This is a season for parleys of varying significance for this year’s General Election. The gatherings are of varying value, some significant, others dubious. I was privileged to attend one such forum last week and came away educated in the intersection of security and electioneering. The forum was convened in Nairobi to probe Kenya’s preparedness for the extremely competitive 2017 election season. Organised by the United Nations Development Programme and the Africa Policy Institute, the forum brought together officials from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the academia and civil society organisations.
The forum was as timely as it was informative focusing as it did on not just preparedness for the elections but specifically, the potential for violent extremism and cyberterrorism to negatively impact the elections. Violent extremism is commonly understood as the physical attacks that lead to deaths and destruction of property and known by its shorthand – terrorism. Cyberterrorism on the other hand is the targeting and infiltration of information technology systems. The two – violent extremism and cyberterrorism – are referred to as twin challenges because they are intertwined and self-reinforcing.
Deadly issues to do with terrorism and cyber warfare might fall through the cracks as focus is directed towards voting processes and procedures. It is not that emphasis on conventional processes dealing with the credibility of the election such as voter registers are unimportant – far from it.
The point of departure is that peace and security are key components of the extent to which the elections can be seen as meeting credibility and reliability thresholds. This is because the nature of competitive democratic election campaigns provides a perfect opportunity for extremists to strike both in the physical space and in cyberspace. This, in and of itself, could compromise the integrity and legitimacy of the election regardless of due diligence with the procedures elaborately spelt out in the Election Laws Amendment Act 2016.
It must be remembered that the motivation and key drivers for terrorist networks is claims of deprivation and exclusionary grievances. If nothing else, the terrorists would seek to strike during this electioneering season not just to maim and kill, but to try and defeat the democratic governance system by throwing it into disarray.
Technological preparations for the 2017 elections as frequently enumerated by IEBC honchos are quite in order. For instance, we have learned from IEBC briefings and from the Commission’s website that 35,000 voting kits have been procured, a command centre complete with data backup centres established and that training of staff is under way. In other words, the IEBC is exuding confidence that elections hardware, software and human resources are in place.
The problem is that terrorism-inspired violence is unpredictable. It has indeed been noted that violent extremism rears its ugly head during electioneering period as the case was in the 2015 Nigerian elections when Boko Haram went on the rampage.
In Somalia elections of 2017, terrorist groups went as far as preventing people from engaging in electioneering on pain of death.
In the 2016 US elections, the hacking of some institutions and organisations allegedly by Russian agents shows that even the world’s superpower is not immune or impenetrable to cyberterrorism. We now use the phrase “fake news” with abandon thanks to what transpired in the US.
These and other examples should provide impetus for guarding against the possibility of the twin challenge of violent extremism and cyberterrorism to subvert our elections.
It is possible that terrorists eyeing Kenya’s electioneering period are making devious plans, blending physical and cyber strategies. Already, terrorist networks have been targeting mobile telephony base stations in the northeastern counties and this might immobilise the highly technological elections planned for this year.
In responding to these modern and emerging threats, a number of approaches can be deployed. For instance, the outsourced vendor companies providing information technology hardware and software services to election management organisations need to be protected because they could be subject to hacking.
If we expand the definition of cyberterrorism to include the bullying that we see on social media, then mitigation strategies should be equally expansive. For instance, public officials active in cyberspace should either desist from taking positions in support of certain political parties or do so in their private capacities.
Bob Wekesa is postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.