ICT: threat or opportunity to Kenyan politicians?
- Published on 20 August 2012
I don’t know about your country, but Kenyans have a narrow view of politicians. We just don’t trust them and for good reason. If they are not changing the law to align it with their own greed and ambitions, they are trying to get a slice of the pie in a multi-billion shillings contract. But thanks to ICT, Kenyans are keeping a keen eye on every move politicians make, leaving little room for the law makers to maneuver.
One recent development, which has gone almost unnoticed, but whose impact could prove a gift to Kenyans, is the refurbishment of parliament chambers. MP’s have moved into the new ultra-modern 400-seater chambers fully fit with electronic voting system and monitors.
After the hullabaloo over the $3,000 cost per seat died down, members of parliament moved into their new ‘state of the art’ home. One critical change that has come with the new chambers is the electronic voting system. Kenyans will now know which way their MP’s voted in crucial bills. Gone are the days when a mass ‘Nay’ or ‘Yea’ would have passed or shot down a motion.
Accountability was virtually impossible, except where ballot voting was required. Even then, party leaders kept a hawk’s eye on members to ensure that they voted along party lines, irrespective of citizen sentiments. Parliament’s new media centre also houses digitised television and radio studios, which will bring live broadcasts and stream to millions of laptops, tablets and smartphones across the country.
Like so many other changes the legislature has ushered in, the real impact of the new chambers will when they realise they are under more scrutiny. Going by recent developments, they could even move to reverse the same changes.
Another on-going saga that is a threat to Kenya’s political status-quo is the controversial purchase of Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) kits by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The commission made an about-turn in the procurement of the kits, owing to what parliamentarians said was a ‘flawed procurement process’. The government is now in the process of legally circumventing procurement procedures and laws to ensure IEBC gets the kits before the upcoming elections early next year.
Obviously, some politicians would fight to keep the archaic and discredited manual registration system, where ‘dead voters’ turned up at polling stations and ‘cast their ballot’. There are rampant irregularities in the manual registers, including double registrations of millions of voters.
But beneath the big headlines of BVR kits and high-tech chambers, a quiet citizen revolution is bubbling, as more Kenyans build systems and apps that improve accountability and promote good governance.
One such app is the CDFMonitor app – an app that helps users monitor use of funds in their constituency. In cases where MP’s manipulate the Constituency Development Fund committee, the mobile app comes handy in reporting any mismatch between projects undertaken and funds used.
An almost similar app named “Msema Kweli” (the truth in Swahili) allows users to find and take photos of CDF projects near them.
Ipaid-a-bribe is another app that allows Kenyans to report bribery incidences across the country. Data collected by the app is used to create an incidence map indicating problem areas and average amount of bribe asked for. These apps, plus the Government’s Open Data initiative, is taking Kenya to a whole new level of keeping public officials and politicians accountable to the citizens, in real time.
The power of social media cannot be overstated. We have seen the role it played in the Arab spring, toppling leaders that were previously unshakable. The era of restricted access to information is long gone but politicians of that era are still active in the country.
But they are also learning that social media has its own ‘rules of engagement’. One aspiring politician learned the rules the hard way when he closed his account two days after opening one. He tried to rally his tribe to support his bid in becoming the next governor of a metropolitan county on twitter. The backlash he got was enough to teach him a lesson or two about social media.
But there are exceptions. Some public figures have embraced technology and are using it to propel their popularity especially among the youth. The few that have mastered the skills of initiating and maintaining online conversations are doing a good job, of course with the help of their handlers. One presidential candidate has set aside a day each week to answer questions from her followers on Twitter about her manifesto and policy proposals.
Kenya’s saving grace has been the progressive senior civil servants who have been given a fairly free hand to run crucial ministries and departments. That’s why it’s baffling to see our neighbours Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent Rwanda, who in spite of embracing and actively developing their ICT sectors are curtailing some political freedoms.