium of reporters last week.
The target of Hanan’s team was on candidate William Ruto’s camp. It hacked into email and social media accounts of Dennis Itumbi, a Ruto aide, and Davis Chirchir, Ruto’s then-campaign chief of staff.
Hanan appeared confident that candidate Raila would carry the day, but when the victory went to Ruto, a disinformation campaign was started, although it is unclear by whom and whether “Team Jorge” was involved.
The hacking saga raises serious questions about the reliability of the technology used by the electoral body and shines a light on the vulnerability of the communication gadgets used by politicians vying for top seats.
“Kenya’s case must sound a warning to all,” Raila told a gathering in Nigeria last month, arguing that in a number of countries the majority is increasingly at the mercy of a minority “in regard to to free, fair, transparent and credible elections.”
“Africans, who wake up at dawn, stand long queues all day to cast their ballots end up with results that indicate that voters dodn’t count,” Raila said.
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While it’s too early to pin down the source of Raila’s claims of rigging, it’s clear that there was an organised group behind sustained campaign to delegitimise the results or at least pave way for new elections.
Last August, former anti-corruption tsar John Githongo, in an affidavit, narrated the account of a hooded man who, he said, told him that he was a part of 56 others who hacked into electoral body’s portal and obtained form 34A, which contained the accurate results of the votes from the polling stations before they were tampered with and Ruto’s votes were padded.
The Supreme Court dismissed Githongo’s affidavit “for not meeting the evidential threshold.”
“They contained no more than incredible and hearsay evidence. No admissible evidence was presented to prove the allegation that Forms 34A were fraudulently altered by a group situated in Karen under the direction of persons named in the affidavit and video clip attached to it,” said the court.
Then the Vanguard Africa, which says it “supports pro-democracy leaders, advocates for free and fair elections,” published documents from an unidentified whistleblower.
“The evident discrepancies are such that it’s impossible to predict an outright winner and sufficient to cast doubt on the validity of the final results announced by the (electoral) commission,” it said.
The Vanguard Africa’s claim was followed by another allegation published by a new website, theiebcwhistleblower.org, which also mimicked Githongo’s allegation.
Raila’s team seized the plethora of allegations to cast doubts on the election results, with the former prime minister finally declaring that he doesn’t recognise Ruto’s presidency and administration, which he called “illegitimate.”
“The data released by the whistleblowers is a bombshell that compels every Kenyan of goodwill to ask themselves if indeed we still have a democracy,” Azimio leaders said in a statement on January 19, without identifying the name of the whistleblower.
Since 2007, Kenyan politicians have been gaining notoriety for going the whole nine yards in their bid to get elected. A presidential candidate can spend as much as Sh4,435,565,094 during the election, a whopping sum in a country where a majority of the population is poor. It’s, therefore, plausible that one political camp may try to hire foreign companies to help it win the election.
In his apparently bombastic demonstration, Hanan, the chairman of the Israeli disinformation team, boasted of its ability to send messages through mobile phones without the owners’ knowledge.
The “biggest thing is to put sticks between the right people,” he ‘said, noting that the aim was “to create confusion.”
Last year, former Nyandarua Governor Francis Kimemia, said the deep state and international community, which “influences” Kenya “in many, many ways” would be enough to help a popular candidate win the presidential election.
“If they can combine with the so-called deep state, you can be sure, your goose is cooked,” Kimemia told Citizen TV.
Raila has attributed his loss to politicians and foreigners who have “perfected the use of technology to override the will of the people.”
“If the continent’s democrats, together with the international community of democracies, don’t come together and defend their vote, the elections and democracies will be delegitimised in Africa with devastating consequences,” Raila said in his speech in Nigeria on January 31.
Raila, who recently admitted that his alliance had committed “ethical hacking,” urged African democrats to “look out for each other” and impose sanctions against politicians who steal elections until they are removed from office.
”If Africa’s elite autocrats are uniting against free and fair elections, Africa’s democrats must also unite and defend democracy,” he said.
Analysts, however, say technology is not solely to blame for the manipulations of elections.
“‘Disinformation Inc.’ dynamic is a troubling one,” Moira Whelan, director for Democracy and Technology at the National Democratic Institute, told The Standard. “Globally we see a trend that authoritarian actors are manipulating information to stay in power or sew distrust of the system.”
Whelan said that there was “no one solution or blueprint that will make integrity of the information space around elections work and it is also not an ‘end state’ we can ever achieve.”
“We know that what works is the constant coordination and trust in partnerships among civil society, the government and the private sector,” said Whelan, adding that supporting journalists, empowering fact checkers and identifying harms before they happen help make government systems and societies “more resilient to any manipulation no matter where it comes from.”
According to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Kenya is one of the 58 countries globally that adopted technology in their elections, Only 27 countries in Africa use digital voter register, out of 177 countries the group analysed around the world.
When Kenya adopted technology, the objective was to boost the elections’ accountability, credibility and transparency after a dispute over the 2007 election results led to the death of more than 1,000 people and threatened the country’s stability and its citizens’ cohesion.
The debate over foreign election interference has been raging for decades and it has wracked developing and developed countries, including the US, but the responses by individual countries and their citizens have been varied.
“Part of the problem is a lack of global norms and legal or regulatory frameworks that embed democratic values into tech design and development,” wrote Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development and former US Ambassador to the United Nations, in the Foreign Affairs magazine on February 16.
“Even in democratic countries, programmers often have to define their own professional ethics on the fly, developing boundaries for powerful technologies while also trying to meet ambitious quarterly goals that leave them little time to reflect on the human costs of their product.”
Like Raila and his supporters, US former President Donald Trump denied that he lost the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden, a reaction that was, according to the Freedom House, “driven in part by online conspiracy theories and disinformation, polluted the information environment and seeped into the broader American political system.”
“Disinformation about stolen elections and supposed vulnerability to fraud has fuelled calls for (American) citizens to ‘protect’ the vote by force if necessary,” said the group in its “Freedom on the Net 2022” report, which was titled “Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet.”
“Election workers and administrators have reported receiving a barrage of online threats and harassment, leading large numbers of them to resign out of fear for their own safety,” the report.
The Freedom on the Net report is an annual study of human rights in the digital sphere. It assesses internet freedom in 70 countries, accounting for 89 percent of the world’s internet users, says the Freedom House, an American organisation that advocates human rights and democratic change.
Folahanmi Aina, an Associate fellow at UK’s Royal United Services Institute, said technology could “add significant value to Africa’s electoral process and by extension improve democracy across the continent” if properly utilized.
“The issue is not about technology itself but rather the absence of mechanisms in place to check its abuse during elections, across the African continent,” Aina told The Standard.
He called on African leaders to “issue stern warnings that no forms of foreign interference would be welcomed and failure to adhere to such warnings would attract repercussions”. “Citizens on the other hand need to ensure that on the election day they actually stay back to monitor their votes after casting them,” said Aina.
“Furthermore, they must ensure that they verify voting results especially across social media channels, before sharing them with others.”
Whelan, of the National Democratic Institute, agreed.
“The good news is that we have the power to change them and make sure technology works to support democracy by providing more information to more people to make smart choices and to allow us to cross barriers of language or disability,” Whelan said. “We don’t want to stop technology. We want to hold our leaders and technology companies accountable for what they do with it, and make it work for good.”
Still, a lot needs to be done before election manipulation is minimised.
“Autocrats no longer simply stuff ballot boxes on election day; they spend years tilting the playing field through cyber-hacking and voter suppression,” Samantha Power, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, said, acknowledging that the US failed to “contend with the risks associated with new digital technologies, including surveillance technologies, that autocratic governments have learned to exploit to their advantage.”