Kenya’s poll boss: ‘There’s been an element of mistrust’
Every day, headlines splash across the front pages of Kenya’s newspapers, scrutinising the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) preparations for the 8 August general election. On the minds of many readers is the need to avoid a recurrence of the violence that ripped through Kenya nearly a decade ago.
Voter registration in the build-up to the poll, and vote-tallying on election day, are key issues at stake. Kenya’s main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, is threatening mass protests if his powerful opposition coalition perceives the election as rigged.
Odinga’s Coalition for Reform and Democracy held rallies last year about the bias of the IEBC. It was these demonstrations that prompted President Uhuru Kenyatta to appoint a new chairman, along with six new commissioners, in December 2016.
The man in charge of running the upcoming election is Wafula Chebukati, the IEBC’s new chairman, who was sworn into office on 20 January. If he is to succeed, Chebukati must perform a delicate balancing act, carefully treating all political interests fairly and ensuring that voter registration goes smoothly. On election day, the voting process, vote-tallying and vote transmission will be under close scrutiny.
Speaking in his office in downtown Nairobi, Chebukati told The Africa Report that he is trying to forge a new relationship with the country’s political parties as his commission prepares for its first election under his stewardship: “There’s been an element of mistrust by some political parties in the previous commissions […]. There’s a lot of suspicion between political parties and the IEBC. Our job is to ensure that we work independently,” Chebukati says.
Kenyatta has moved swiftly to prevent the opposition from blaming the IEBC as a means of rejecting the outcome of August’s elections. “The reconstitution of this commission was a bipartisan process that breathes new life into the electoral body while at the same time restoring confidence in its capacity and competence to deliver on its constitutional and statutory mandates,” Kenyatta said in a statement on 18 January.
But Odinga is not swayed by the restructuring of the IEBC. He said as recently as 15 February that the IEBC’s voter registration drive – which aims to add six million new voters to the electoral register of 16 million people – is adding fraudulent names in a bid to help the governing Jubilee Alliance Party to win. “The executive office is trying to downplay it,” Odinga told reporters. “It is a major, major mess.”
Trying to draw a line under previous electoral commissions, Chebukati has been busy meeting with political party representatives, journalists and government officials to prepare for the vote. “We have an open-door policy, so that if you have anything, any problem, or you think there’s an issue, come to us and let’s engage,” he says. “Quite a number of political party representatives have been [in my office], and we have given them answers to what they think are problems.”
There is much at stake. An estimated 1,100 Kenyans were killed in post-electoral violence in the aftermath of the December 2007 elections. Analysts worry that lessons learned in 2013, when all actors were on their best behaviour, are in danger of being forgotten.
Chebukati inherited a difficult position from his predecessor, Ahmed Issack Hassan.
During Kenya’s last election, in March 2013, Hassan’s administration came under fire for failing to properly test biometric voter identification technology before the polls were held. On the day of the vote, the biometric identifiers failed, forcing electoral officials to switch to manual vote-tallying methods at the last minute. This led to accusations of vote-rigging from the opposition, after it lost the election.
Chebukati says the biometric identification worked during the registration process in 2013, but failed to work on election day itself. “That [was the] problem in 2013 – you’re supposed to be identified before you cast your ballot paper,” he says. Another costly mistake in 2013 was the failure of an electronic vote-tallying system that was meant to use mobile networks to send voting data in real time to an online tallying platform. Chebukati did not say if these methods would be used in August.
Another set of headaches for the IEBC surrounds ballot-paper printing. A $24m contract for the printing signed with Dubai-based company Al Ghurair last year was cancelled by Kenya’s High Court in February, saying it did not meet election guidelines. This ruling has forced the IEBC to launch a new tender. “We have enough time to restart the process and procure ballot papers,” Chebukati says.
The IEBC is carefully reviewing electoral procurement laws after its previous chief executive, James Oswago, was arrested on 8 February on charges of receiving bribes in exchange for awarding previous ballot-printing contracts to British firm Smith & Ouzman.
The scandal has become known as ‘Chickengate’ because IEBC officials used the codeword ‘chicken’ to refer to bribes. “As long as Kenyans can see that some people have been taken to court over what has popularly been known as the Chickengate scandal, we believe that the current commission is going to be much more careful in its observance of the procurement laws,” Julius Muraya, a deputy director at the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, told reporters.
The issue of manual vote-tallying is a hot one. At the beginning of the year, President Kenyatta signed a bill amending the country’s constitution to allow manual voter-identification and vote-transmission systems to run in conjunction with electronic counters. Opposition parties have criticised the amendment, saying it could help the governing party rig the vote.
For the moment, cleaning the voter register to remove nearly 80,000 duplicate voters is among the IEBC’s biggest priorities. “The only problem is unnecessary data, which we are removing – the data of double IDs and so forth,” says Chebukati. A team of data-entry analysts is tasked with removing all duplicates before the register is officially submitted.
During Ghana’s election late last year, the opposition National Patriotic Party was able to access vote-transmission data from the country’s electoral commission. This helped them to monitor the results of the election in real time, and, some say, build trust in the electoral process.
Asked if Kenya might consider providing political parties with the electoral commission’s vote transmission results, Chebukati is firm: “We have no problem with political parties running their own tallying system, but we shall not allow them to access the data we are transmitting [when the votes are being counted],” he says. “We want to manage it as independently as possible.
From the March 2017 print edition