REVIEW: HOW TO RIG AN ELECTION – NIC CHEESEMAN & BRIAN KLAAS

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By Washington Osiro,

University of Birmingham’s Professor of Democracy Nic Cheeseman and London School of Economics (LSE) fellow in global politics Brian Klaas have a book How To Rig An Election that should be a must-read for all students of Political Science along with anyone interested in democratic elections. I say this even as I offer that other than its introduction of technology, analytics, and social media in the process, the book does not break any new ground on the subject. Notwithstanding, I dusted the book shortly after the November 3rd US Elections when the incumbent, Donald Trump, a favorite of many Kenyans and Nigerians, decided to pull a Raila Odinga and not only declare that the 2020 Elections were “rigged” in favor of his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, Trump claimed that Georgia Governor and fellow Republican Brian Kemp “rigged” the Peach State vote in favor of Biden. This claim would be akin to Kisumu County Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o rigging the Kisumu County vote in favor of Uhuru Kenyatta; in the 2017 General Elections.

The 2018 release is a compilation of lessons the two authors learned from studying “electoral manipulation” in several countries including Kenya, Nigeria, and the United States. Along the way, the book exposes the now-confirmed malleability of constructs such as “democracy”, “democratic elections”, “democratically elected”, and other such terms Western countries have repeatedly used to bludgeon African, Asian, and Latin American societies with. Cheeseman and Klaas offer insights most Africans are keenly aware of – that the US, along with other superpowers of the 80s, “placed less emphasize on promoting democracy abroad and more on maintaining allies in power…..” (pg.8)

How To Rig An Election further offers an observation that has not escaped citizens in natural resource-rich countries: that there is a high (and strong) correlation between the presence of oil reserves and strategic minerals AND the quality of “democracy” therein, not to mention the willingness of the self-proclaimed bastions of democracy, western powers, to look the other way as democratic ideals are violated in countries with the aforementioned resources!

The book has an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion.

Chapter 1 is titled Invisible Rigging: How to steal an election without getting caught. The opening line to the chapter “(T)he smartest way to rig an election is to do so BEFORE (emphasize mine) the ballots have even been printed” is as comical as it is ballsy. I would argue that the on-going BBI debate seeks to do just that – rig the 2022 Kenyan Elections by manipulating the Constitution. In pushing the Building Bridges Initiative, the two scions of Kenya’s pre-eminent dynasties Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga have teamed up to craft the “sweet spot of pre-election rigging…..subtly and legally.” (pg. 33) I would further offer that since independence, the country’s incumbencies have perfected the art of rigging elections by reinventing new (and legal) ways to tip the scales in their favor – usually with minimal violence and bloodshed.

Chapter 2 describes a phenomenon that has made millionaires of Kenyans willing to play ball with the country’s treasury while doing the dirty work in favor of those in power. Buying hearts and minds: The art of electoral bribe was how the Deputy President William Ruto of Youth for KANU (YK92) fame and Cyrus Jirongo came to prominence in the country’s body politic. The two men were central in a group created to drum up support for then-President Moi. Not only did their efforts succeed in extending the dictator’s erratic quarter century reign of terror, these men tanked the national economy making it rain with “Jirongos,”.i.e., KSh.500 bills literally printed to buy votes! For a country barely able to feed itself, the billions Kenyan politicians spend on various self-serving initiatives to manipulate the electoral process is in addition to the billions they spend buying votes. The authors write that the cost of contesting “six positions up for grabs on election day was estimated to be around $1 billion in 2017.” (pg.66)

The third chapter – Divide and Rule – is yet another ploy Kenyans have witnessed throughout their six decades of independence. It is how the continent’s colonial masters Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal etc. ruled their respective colonies. They divided the various tribes within the colonies, pitting them against one another, and diluting whatever power they had were they to unite. Like the colonialists, Arap Moi effectively used this tactic, with a measured dose of violence, to extend his autocratic grip over Kenya.

Chapter 4 – Hack the Elections: Fake News and the digital frontier – puts the crosshairs on the role Safaricom, and information technology (IT) writ large, played in Kenya’s last two elections – 2013 and 2017. The late Chris Msando was the electoral body’s (IEBC) head of Information Technology. Details of his torture and murder underscored the importance of technology in elections – and the gory extent to which the incumbents would deign to remain in power. Additionally, Cambridge Analytica (CA), the same political consultancy that worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign worked on the 2017 campaign of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. Euphemistically, the consultancy promised “to use data to change audience behavior.” (pg.133). They did much more than that! Along with CA, Harris Media, another right-leaning American organization, used social media to propagate the narrative that “terrible things…..would happen to Kenya were the opposition candidate Raila Odinga, to be elected…..” (pg.149) It is this use of technology and social media to propagate counter-narratives and spread “fake news”, or outright lies that Donald Trump almost perfected during his presidency.

What happened in Tharaka Nithii circa 2007, and if you believe Donald Trump’s claims regarding the just-concluded US Elections, in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, is reviewed in the book’s Chapter 5 – Ballot-box stuffing: The last resort. While Donald Trump’s court cases are being thrown out as quickly as they are filed, the consensus is that ballots were stuffed in favor of Mwai Kibaki – “3,000 here, 3,000 there, 1,500 here, 2,500 there…..” – according to an article by McClatchy Newspaper’s Shashank Bengali. The article also points out that “both sides stole votes…..but Kibaki stole more…..inside the tallying center.” It is an observation that underscores the power of the incumbency – who control all levers of power including those of the ballot box! Is it any wonder that incumbents rarely lose elections – especially in Kenya/Africa?

I find the book’s last chapter Potemkin elections: How to fool the west interesting if not misleading. At a minimum, the chapter seeks to downplay how the West bastardizes the very ideals it pontificates about but immediately discards when it serves their national interests. Cheeseman and Klaas do this by speaking to a very transitory and illusionary state of affairs, i.e., efforts to “fool the west” that belie the end result: That since independence, the West (UK, France, Belgium, US etc.) has maintained an unmistakable grip on the “democratically elected” governments of many former colonies including Kenya and Nigeria. The two men correctly offer that Western monitors will continue to endorse obviously rigged elections in geopolitically and economically important states (pg.206) – of which Kenya remains a posterchild. As observed throughout history, what is actually Potemkin, i.e., a façade and farcical, are the lectures and pontification by these self-proclaimed guardians of democratic elections who will prioritize “their strategic relationship” with any regime at the drop of a hat – free, fair, and transparent elections be damned! (pg. 188)

Aside from the role of technology, analytics, and social media in influencing democracy and elections, How To Rig An Election does not broach any new ground on the subject. However, Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas have produced an elegant summary of a phenomenon – rigged or contested democratic elections – that Kenyans are intimately familiar with and Americans are currently suffering through. In the latter’s case, the phenomenon has been super-sized by the round-the-clock cable news coverage of a former reality TV star who absolutely loves the limelight.

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