Kenya’s 2017 General Election was unprecedented and bitterly fought. Journalist JOHN ONYANDO, who served in the Opposition campaign, tells the inside story of Raila Odinga’s election machine in his book, Kenya: The Failed Quest for Electoral Justice. In the final of a three-part series, he tells of the intrigues at the poll agency before and after last electionS.
Long before joining the National Super Alliance (NASA), I knew well how politicised the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) – the agency responsible for Kenya’s national elections - had been right from the start of the reforms following the 2007 polls.
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I was working in the Prime Minister’s office in 2009 when IIEC (Interim Independent Electoral Commission), the forerunner to the IEBC, was being constituted. One day, an ODM youth leader came to inform me, with very credible evidence, that a supporter of Raila Odinga was unfairly being bypassed in appointment for the commission’s chairmanship.
Lawyer Cecil Miller Jr had been recommended instead, and he was due to undergo vetting by Parliament’s Committee on Administration of Justice. I passed the information to Miguna Miguna, who was soon to become Raila’s Adviser for Coalition Affairs.
Miguna helped mobilise opposition to Miller’s candidature based on legitimate grounds, forcing the lawyer to withdraw from the race. In the process, Issack Hassan was appointed IIEC chairman.
When the matter had settled, I was informed by a lawyer with close contacts with some members of the committee on Justice and Legal Affairs that the MPs had made an unwritten understanding that a Luo should not be hired as a commissioner in IIEC, which under the new Constitution then under negotiation, was transformed into the IEBC.
A few months later, by which time I had left the PM’s office, the same youth leader called me to say that IIEC was about to appoint the chief executive officer and that the same Raila man who had been bypassed for chairmanship had topped in the interviews that were conducted by KPMG. This time, I sought to meet the man, and thus came to know James Humphrey Oswago, a retired military lawyer and management consultant.
Mr Oswago, fearing that he was unfairly being locked out of the job, had discussed his predicament with literally everyone he knew could intervene in his favour, including his MP, Nicholas Gumbo of Rarieda. I, again, spoke with Miguna, who might already have been informed about the case by Gumbo. After a week of no movement, Oswago shared with me one element in his CV, which would prove vital to his getting the job.
He said that while in the military, he had been personal assistant to former Chief of General Staff Gen Mohamud Mohamed, and got along well with Somalis, whose culture he had come to appreciate. Therefore, if we could reach out to IIEC chairman Mr Hassan directly, he (Hassan) would probably get him the job.
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Soon after Oswago landed the job, I heard he was having problems with commissioners, over procurement and other decisions. His bosses were later to appoint a deputy chief executive officer in a new structure to moderate his influence.
By the 2013 election, Oswago was, as I understood it, generally distrusted by the commissioners who took an active role in managing different aspects of the elections. In the recriminations following that controversial election, he appeared to disown the election results in public comments that further poisoned his relationship with his colleagues.
Incidentally, he and other senior staff, and not the commissioners, were the ones prosecuted for alleged crimes over irregular procurement which resulted in his removal from office.
But with his seeming pivot to the Raila side after the election amid investigation over corruption, the Hassan-led team, like the parliamentary committee in 2010, made an unwritten rule never to hire another senior Luo at the commission.
Instructively, when interviews for Oswago’s replacement were done, a Dickson Omondi emerged the best. But the commissioners bypassed him and appointed Ezra Chiloba, an ambitious 35-year-old lawyer with establishment connections. Mr Chiloba fitted well into the dominant school of thought in IEBC: That Raila’s politics made the commission’s work difficult.
As fate would have it, CORD’s push for the removal of the commissioners who had mishandled the 2013 election succeeded in 2016, forcing them to leave office. During a long transitional period when the commissioners remained technically in office while their successors were being recruited, Chiloba was allowed unfettered control over the secretariat.
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By the time the new commissioners moved in, Chiloba was by and large the institution. And he was double lucky, thanks to the President’s criteria of picking those who had emerged as the weakest candidates during the recruitment. The chairman, Wafula Chebukati, who had come ninth in the interviews, did not inspire much confidence. The first qualification for the IEBC chairman was experience in law equivalent to that required of Supreme Court justices.
Chebukati had this, but not the best support from among his colleagues. Many felt that Tukero ole Kina, who was number one in the shortlist handed to the President after Roselyne Odede’s exclusion, would have been a better pick.
Several CORD MPs declared intention to block Chebukati’s appointment in Parliament, but Raila nipped their opposition in the bud by announcing his support for the chairman, who at one time was an ODM parliamentary contender, just before the Motion was due in the House.
CORD, of course, lacked the parliamentary numbers to block Jubilee appointments, and Raila, as he is wont to, was playing patently tribal politics by not standing in the way of a Luhyia getting a top job.
After Chebukati was appointed chairman, he oversaw the August 8, 2017 election with Chiloba. Following a petition by Raila’s NASA coalition, the election results were cancelled by the Supreme Court and a repeat poll ordered.
On October 10, Raila pulled out of the repeat election. He had come to the realisation that his participation would not only legitimise the exercise, but also implicitly signal something much more ominous, his acceptance of the drive by the Jubilee Government to dismantle democratic rights that Kenyans had struggled and sacrificed for decades. Jubilee was confounded, but even more were the foreign diplomats who had been supporting the government.
The very continuation with plans to conduct the election became the fuel for instability in the country.
Chebukati had by then lost the battle for the control of IEBC, but kept the faith. In the commission, his decisions were routinely overturned through the vote by commissioners led by his deputy Connie Maina.
Commissioner Roselyne Akombe, who had allied herself to the chairman and had been waging a lone campaign in support of a clean election, was isolated. She was now facing direct threats to her life after being labelled a NASA supporter.
The Sunday Nation of September 17 reported that her brother had fled into exile upon receiving threats over her alleged anti-government stance.
In a Citizen TV interview on September 26, the commissioner looked frightened.
She spoke candidly against Jubilee’s amendments to the election laws, saying IEBC was already training staff using current laws and that the changes would tip things over.
Kipchumba Murkomen, who was on the TV show, seized those comments, which he called ‘confessions’ about Akombe’s support for the NASA position. Responding to Murkomen, Akombe could not have been more apt.
“This country is becoming hostile to people with good views,” she said, lamenting that her views were being put alongside NASA’s when she was only doing her job the best way she could.
She addressed the smear campaign against her that included fake screenshots of alleged WhatsApp communication between her and James Orengo, the NASA lawyer.
She explained that she had absolutely nothing to do with NASA. Aware of the perception in her surname that sounded Luo, she tacitly stressed her Kisii identity, emphasising her full name; ‘I Roselyn Kwamboka Akombe,’ using the middle name that most Kenyans recognised to be authentically Kisii.
Indeed, the claim that Akombe was a Raila supporter reflected the deep divisions over the election where Jubilee supporters had blocked their ears to any logic. I knew Akombe’s political positions well in the mid-2000s when, during my first visit to America, I participated in many diaspora discussion groups, mainly in yahoo and Google groups. She was very active and was one of Raila’s most acerbic critics.
The Standard reported after her resignation that her own appointment to IEBC was influenced by people who assumed that her political bent would inform her work at the Commission.
Indeed, until August 11, she generally went with the flow, fighting back perceptions that IEBC was opaque in its personnel appointments and contracting for key services for the election. As the public face of the commission, many were those who mistook her for Chebukati’s vice-chair person.
Many felt that her praise for Chiloba moments before the declaration of final results on August 11 went over the top, for example, when she warned women who were purportedly admiring the CEO that he was “taken”.
Kenya had never had a woman in the role Akombe played post-August, riding the waters on a divisive issue that didn’t go down well with the powers then.
In a memo dated 9 October, she challenged the chairman to address a new phenomenon, where a key committee she led in the determination of commission decisions was being bypassed.
A week later, she resigned.
“We need the commission to be courageous and speak out, that this election as planned cannot meet the basic expectations of a CREDIBLE election. Not when the staff are getting last minute instructions on changes in technology and electronic transmission of results,” Akombe said in a statement upon her resignation.
Over the next two days, she was interviewed on six major media channels, where she revealed more about the IEBC officials’ partisanship.
Akombe’s resignation left NASA on a strong footing and put pressure on Chebukati, who she described in an interview with BBC Newsday as a well-meaning but weak leader.
That very day, Chebukati addressed an emotional media conference, in which he said IEBC could not guarantee the credibility of the upcoming poll.
It was probably the first time in the world that an election management body had impeached the integrity of its own process. The chairman said he was giving political leaders, both sides, a “yellow card”, warning that unless the situation improved, he would not conduct the repeat election. By that statement, Chebukati gained credibility that he had craved since the Supreme Court Judgement.