Kenyan electoral bodies: A history of blunders and short stints

Saturday October 21 2017

Kenya electoral commission chairmen

Kenya electoral commission chairmen: The late Samuel Kivuitu (left), Issack Hassan (centre), and Wafula Chebukati. PHOTOS | NMG 

By FRED OLUOCH
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Since the reintroduction of political pluralism in Kenya in 1991, successive electoral bodies have continued making avoidable blunders despite years of efforts to streamline the electoral system.

While in the first 1992 multi-party election the commissioners of the then Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) were singlehandedly picked by former President Daniel Moi, the real test came in 1997, when the Moi government allowed various political parties to nominate commissioners.

Whilst the ECK — which was led by the late Samuel Kivuiti — was accused of not allowing a level playing field, Moi won with only 39 per cent of the vote because of a divided opposition.

Yet, 2002 has been hailed as the most free election in Kenyan history when a united opposition led by Mwai Kibaki, overcame all roadblocks that had been placed by the ECK.

But come 2007, Kenya experienced its worst political instability when the country plunged into unprecedented violence resulting from perception that ECK had rigged the elections in favour of Mwai Kibaki against Raila Odinga.

Despite being a strong personality, Mr Kivuitu did not realise that some of the commissioners had created a parallel chain of command and were dealing directly with returning officers behind his back.

Such was the mess in the 2007 general election that Mr Kivuitu later openly admitted that he did not know who won between Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga. In the defunct ECK, the returning officers did not have powers and chairman was the creator of primary documents.

IEBC

The ECK was later disbanded to create Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC), led by Issack Hassan, as a stopgap measure before the promulgation of the new Constitution in August 2010.

The IIEC commissioners were sworn in May 2009 with the mission to institutionalise sustainable electoral processes that would guarantee a free and fair election. The same team later graduated into the current IEBC after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution.

In the IEBC under Mr Hassan, the commissioners were involved in the day-to-day running of the electoral body and were involved in procurement. Mr Hassan adopted a hands-on approach to the extent that he was accused of usurping the duties of the secretariat.

Come the 2013 general election, the IEBC faced criticism when most the electronic voter identification kits failed to work, forcing the commission to revert to the manual system which Mr Odinga — who unsuccessfully petitioned the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta — said was deliberately done to manipulate the election through ballot stuffing.

Mr Hassan and his eight commissioners were subsequently hounded out of office in October last year following months of street protests led by Mr Odinga, leading to the establishment of a bipartisan joint parliamentary committee on election reforms led by James Orengo and Kiraitu Murungi.

The joint committee strengthened the use of the electronic system in results transmission. The joint committee also made a clear demarcation between the powers of the commissioners and that of the secretariat, whose powers were substantially increased during the moratorium period.

New team

The new seven commissioners led by Wafula Chebukati took office in January 2017, but the ground had changed since the current commissioners have limited powers in the day to day running of IEBC, except the chairman.

They must vote on issues at hand and have no powers to implement their decisions. That is why since the Supreme Court nullification of the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta on September 1, there has been friction between Mr Chebukati and Mr Chiloba on how to effect changes in line with the illegalities and irregularities that were cited by the Supreme Court.

On October 18, Mr Chebukati conceded that the IEBC commissioners are divided and are pursuing partisan political interests and that his suggestions are being shot down at the plenary. Mr Chiloba complained that a section of commissioners are out to derail him in a manner that would compromise credible elections on October 26.

One of the commissioners, Dr Roselyn Akombe, who resigned on October 17, revealed that it has become increasingly difficult to continue attending plenary meetings where Commissioners come ready to vote along partisan lines and not to discuss the merit of issues before them.

“It has become increasingly difficult to appear on television to defend positions I disagree with in the name of collective responsibility,” she said ahead of a repeat presidential elections set for October 26.

Dr Akombe said in a subsequent interview with the BBC that while there was a period when the commission could have made meaningful changes to allow a level playing field, there is no time now to fix mistakes.

Mr Odinga withdrew from the race on October 10 citing the IEBC’s refusal to effect changes ordered by the Supreme Court on September 1, and the decision by the ruling Jubilee Party to change the electoral laws midstream.