LAMU, Kenya–Kenya’s election has come off without major disturbances, and on Friday evening Nairobi time, the nation’s Independent Electoral Board and Boundaries Commission declared a winner in the country’s presidential race. Uhuru Kenyatta, the incumbent, secured 54.2 percent of the vote.
All the same, a number of election-cycle oddities go unexplained—including the novel involvement of foreign big-data and PR consultancies who’ve played significant roles in electoral upsets in both the U.S. and U.K.
Tuesday, election day, the seafront here in Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was deserted. Shops and schools were closed. In the town square a long line of men–including red-cloaked Maasai–stood chatting quietly. Women waited in a separate queue, noticeably shorter than the men’s.
Countrywide, more than 15 million voters, or 78 percent of Kenyans registered, cast their ballots for the presidency, governors, members of parliament, senators, members of county assemblies, and county women representatives.
While all seemed calm in the campaign’s closing days, tensions had run high. Two previous elections were blighted by violence amid accusations that they had been rigged; in 2007, a disputed vote pushed Kenya into a bloodbath that left at least 1,200 people dead and 300,000 displaced. Memories of cars burning in the streets are never far from Kenyans’ minds.
Analysts were also worried about the Islamist group Al Shabaab, which had threatened to disrupt the elections.
The government deployed more than 150,000 security personnel, including wildlife rangers, to protect 41,000 polling stations.
This year’s election was a continuation of the long-running feud between the Kenyatta and Odinga families. Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president following British colonial rule, was seeking to retain his position. His opponent, Raila Odinga, also the son of a leader of the independence struggle and former prime minister, had run for president three times and lost. As Odinga is 72, this year's election likely marked his final bid for Kenya’s presidency.
In this race President Kenyatta ran his pro-business campaign on a record of pushing forward major infrastructure projects, such as the Standard Gauge railway, rural electrification, a massive Indian Ocean port and logistics hub—these and other global-scale development projects in East Africa largely funded by Chinese interests.
Odinga casts himself as defender of the poor and oppressed, and is an abrasive critic of fraud and corruption.
The day after the elections, all seemed okay. Aside from isolated incidents of shootings by police—two protestors in poor neighborhoods of the capital and of Kisumu, in Western Kenya—there were no reports of major violence.
On day two following the vote Kenyatta was reported holding a comfortable lead with above 54 percent of the vote, Odinga trailing, with about 45 percent. These figures were provided by the Independent Electoral Board and Boundaries Commission.
Then Odinga contested the outcome, calling it “a complete fraud” and “fake results” that resulted from hacking that commandeered the entire electoral network and manipulated the results.
Shortly before today’s announcement of the results, the opposition doubled down on its objections. Odinga’s campaign announced that it “will not be party” to the outcome—and campaign officials refused to sign off on the election papers.
While the election’s outcome seems to most clear-cut, more mysterious is what was going on in this campaign for the country’s presidency before the vote and behind the scenes—including psy-ops and big-data manipulations reminiscent of resent elections in the West:
Weeks before the vote, a Twitter account with the handle @TheRealRaila tweeted “Liar Raila [Odinga] represents corruption, violence, and tribalism while Uhuru stands for unity, peace, and progression.” A month ago @TheRealRaila posted a video called “Raila 20/20,” a look into a post-apocalyptic Kenya three years into an Odinga presidency. The video’s images were cartoonish and grim: martial law, collapsed infrastructure, aid organizations forced to leave, no clean water, women giving birth in the streets, Al-Shabaab attacks all over the country.
Next, a man armed with a machete broke into the country estate of the vice president, William Ruto, wounding a guard. The siege ended after 18 hours, although the intentions and fate of the intruder remain unclear.
Then there was the curious case of the document leaked from Kenya Defense Forces. On July 28, opposition candidate Odinga revealed a set of plans, apparently leaked by sources within the KDF, and asserted that these documents revealed a plot by the military–”Operation Dumisha Utulivu”–to subvert the electoral process. The documents were verified by a KDF spokesperson as authentic, then, weirdly, Kenyatta’s staff backtracked, saying they were “quoted out of context.”
The leaked papers, provided to The Daily Beast by a former KDF officer, show secret meetings between President Kenyatta and KDF regarding possible operations targeting Nairobi hotspots such as slums.
The plan includes liaising with “RF”–regime-friendly–employees of Kenya’s largest power company and its largest communications provider, Safaricom, to arrange power shut-offs and severing of mobile communications.
The documents also list tools and weapons used in election-related operations: 120 tear gas canisters, close signal frequency jammers, power-line termination tools, stun guns and chainsaws.
A former senior U.S. Defense official long based in Kenya told The Daily Beast, “This looks like normal [crowd control] operational planning. I don’t see anything here that supports a ‘subvert’ hypothesis.” In actions to curb civil unrest, he said, chainsaws are standard equipment, at times used to clear trees felled for roadblocks, but on an inventory they can look very sinister.
The same day that Odinga made his allegations, a top election official in charge of voting technology disappeared. The body of Christopher Chege Msando,was found a day later, disposed of in a forest outside the capital. It showed clear evidence of torture, including the severing of the victim’s hands.
As the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission’s acting Information and Communications Advisor, Msando had key knowledge of passwords and information components to be used for recording and transmitting results of the election.
The word on the street today, and one must take it for what it is worth, is that Msando’s digital “passwords” were in fact biometric—his fingerprints would gain access to the electoral data.
In his statement disputing the election’s outcome as a fraud, Odinga specifically cited hackers drawing on information and data access extracted from Msando before his murder.
Then, just four days before the election, an American consultant monitoring vote fraud for the opposition was deported. John Aristotle Phillips, CEO of Washington-based political technology firm Aristotle International Inc., and an advisor to the Odinga campaign, said that on Monday unidentified and armed Kenyans broke into his apartment, handcuffed him, and threw him in the back of a sedan.
He said he was driven around for hours in the murky streets of Nairobi, and compelled to watch videos depicting scenes with torture. His colleague Andreas Katsouris was also abducted and put in a separate car. Both were driven to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and told that they were being deported because they lacked the correct visas. Phillips later told the Wall Street Journal that when his captors began asking him what he knew about hacking he feared a fate similar to Msando’s.
While this rash of bizarre occurrences did fuel speculation, rumor, online conspiracy theories and "fake news" items that were consumed voraciously by Kenya's tech-savvy population, it’s hard to say how much influence, if any, these late-campaign events had on the vote.
No doubt trying to influence the vote was the incumbent government’s strategy advisor, the “big data” firm Cambridge Analytica (CA) owned by American billionaire Robert Mercer. CA is the outfit that is supposed to have helped engineer last year’s big electoral shocks, the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the Trump victory in the United States.
In his 2013 campaign Kenyatta hired Cambridge Analytica to correlate online data via 47,000 on-the-ground surveys in order to compose a profile of the Kenyan electorate. Armed with those data Kenyatta’s campaign devised a strategy for this year, based on voters’ top concerns—jobs and tribal violence.
CA also is reported in the Kenyan press to have been working closely with a team from the British-based PR firm BTP Advisers to help re-elect Kenyatta.
BTP’s appointment in 2013 to help the current government retain office followed closely on an indictment of Kenyatta by the International Criminal Court, for the post-election violence in 2007.
The foreign companies’ participation in Kenya’s election this year has incited all manner of new speculation.
Mark Pursey, CEO of BTP, told The Daily Beast that reports of his company shaping Kenyatta’s 2017 re-election campaign are “fake.” “We declined. The 2013 campaign was fraught with tension due to the President’s case with the International Criminal Court,” said Pursey, referring to the charges brought against Kenyatta.
Pursey takes credit for that case being withdrawn. “It was entirely built on sand; there was little evidence to begin with.”
He said he could not be credited for the “Raila 20/20” video, which he described as “stupid” and “pathetic”: “An election campaign is a marketing campaign. If you are going to deconstruct the opposition you have to make it credible.”
The video’s content echoes slogans heard and seen in the anti-Clinton campaigns of 2016.
In any case, the Twitter feed carrying “Raila 20/20” drew scant traffic— a little over 400 followers, and nearly nothing in the way of likes or retweets. Maybe this is a promising sign that voters in Kenya have already gotten savvy about such misleading online content and election chicanery. Kenyans, with ample historical motivation to be cynical about politics,may be more on their guard about such stuff than Americans and Brits.
Mohamed Bwana, like most of his neighbors here on the Swahili coast is Muslim, and voted for Kenyatta because the president had kept his promise to put money in the county bursary for scholarships, without which Bwana could never afford to put his kids through school. At least one voter was clear-thinking, spin-immune, non-tribal, and cynicism free.