Consultant seeking to detect polling fraud for Kenya opposition deported before polls
Nairobi — Four days before hotly contested presidential elections here, a US political consultant working for Kenya’s opposition leader said a dozen plainclothes policemen barged into his Nairobi apartment, handcuffed him and put him into the rear of a hatchback car.
For hours, John Aristotle Phillips, chief executive of Washington, DC-based political-technology firm Aristotle International and adviser to the campaign of opposition candidate Raila Odinga, was driven around the dark streets of the capital, according to Mr Phillips and his colleague Andreas Katsouris, who was in a separate car. Both were then taken to the airport and, along with another colleague, deported.
Kenyan authorities said the men were expelled because they didn’t have the correct visas. Government officials declined to comment further.
Mr Phillips said he and his co-worker had entered the country on tourist visas and applied for business visas once in the country.
As initial vote tallies on Wednesday showed the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta with a large lead over Mr Odinga, the opposition leader’s backers said the treatment of the consultants was part of a broader effort to undermine his candidacy.
Mr Odinga said hackers had rigged the electoral commission’s computer systems to skew the election results in Mr Kenyatta’s favour. He also said last week’s brutal killing of the commission’s top information technology official, Chris Msando, was part of a plot to keep Mr Kenyatta in power.
The police launched an investigation but have given no details. The electoral commission said in a tweet on Wednesday from its official account that its software was secure and there were no hacks. Supporters of the president dismissed Mr Odinga’s assertions as disinformation.
Kenya’s Human Rights Commission, a nongovernmental organisation, said it had discovered some discrepancies in an initial comparison between provisional digital results counted by the election commission’s computer system and a final tally of paper forms signed at polling stations. International monitors, with delegations including former secretary of state John Kerry, have made no comment but are due to disclose their findings on Thursday.
One of Mr Phillips’s jobs for the Odinga campaign was to scour data for evidence of vote fraud — both to check voter rolls ahead of polling as well as to scrutinise the results for unusual patterns and signs of a rigging. Such analyses are a specialty of Aristotle International.
In an interview, Mr Phillips, who has returned to Washington, said that as the plainclothes officers drove him around Nairobi after taking him from his apartment, one of the men watched videos of torture scenes on a phone and asked Mr Phillips if he had any children. When the longtime political consultant — whose firm advised US House and Senate candidates from both parties during the 2016 cycle — noticed he was being driven into a rural area, he wondered if he would be killed. “Given what had happened to Chris,” he said, referring Mr Msando, “it crossed my mind.”
The security officers confiscated his cellphone and laptop and those of his colleague Mr Katsouris, both men said, adding that security officials then attempted to transfer files from the men’s laptops. The episode was confirmed by a US embassy official familiar with the situation.
Mr Phillips said the officers refused to identify themselves or say why he was being detained.
“We have worked in Venezuela, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ukraine; environments where harassment happens. But this has never happened before,” Mr Phillips said.
When they were deported, Messrs Phillips and Katsouris had been in Nairobi for two months working on Mr Odinga’s campaign. They said they provided general advice, but their main task was to delve into the more technical aspects of the election, including analysing voter rolls and watching for fraud. Creating searchable and interactive voter rolls with deep information about each voter is at the heart of what Aristotle has been doing since the 1980s, according to Mr Phillips.
Mr Katsouris, the company’s in-house technical expert, spent his final days in Nairobi focusing on that. It involved crunching data that would help him check the statistical probability of announced results and the patterns of voting as they were announced by the electoral committee. Anomalies in those could indicate fraud, Mr Katsouris said.
Hacking was also a concern, he said, but Aristotle said the company was focused more on voting patterns in remote areas.
“What do you know about hacking?” Mr Katsouris said one of the officials detaining him at the airport asked him. “Are there hacking tools on your computer?”