The insistence by the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy that the 12th General Election be based entirely on BVR technology is such a no-brainer that it has to be about anything but a successful outcome.
The ruling Jubilee Party, an amalgamation of 11 diverse political parties, is convinced that the Opposition Cord is out to reprise the Grand Coalition arrangement borne out of the post-election violence of 2007, the last time an incumbent President, Mwai Kibaki, sought re-election.
The perils of BVR verification are legion and a volatile political environment and context such as Kenya’s (the 2007-08 post-election violence still weighs heavily on the mind) every precaution should be in place. Writing in the Mail & Guardian newspaper of South Africa in an article headlined “Dirty hands: Why biometric voting fails in Africa – and it doesn’t matter in the end” on March 30, 2015, Christine Mungai noted that more than two-dozen African countries had tried a biometric or electronic component in their voting systems – and failed spectacularly.
She went on: “What’s particularly illuminating is that more mature democracies are moving away from electronic voting systems, mainly because of their vulnerability to glitches, and their opacity – the inability to conclusively verify that electronic votes or the software on machines have not been manipulated.
“The broader, systemic problem, however, is that in much of Africa, the whole political system is perceived as a winner-takes-all route to quick riches, hence the viciously cutthroat nature of elections.
There simply has to be manual backup and the pretence that it is devoted to rigging is utter claptrap. Take, for instance, the latest General Election in Ghana earlier this year, where the incumbent, President John Dramani Mahama, actually lost. The poll was prefaced with the following remarks of the Greater Accra Regional Director of the Electoral Commission, Mr Kwame Amoah, who non-controversially announced there would be both manual and machine verification of voters: “This means if a person gets disqualified by means of the verification machine, the voter would have the alternate option of manual verification. Your fingerprint could get distorted because of a scar or some other similar interruption.”
Crucially, he noted: “A person’s finger print could easily be distorted for a legitimate reason, and that should not mean a legitimate voter should be disqualified.” The point is clear and absolutely non-controversial – no qualified voter should ever be denied his or her right to vote.
Therefore, when Cord cites the case of the use of BVR in Ghana they should be honest to add that there was hard-copy paper trail back up complete with photos. Indeed some two Ghanaian constituencies during that election, the process of voting had to be repeated in entirety. It is such glitches that we are duty-bound to plan for or better yet, forestall. When you buy a brand new car with all new tyres, you invariably get a spare wheel but not because you will as a matter of course suffer a puncture. This is done simply because it is good, and in fact, commonsense.
He also clarified that the Electoral Commission had gone the extra mile to ensure that all returning and presiding officials were genuinely interested in the success of the election and were NOT political party affiliates.
Electronic fingerprint readers are notorious for their propensity to malfunction and fail. In the Nigerian presidential poll that he lost, President Goodluck Jonathan suffered the electronic ignominy of the fingerprint reader failing to clear him to vote for 50-odd minutes. Can you imagine live TV showing candidate Raila Odinga or Kalonzo Musyoka delayed for half an hour courtesy of BVR malfunction? Such is the time one would be very unwise to be on some streets of Nairobi! And woe unto those who would be found on the way of an oncoming train.
These verification delays were rife and the vote tallying drifted into a second day and rising tensions.
In 2012 and 2013 biometric kits in both the Ghanaian and the Kenyan elections failed. The Opposition in each country went to court but the judiciaries upheld the manually tabulated results.
Mungai also considers the dirty hands factor for failed fingerprint electronic readers. She says: “But the Nigerian election gives us another clue. According to reports, in some polling stations, voters were asked to wash their hands before coming forward to be verified, election officials had to explain that the biometric kits find it much easier to read the fingerprints of voters when their hands are clean.
“For many rural Africans, they have to dig their garden or cook lunch for the children before coming out to vote. Even in the cities, chances are high that breakfast that morning was prepared on a charcoal or firewood stove.
“So it follows that hands will be dirty or oily as they join the queue – and the whole furore of failed kits could be as simple as that”.
The forces that are so noisily and implacably pushing for an entirely BVR-mediated General Election in Kenya are setting the democratic process up for failure. Among them are self-confessed coup makers and sponsors of massively violent – and deadly – street protests.
I am alive to the fact that there may be counter-arguments to my views as expressed above all meant to improve the credibility of our electoral process. Yet, how great would it be to have leaders holding divergent opinion to sit and deliberate as opposed to resorting to name-calling and hurling of vile epithets in vernacular as Kenyans have witnessed recently!
(Tuju is the Head of Jubilee Secretariat and Head of Great Lakes Elections Observer Team to Zambia – 2012)