Blockchain won’t solve all of Kenya’s elections problems

There are issues technology alone can’t solve
There are issues technology alone can’t solve
Image: EPA-EFE/Kabir Dhanji
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Kenya held one of Africa’s most expensive elections in 2017, with its electoral body alone using more than $530 million to conduct the polls. Allegations of tampering and hacking, voter boycotts, and violence dogged the voting, and the supreme court eventually annulled the August presidential results and ordered a new election in October. After the electoral irregularities of 2007 and 2013, the crisis solidified mistrust of the electoral commission.

Now the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is planning to look into blockchain technologies that could allow candidates to “securely access” real-time results, hence improving transparency and easing public suspicion.

The plan has kicked off an impassioned conversation about the role of technology in governance, the legality of the ledger framework, and how it can ensure a fair vote. It comes at a time when Kenya is looking favorably at blockchain, with companies using it to disrupt key industries like agriculture. In February, the government set up a task force to study the benefits and challenges of blockchain in the hope of using it to create foolproof land registries and tackle corruption.

Still, skepticism remains about its potential use in politics. Elections in the East African nation are a heated affair that draw upon tense tribal divides.

“No one in the world so far, at least from what I’ve seen, has come up with a foolproof, concrete design for a blockchain for elections,” says Michael Kimani, chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya. Even after some independent testing in countries like Sierra Leone, Kimani says there’s still a lot of questions about the how IEBC will design and protect the system and handle voter anonymity.

Critics also say Kenya’s election challenges are more about institutional dysfunction and lack of leadership. The current IEBC chief executive has been suspended, three commissioners resigned in April, and another fled the country last October after receiving threats. Kenya also invested in biometric voter registration in 2013, yet the system has continuously failed both during voting and tallying exercises. Voter apathy was also evident in the repeat October polls, with only a third of 19.6 million eligible voters casting a ballot, compared to 15 million in August.

Throwing technological experiments at the problem isn’t the way to solve it, says Nanjala Nyabola, a political analyst and author of the forthcoming Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics about how the internet is transforming politics in Africa. The political leadership in Kenya only wants to “waste” money, she says—not deal with the core “human” issues of integrity and ethics. “Technology can only enhance or exacerbate whatever is already there,” she told Quartz, drawing on the example of the Gambia, which ousted its dictator using a low-tech system of color-coded marbles. “Technology can’t make a proper election. You can’t manufacture public trust using technology.”

If blockhain is ever adopted, Kimani says the commission will still face challenges on how to deal with eventualities that may arise, including hacks or bugs. Currently, blockchain communities have arbitration forums like ECAF to deal with disputes. The technology, he added, is not a panacea that could solve all accountability and transparency issues: “I think if you look at the history of technology you will find that technology is not perfect. There’s always something that goes wrong.”