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Can Technology and "Testimony" Prevent Violence in Kenyan Elections?

BY Sara Jerving | Wednesday, February 6 2013

Kenya's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) campaigning in Kibera (credit: Sara Jerving)

In 2008, a technology tool allowed thousands of Kenyans to report on violence gripping their country in the wake of elections. Now, before a new round of elections, that software's authors hope people's "testimony" can prevent political violence.

In response to unrest in Kenya following the disputed 2007-8 elections, a group of Nairobi-based techies created a crowd-sourcing platform called Ushahidi, or "testimony" in Swahili. The interactive website gave Kenyans the means to report violent incidents; in 2008, it was accessed by 45,000 users. Since then, Ushahidi has become a non-profit company that specializes in software for visualizing crowdsourced information on interactive maps. The platform has been deployed over 40,000 times, notably in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and recently in Nigeria, where it received over 300,000 reports.

The 2007-8 post-election violence in Kenya erupted after incumbent President Mwai Kibaki won a razor-thin victory of some 230,000 votes in a nation with a population of about 37 million. The opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, alleged that the election was marred by vote rigging. A team of European Union observers agreed that the Electoral Commission of Kenya had not been successful in ensuring a credible outcome. 

More than two months of civil unrest followed. Some 1,200 were killed and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced. It was the worst political crisis Kenya had seen since independence. The violence ended only after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered a coalition government, creating a power-sharing agreement between the political parties of Kibaki and Odinga.

The post-election violence has remained, in many ways, central to the narrative of this east African nation for the past five years. Kenya is less than a month away from general elections, with many anticipating a reccurrence of political violence. The climate in the country is different this election cycle, due to the implementation of a new constitution aimed at diffusing power, a new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and judicial reform. These efforts were aimed at remedying the internal rifts and corruption that led Kenya to explode following the previous election.

But despite these gains, the election cycle has been tense, with close races anticipated. Two of the top candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, are facing trial in the International Criminal Court this spring, accused of crimes against humanity for their role in perpetrating violence in 2008. Kibaki is not up for re-election, but Odinga is running once again.

As Kenyans hold their breath in anticipation of the outcome of the March elections, organizations like Ushahidi are gearing up to ensure they remain peaceful. At the time of the 2007 elections, there were some 8 million mobile phone subscribers in Kenya. Currently, Kenya has a mobile subscriber base of more than 30 million. This dramatic increase means technology will likely play a more significant role than it did in the previous election.

Uchaguzi is Ushahidi’s primary project for the Kenyan elections. Scheduled to launch next week, the purpose of the project is  “putting citizens back at the heart of the electoral process." Uchaguzi, which means "elections" in Swahili, is a platform that enables citizens to monitor the electoral process by reporting issues such as intimidation, hate speech, and polling clerk bias. Ushahidi staff members and volunteers will verify the reports and send them to electoral authorities or security personnel on the ground for action. During the elections, Ushahidi will deploy over 200 volunteers locally to respond to reports, and will work with over 1,000 crisis mappers internationally for around-the-clock coverage.

“Traditionally, the only role for citizens during elections is as voters. But citizens need to be a greater part of this electoral ecosystem and engaged in the entire process,” said Philip Thigo, a program director for Social Development Network (SODNET), a Kenyan nonprofit organization that helped develop Uchaguzi.

Uchaguzi was first implemented in Kenya as a pilot during the 2010 constitutional referendum. Ushahidi’s main partner on this implementation was SODNET. It has also been used in recent presidential elections in 2011 in Uganda, in 2011 in Zambia and in 2010 in Tanzania.  Different coalitions were behind each instance, and each country offered a wildly different experience.

Ushahidi and SODNET were involved in developing the project in Tanzania, along with local organizations. The project in Zambia was developed by the Southern African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, with technical and strategy support from Hivos and SODNET. The Uganda project was a collaboration between Citizens Election Watch-ITHivos, and Oxfam Novib.

The Kenyan Ushahidi office only became involved in the Uganda project when those on the ground called for backup help, particularly in the tech department. The responders in Uganda were overwhelmed by the number of reports, said Ushahidi Lead Developer Linda Kamau. Uganda received some 40,000 reports, the highest number of the three countries. Ordinary citizens and election observers submitted reports on voter turnout, violence and poll watcher bias.

The website in Zambia was blocked for about a day during the elections, before the results were announced. “It’s believed that the website was probably shut down by the Zambian government,” Kamau said.  

The nationwide marketing campaign to inform Kenyans about Uchaguzi will begin in February and will intensify the week before the elections. Uchaguzi will place advertisements in local media outlets and depend on partner organizations to raise awareness amongst Kenyans about the project. One of the outlets they will use is called Shujaaz.FM, a monthly comic book and radio station that target Kenyan youth.

Staff meeting at Ushahidi's Nairobi office

"Uchaguzi is a natural continuation of Ushahidi," explained Rebecca Wanjiku, communications director for Ushahidi. Both started as grassroots initiatives that give ordinary citizens the means to participate in the electoral process. "The fact that we are working with civil society organizations means that grassroots organizing is very important. We are teaching people how to share this information and how to report information to the platforms. This is a campaign that is meant to protect the people’s votes," she said.

Graffiti in Nairobi portrays politicians as vultures

There's a clear need for that, says Edwin Adoga, who is helping with outreach efforts aimed at Kenyan youth.

“People feel cheated during these elections and don’t want to wait for answers,” Adoga said. “We are hoping these types of programs can provide quick responses.”

Adoga is working in Nyanza Province in western Kenya, which was a hotbed of violence in 2008. He works for Nyanza Partners for Peace Alliance and is currently training local youth to use Uchaguzi. Many of the youth he is working with are unemployed or involved in gangs. Adoga hopes programs like Uchaguzi will provide an alternative outlet to violence and help deal with tensions experienced during elections.

But there is no guarantee that people will be well informed — or be able to express their frustrations — simply because they have access to cellphones.

Abrah Bino, 20, is in many ways part of Uchaguzi's target audience. He has a mobile phone with Internet access. He is a regular user of social networking platforms like Facebook and He and his friends look to local blogs, such as Bongo 5, to stay informed about society, politics and culture. And he's part of a performing arts group, Agape Hope for Kibera, which uses song and street theatre to provide civic education about issues that affect the community. The group recently produced and uploaded a song to YouTube about sexual violence, in order to spread awareness of the issue in preparation for the elections.

Agape Hope for Kibera performing street theatre to raise awareness ahead of the elections.

Bino lives in Kibera, a 550-acre expanse of corrugated metal homes forming a slum of Nairobi. Odinga, who alleged that the results of the 2007-8 election were skewed by vote-rigging, is the MP for this area. His constituents lived through sexual assaults, looting, burning of shops and homes, and murder. That past is prologue for Bino and many of the other members of Agape — the 2013 elections are the first ones in which they are eligible to participate.

It was easy for members of Agape to see how Uchaguzi could would work to verify reports, debunk rumors — which spread like wildfire in 2008 and fanned the flames of violence — and help maintain peace. But Bino’s friend Collins Orido pointed out that technology won't work in the absence of grassroots initiatives, some of which are already in place.

“A mother at the market selling tomatoes won’t know how to use something like this,” Orido said.

Uchaguzi is reaching out to Kibera’s community radio station, Pamoja FM, about the possibility of collaboration.

The building of partnerships is one of the biggest challenges the Uchaguzi project faces, and is also slow moving, said Thigo. He is anticipating that many of the partnerships will fall into place in the days before the election.

One of its partners, the Election Observers Group (ELOG), used a short code developed by Uchaguzi for the past few months to help receive reports from monitors on the ground. They haven't quite figured out how exactly they'll work with Uchaguzi during the election proper, but ELOG will deploy over 7,000 observers at polling stations across the country during the election.

Beyond preparing for the actual elections, Ushahidi is also working to analyze the root causes of the tensions leading up to the elections.

During the last election, the media was heavily criticized for its role in perpetuating violence by disseminating hate speech. While there have been efforts to train mainstream media outlets to avoid inflammatory language, there is concern this type of language will emanate from other platforms. To monitor this, Ushahidi has created Umati. This project sifts through social media, blogs and comment sections on news articles to analyze the type of language used on these mediums in discussion of the elections.

The Kenyan government is also on the lookout. The Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communication recently announced that those engaged in hate speech on social media could face fines up to $11,000 and three years in prison. After this announcement, four of the sites Umati had been monitoring shut down. It also warned Internet service providers that they will be held accountable for Internet protocol addresses spreading hate speech on their networks and has mandated registration of SIM cards in order to better trace messages that incite violence.

Umati launched in September and has since documented over 2,000 instances of hate messages. Some of the points of contention among Kenyans online include land rights, tribal integration, gender and ethnicity. Umati noticed this type of language peaks after evening news broadcasts.

“The people that are most often generating these messages do often not understand the impact of their words. They type these messages but they are not the ones that will go out on the street with a panga (machete),” said Angela Crandall, one of the lead researchers of Umati.

Umati has met with representatives from the government to discuss their findings.

Some in Kenya see the influx of new technology users in the country as a threat to stability in the upcoming elections. But Ushahidi sees the burgeoning population of technology users as a step towards a more democratic society.

“This type of communication between citizens and their leaders goes to the heart of traditional African society,” said Daudi Were, one of Ushahidi’s founders. “The tools are new, but what we are doing with Ushahidi is going back to our roots.”

Sara Jerving is an American freelance journalist based in Nairobi.

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