NAIROBI -- On the eve of Kenya's primary elections last Wednesday, residents of Kisumu confronted police, demanding that a recently jailed local candidate be set free. The politician, Seth Ochlnga Kanga, was arrested for possession of 150 "crude weapons" -- a mix of machetes and clubs -- that authorities said he planed to use to disrupt the coming polls. The crowd eventually dispersed and Kanga was released on bail, but not before a policeman was shot in the leg. The threat of electoral violence still hangs over this country, once regarded as one of the most stable on the continent. Five years removed from an ethnic conflict sparked by a disputed presidential election, many here are hoping to prevent the bloodshed that followed the 2007 vote.
Kenyans are looking for innovative ways to avoid a repeat of the violence that started with the previous poll and spilled into the next year. Last election many of the country's voters backed specific candidates simply for their ethnic affiliations, eschewing issues that the politicians were running on. This time around Google is partnering with the local electoral body to help inform voters in an attempt to prevent the confusion and animosity that surrounded the last election.
Google announced the launch of Kenya Elections Hub during the run-up to the primaries. The Hub acts as a very sophisticated multimedia RSS feed, pulling in information from around the web, from Google news affiliated sites and the massive trove of data kept by the company on searches related to the leading candidates. It's thought that the Hub, along with similar tools, will help the Kenyan electorate stay abreast of issues and even take part in the political debate going into this round of voting.
"We're empowering voters so that they are not simply watching from afar, but participating in, engaging with and shaping the political process in a democratic way, through platforms like YouTube, Google Maps and Google+," said Ory Okolloh at the Hub's launch in a Nairobi hotel earlier this month.
Google is hoping to capitalize on widespread interest in the election among the country's growing tech-savvy population. A recent report by the company found that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission -- the newly empowered body that will overlook the next elections -- was the most searched for term in Kenya last year.
Okolloh is Google's policy and government relations manager in sub-Saharan Africa and the co-creator of Ushahidi, a Kenyan-designed mapping platform. Ushahidi, Swahili for "testimony," was first deployed to map the violent aftermath of Kenya's 2007 elections. Five years later there seems to be a cottage industry in mapping potential election violence in Kenya, with scores of websites ready to plot the aftermath of a tumultuous vote.
It's hoped that the Election Hub, along with a number of other similar projects, can actually sidestep the need to map post-election violence. The aim is to inform Kenyan voters, so they go to the polls on issues rather than ethnic affiliations.
Cleavages along ethnic lines fueled the violence after the last election. Then Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president, was declared the winner over his main challenger, Raila Odinga, despite signs of massive fraud and vote rigging. The voting and the violence that followed it fell along ethnic lines, with Kenya's majority Kikuyus backing Kibaki, a fellow Kikuyu. Many of the other groups fell behind Odinga. A national melee ensued unlike anything Kenya had seen in decades.
In all 1,133 Kenyans were killed, and half a million more were displaced before Kibaki and Odinga agreed to share power in a coalition government that February.
"The election fear is something that any person who was affected by the previous chaos cannot wish away," local mechanic Geoffrey Oduori told the Daily Nation. Oduori saw the worst of the violence that time around, and like many Kenyans, is preparing for another cycle with the national elections set for March.
Dorothy Ooko, who heads Google's Public Affairs in East and Francophone Africa, said ethnicity is "a key factor in the Kenyan politics that you don't see in other countries." She was showing off the projects that the company has developed in conjunction with the electoral commission from the search giant's sub-Saharan offices in in downtown Nairobi. "Sometimes [ethnicity] can overshadow issues that are really important," she said.
One app that they designed in partnership with the electoral commission allows voters to check their registration simply by entering in their ID numbers. It also notifies them of the location of their polling stations, plotting them out on a local map.
In the wake of the violence in 2008, Kenyans passed a new constitution two years later. With the new document came voting rules and regulations. The IEBC, with advisement from local and international tech companies, is preparing to feed election data live from polling stations through text-messages or over the Internet. The commission also communicates with registered voters through texts, reminding them of important dates and alerting them of any changes to polling plans.
The innovations are catching on, but it's not clear if they'll be enough to help the March elections go smoothly. Real democracy is relatively new to the country. Kenyans have only known three presidents in nearly 50 years of independence. Reminders of the last election's bloodletting are everywhere, from the arrest in Kisimu to the candidates standing for the highest office in the country. One of the presidential hopefuls, Uhuru Kenyatta, the richest man in Kenya and the son of the country's first president Jomo Kenyatta, still has an ongoing trial at the International Criminal Court for atrocities he's accused of stoking in 2008.
International courts are out of Kenya's tech sector's hands. What they do know is how to use tech to talk to the Kenyan electorate. Ooko proudly showed off the text message automatically sent to her cell phone from the electoral commission a few days earlier. "Don't just complain about bad leaders," it read. "Do something. Bad leaders are chosen by the citizens who don't vote. Register as a voter to elect leaders of your choice."
Photos: flickr/Danny McL and Google Kenya