Kenya: Why arrest of Venezuelans fuels fear of post-poll turmoil

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Kenya 2022: Who will win the great race?

By Jeff Otieno

Posted on Friday, 29 July 2022 14:35, updated on Monday, 8 August 2022 14:20
A policeman stands guard as the first batch of ballot papers to be used in the upcoming general election arrives at the airport in Nairobi, Kenya Thursday, July 7, 2022. (AP Photo)

What appeared as a normal arrest of  a foreigner at Kenya’s main airport has now turned into a major row between the electoral commission and the police, threatening to throw one of the country’s most competitive elections into disarray. Will the elections be deemed credible after all is done and dusted?

On the afternoon of Thursday 21 July, police officers on duty at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) became suspicious of a foreigner who had disembarked from a long-haul flight that passed through the tax haven country of Panama.

On inspecting his personal luggage, the officers found sensitive election materials that were to be used in this year’s polls set for 9 August.

The traveller had not declared the material upon arrival nor had the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) informed the officers of the arrival of the Venezuelan by the name Jose Gregorio Carmago.

The officers quickly arrested Carmago who was in possession of 17 rolls of election stickers that are supposed to be used for labelling the Kenya Integrated Elections Management Systems (Kiems) kits – the electronic gadgets to be used in identifying voters at the polling stations and transmitting results to observation centres.

The Kiems kits were supplied by Smartmatic International, a multinational company that builds and implements electronic voting systems. The company had won a controversial multimillion tender to deliver 10,000 gadgets to be used in 46,232 polling stations.

Two other Venezuelans, Joel Gustavo Rodriguez and Salvador Javier Suarez, who had gone to JKIA to receive their counterpart Carmago, were also thrown into custody.

Suarez and Salvador had arrived in the country earlier, on 15 July, carrying the same type of stickers in their personal luggage, but managed to pass through the security checks undetected.

Election materials confiscated

The arrest of Carmago angered IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati who issued a scathing statement accusing the police of harassing Smartmatic International staff who have been contracted to provide technical support to the commission.

“The police have confiscated all electronic items, including mobile phones, laptops and flash disks in the custody of [the] said personnel. The electronic items contain important and sensitive information relating to the forthcoming elections as well as projects undertaken by them for other countries,” said Chebukati.

However, in a quick follow-up, the Director of Criminal Investigations (DCI) George Kinoti dismissed Chebukati’s allegations saying the foreigners were neither employees of Smartmatic International nor the commission.

“Officers were shocked [by] how a foreigner travelled all the way from Venezuela to Panama to Turkey and Nairobi on a very sensitive and high-level contract supposedly by IEBC had nobody waiting for him, and in particular to receive the sensitive confidential materials, which were supposed to be in secure custody after confirmation and reception by the procuring entity,” Kinoti said, warning that the move could seriously dent the credibility of the elections.

It later emerged that the travel arrangements of the three Venezuelans were made by a former IEBC employee Abdullahi Mohamed who had quit the commission after the 2017 elections to set up Seamless Technologies, a Nairobi-based technology startup.

Smartmatic local partner

Like Chebukati, Mohamed insisted that the three Venezuelans were employees of Smartmatic International and Seamless Technology was its local partner.

“The three [Venezuelans] are in the country to support activities surrounding the elections,” Mohamed said.

However, Smartmatic International has remained quiet over the issue and is yet to issue a statement on the saga surrounding the three Venezuelans.

Two days after the JKIA arrests, security officers shifted focus to the central business district (CBD) where they carted away servers used by a technology firm that was operating from an office of a company (Amaco Insurance) associated with William Ruto, one of the top presidential candidates and the current deputy president.

Nairobi Regional Police Commander James Mugera told journalists they acted on a tip-off that some servers were being moved to an unknown location.

“We came to establish what it is that they do; if we’re satisfied, fine, but for now it’s a matter under investigation,” Mugera said, denying any knowledge on whether the office belongs to Ruto.

It is the situation Kenyans are finding themselves in less than two weeks to the election. There are concerns emerging given the rising political tensions and the erosion of confidence in the electoral body.

Harassment by the ‘deep state’

To make matters worse, the leading coalitions Azimio la Umoja and Kenya Kwanza are sharply divided over the airport saga, with the latter accusing President Uhuru Kenyatta of using security officers to intimidate election officials to submit to his whims.

“The ‘deep state’ has realised that their favourite candidate Raila Odinga [Azimio flagbearer] is losing the elections and are now busy creating confusion,” says Soy MP Caleb Kositany, an ally of the deputy president.

We are warning Chebukati not to try any monkey business this time round. We have not forgotten the bungled 2017 presidential election.

Kositany adds that the government is desperate to link Ruto to election malpractice and “has even stooped too low to send officers to confiscate servers of a private company”.

Azimio, on the other hand, is demanding that Chebukati come clean on the arrest of the three Venezuelans.

“We want this issue investigated thoroughly. We are warning Chebukati not to try any monkey business this time round. We have not forgotten the bungled  2017 presidential election,” said Azimio coalition party member Kalonzo Musyoka.

Loss of confidence in IEBC

The back-and-forth allegations between IEBC and the DCI have created confusion on who to believe and whether it is in the best interest of Kenyans to vote on 9 August.

“I thought this year’s elections will be free and fair, but the way things are going I am beginning to lose faith in the elections,” says George Ombogi, a Nairobi resident.

Lawyer Duncan Okach warns that the country is at a point where no one is completely sure whether there will be credible elections.

“The IEBC-DCI row is now fodder not only for candidates who will lose not only the presidency but also other seats to challenge the elections because they are not going to meet the required threshold,” says Okach.

The lawyer adds that the comments coming from the IEBC, politicians, and the DCI are already driving the country back to the 2007 situation when Kenyans butchered each other after a flawed general election.

Veteran journalist, Macharia Gaitho, is also worried about the IEBC’s lackadaisical way of doing things in a highly polarised political environment.

“Stickers for labelling and keeping track of the election gadgetry may not be as sensitive as the casual kits or ballot papers, declaration forms and other critical software, hardware and stationary, but it is unforgivable that they should be brought into the country in such a casual manner,” says Gaitho.

Kenyans who plan to vote are keeping their fingers crossed hoping that the biometric voter registration (BVR) machines work on voting day to help cool rising political tensions.

During the 2013 elections, many BVR machines failed to cause unnecessary confrontations in some polling stations. In fact, the IEBC conceded that about 40% did not work.

Fear of collapse of BVR machines

There are fears that history might repeat itself given the many questions surrounding the functionality of electronic voter systems developed by  Smartmatic International in countries like Venezuela, the Philippines and Uganda.

In 2021, for example, election officials in Uganda were forced to resort to manual voter identification after BVR machines failed in many polling stations.

In the Philippines, the country’s Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Centre concluded that Smartmatic “is compromised” following the 2016 election that propelled President Rodrigo Duerte to power.

However, the company has dismissed the allegations as untrue, saying elections are always prone to controversies worldwide.

Nobody, including Jesus Christ, can convince me that we will have a non-contested election. My only prayer is that the country does not plunge into violence

“This is true in Kenya, the United States, France and basically everywhere in the world. It is therefore extremely important that people who bear the responsibility of informing public opinion to be on the alert for biased reporting, clickbait articles and fake news,” Samira Saba, the company’s head of communications said recently.

Samira also dismissed accusations that Smartmatic International compromised the Philippines elections saying “despite all the misinformation and disinformation on cyberspace, the Philippines is today a reference of well-run elections”.

However, despite Samira and Chebukati’s assurances, it will be a herculean task to win the trust of voters that the IEBC-Smartmatic International partnership will deliver credible elections.

“Nobody, including Jesus Christ, can convince me that we will have a non-contested election. My only prayer is that the country does not plunge into violence,” says Ombogi.

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