Process mattered in ‘mlolongo’ polls, it does even now
In February 1986, a delegates’ conference of Kanu, then the only party whose existence was legally permitted in Kenya, approved a decision that its primaries for the next election, due in 1989, would be conducted through queue voting.
The queue voting came to be known by its Swahili term, “mlolongo”. Under mlolongo, pictures of the various candidates seeking to be elected as Members of Parliament would be displayed at the polling station, often an open field, and a voter would queue behind the picture of a preferred candidate. An audible count of the people in each queue would then follow and the person with the longest queue would be declared the winner. This process would be held simultaneously in each polling station throughout the constituency and the local District Commissioner, acting as the returning officer, would eventually collate the returns around the constituency in order to derive the winner. Mlolongo had a “70 per cent rule” under which a person who received 70 per cent of the votes during the primaries would be declared elected without having to face the secret ballot election.
While it had many problems, the mlolongo method provided unprecedented transparency, enabling citizens to determine the correct results on their own, without depending on the returning officer. Around the country, the mlolongo queues were orderly, and provided an early rebuttal of the considerable criticism that this novel method of elections had attracted. However, the fraud behind this new system soon emerged, when the results started trickling in. In a Parliament of 188 seats, 50 MPS were declared elected under the 70 per cent rule. It soon emerged that the mlolongo method was a ruse to purge KANU of dissidents, many of whom were very popular, if only because they were dissidents. The fact that Kanu did not care that citizens knew these results to be fraudulent gave the ruse a shocking level of offense.
Besides the problem of undermining the secrecy of the vote, mlolongo had another problem. It left behind no records. After people went home only to hear the wrong candidates declared winners, there were no paper records with which to challenge the results.
Mlolongo received international condemnation, and the resulting illegitimacy hastened the restoration of multiparty politics, which occurred in November 1991. However, the first multi-party elections, held the following year, were not easy. They exposed President Moi to direct political competition, something he had never faced before, and all the signs were that Moi tolerated rather than accepted the competition. Aided by a plethora of illegal tactics, Moi’s intention was to prevent the opposition from competing with him in the election.
The illegal tactics included violence, the zoning off the country into areas where the opposition was not allowed to campaign and bribery that the Goldenberg scandal was created to finance. Through these tactics, Moi won the 1992 election and also the one that followed in 1997. However, there was no honour in these victories, because of the manner in which they had been achieved. As a result, the country remained restive throughout the period when Moi was in power after the re-introduction of multi-party politics.
Although there was much to fear during the 2002 elections, these passed on smoothly when the opposition teamed up to elect Mwai Kibaki as president, easily defeating Uhuru Kenyatta, Moi’s handpicked successor. The next elections in 2007 brought much violence and contributed to the decision to resume the constitutional reform process that had ended in failure after the 2005 referendum. A ceasefire document after the 2007 violence, the 2010 Constitution is remarkably prescriptive on how to conduct elections, a recognition of the centrality of this problem in the country’s political instability.
One thing becomes clear from a look at the country’s recent electoral history. The legal reforms affecting elections have been tailored to react to the experiences in the most recent elections preceding the reform process. In this regard, reactions to the mlolongo infamy gave rise to multiparty politics three years later, while the grievances accumulated through the multi-party period, including the 2007 violence, were consolidated in the new Constitution.
The key failure in 2007 was the transmission of results. Without ballot stuffing, which the manual transmission enabled, Kibaki could not have won that election. Technologies brought after that election, were supposed to act as check during the next election in 2013. However, technologies first used in 2013 did not produce a better election that the one before. At the same time, the Supreme Court, took a lenient view of the failure, excusing the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, in a judgment that attracted much criticism against the court.
From a historical position, 2017 was always going to be a watershed election. After the disappointment of 2007 which 2013 failed to address, 2017 was the next reasonable opportunity for the country to confront the problem of transmission of results, as a major outstanding issue in the country’s electoral process. From this point of view, the Supreme
Court was unlikely to take another lenient view of lack of accountability in the transmission of results in the 2017 elections, this having been excused in the previous two. The decision of the majority of the court which seemed to privilege process over substance may have a lot to do with the unmet expectations around the transmission of results.
The main criticism against the Supreme Court judgment has been that the court disregarded the clear choice of the people of Kenya by not giving heed to the preponderance of votes that Uhuru Kenyatta garnered over his challenger, Raila Odinga. There are two answers to this criticism from the history of recent elections. The first is mlolongo. Bad as it was, mlolongo produced winners, including the 70 per cent rule winners. Why was process such a strong reason for criticising mlolongo in 1988 if it does not matter now? Secondly, except for a dodgy transmission process, Kibaki may never have won a second term in office and the country’s history may have been quite different.
There is a further reason why process is important. The Constitution says so.