Electoral body under watch

By Martin Mutua  

The surprise decision by national electoral body to abandon electronic voting system for a manual process stunned Parliament and rekindled bad memories of the 2007 bungled elections.

Poll officials countercheck voting materials in a past election.. [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]

But even more worrisome for the country Speaker Kenneth Marende ordered two committees of the House to probe the controversial tender whose cancellation reluctantly led IEBC to give up on it altogether.

Putting an electoral team under probe seven months to elections is the last thing a country would like to see given the disruptive nature of its possible outcome, and what this portends for the credibility of the team set to oversee      the exercise.

But again if no attempt is made to reinstate the tender, the adverse effect on Kenyans’ confidence on the electoral process could be severely undermined.

But worse still for IEBC, apart from the missed deadlines particularly on voter registration and education, the team is faced with a logistical nightmare that next year’s will be a six-in-one election, three more than it has been previously.

The tedious and risky manual intervention, which from experience has shown how prone it is to interference, is being reinstated for the about 18 million persons the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission targets to register from next month. 

But with the clock ticking fast towards March 4, 2013, election date which court affirmed is constitutional and appropriate, IEBC appeared to surrender following the controversy and graft claims that rocked the processing of Sh3.9 billion Biometric Voter Register tender.           

Confidence crisis        

IEBC led by Isaack Hassan appeared headed for confidence crisis given that not only had the tender processing exposed the undercurrents and competing interests in the electoral body, but also dimmed the hopes of a free and fair elections many Kenyans had banked on electronic voting system. 

Questions were also being asked if IEBC then is prepared for the coming polls, the first under the current Constitution, and over which the stakes are higher than 2007’s not only because of its six-tier structure, but also because it will hand Kenya its fourth president.

Unlike in the previous elections where Kenyans only went to the polling stations to vote for the President, Member of Parliament, and a councillor, the IEBC now has additional three seats and about 18 million voters to contend with.

Hassan who got a thumbs-up after he led the now defunct Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) during the 2010 referendum leading to his current job, is a man under intense focus as Kenyans monitor the road to elections after the shambolic one in 2007 under the discredited team of Samuel Kivuitu.

The recent boardroom wars that are said to be soaring at IEBC, with Hassan and commissioners on one side, and the Chief Executive James Oswago and the secretariat on the other, is blamed over cancellation of the BVR tender that would have raised the standards of electioneering here.

The debacle in IEBC caught the attention of Parliament with Speaker Kenneth Marende directing a joint committee of the House to investigate the tender and report back to the House within 14 days.

The matter was raised by Kimilili MP Esseli Simiyu, who was supported by Imenti Central MP Gitobu Imanyara, his Ikolomani counterpart Boni Khalwale, and Nominated legislator Millie Odhiambo.

Parliament’s Constitution Implementation and Oversight Committee chaired by Mandera Central MP Abdikadir Mohammed and the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee chaired by Budalang’i MP Ababu Namwamba will undertake the joint probe on behalf of the House and file a report.

Important matter

“I am satisfied this is a matter of great national importance. I direct that the two committees can inquire into the matter of BVR and report back to the House not later than 14 days from today,” Marende directed.

The Speaker said the move was not aimed at interfering with the independence of the electoral body, adding it had concluded the tendering.

Kenyans will now be asking is why the team having been sworn into office last year in October, did not start the BVR tendering earlier to ensure it would be in place long before the elections.  The testing and installation is also time-consuming, and a delicate exercise since all must be done to ensure the computer-based system is firewalled against manipulation and data distortion.

It is, however, the Hassan team, made up of himself as the chairman and eight commissioners that must rise to the occasion given that they carry the hopes of Kenyans.  They are expected to navigate the remaining steps to the election carefully and transparently, making sure its integrity is above reproach.

Curiously, it is the same team that had raised the hopes of Kenyans for free and fair elections through BVR model. Immediate former Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo is on record assuring Kenyans he would ensure the coming elections would be carried out electronically, and that he was working round the clock with the commission to make it possible.

However, Mutula has since been transferred to the Education docket, and replaced by Saboti legislator Eugene Wamalwa.

The defunct Electoral Commission led by Kivuitu was widely criticised, notably by Justice Kriegler Commission, which investigated the manner the last elections were conducted, hence the strong desire by the current body to avoid attracting similar, or worse criticism.

IIEC under Hassan during the 2010 referendum and several by-elections it conducted, especially the veracity of tallying in open centres with results streamed live on television as, and when received, and its time-saving capabilities.

Internal tussles

But it appears IEBC’s internal tussle following the pattern of Hassan-Oswago axis could have sapped the energies of the commission and diverted its focus. Hassan and the commissioners have been haggling over the position of CEO for the commission, which was supposed to have been advertised and filled with Oswago’s replacement by February.

Curiously, a voter, Nelson Ombima from Vihiga, is reported to have rushed to court, where he obtained orders blocking the commission from advertising the job.

The bad blood between Oswago and Hassan’s side follows claims that the CEO allegedly had been using his office to write newspaper articles to discredit the commission.

It is alleged the information in the articles were later traced to Oswago’s laptop in the commission office that was being used by his personal assistant, who has since been fired.

With the reinstatement of Oswago by the court, the commissioners are now forced to contend working with him.

Efforts to get Hassan or Oswago for comment were fruitless as their cell phones sounded switched off up to the time we went to press.