Kenya Electoral Commission Eyes Blockchain Tech

Blockchain technology’s promise of greater transparency may help curb future post-election violence.

  • On January 1, 2008, rioters in the Kenyan city of Eldoret set fire to a church. Fifty people who were hiding inside never made it out. They were just a fraction of the hundreds who died because of a rigged election.

    Violence is a common side effect of Kenyan presidential elections these days. While it would be easy to dismiss it as something endemic to the political process in Africa, Kenya’s history is unique. In 2002, Mwai Kibaki was swept into office on an anti-corruption platform. That didn’t turn out as promised. (For an excellent account of the era, read Michela Wrong’s “It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower.”)

    By the end of Kibaki’s first term, voters were agitated. They rushed to the polls. That’s when things got…irregular. Result announcements were delayed, polling stations reported strange and even impossible figures, and the national numbers didn’t match up with local tallies. In the end, Kibaki held on to power.

    According to Human Rights Watch, “The rigging of the 2007 presidential election was the final betrayal of [Kibaki’s] agenda for change.”

    It summarized the crisis a few months later:

    “Reaction across the country was swift and violent. Protests erupted even before the announcement of the presidential result on December 30, as delays and irregularities in the count sparked rumors of rigging. The government banned public gatherings and the police confronted street protests with excessive force, killing and wounding hundreds of peaceful demonstrators with live ammunition. Meanwhile, some people took advantage of the lack of law and order to loot, rape, and riot.”

    Successive elections have brought with them the fear of renewed violence, with any gaps in information feeding into a potentially dangerous narrative: The government is hiding something.

    Fortunately, Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) conducts a post-election review to determine what could be done better next time. Unfortunately, such a review is necessary because the Kenya Supreme Court cancelled the results of the 2017 presidential election, citing voting irregularities attributable to the IEBC, which was founded in 2011 to prevent exactly these types of problems.

    Eager – or at least appearing to be eager – to do better the next time, the IEBC is now floating the idea of blockchain technology.

    In “The Commission’s Update on Activities and Electoral Reform Agenda,” dated August 15 (but, fittingly, published five days later, on August 20), the IEBC lays out 14 priority areas for electoral legal reform. One of those areas is the “adoption of blockchain technology/distributed ledgers to enable presidential candidates securely access results real-time, enhancing transparency and alleviating suspicion/perceptions of opacity [sic].”

    These focus areas came out of a July workshop, and the commission takes care to note that the reforms are only in the “preliminary stage.” Nonetheless, blockchain technology may be part of the answer to Kenya’s election woes. While it can’t fix every conceivable problem (e.g., incorrect data being inputted in the first place), it would be a commendable step toward greater transparency in a country that craves it. It might even save some lives.

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