When Joseph Kaguthi rubber stamped ballots to avert a crisis

Joseph Kaguthi. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Kenya's elections are among the most expensive globally, especially when it comes to sourcing voting materials.

In last month's elections, things were complicated further when governor polls in Kakamega and Mombasa were postponed due to what the electoral commission termed "a mismatch in ballot papers."

The anomalies required the reprinting of the ballot papers abroad, something that cost taxpayers billions.

Similar anomalies have occurred in past elections but some provincial administrators who doubled up as poll officials took it upon themselves to rectify them on election day. Under current circumstances, such a move would cause a furore.

One such administrator was former Nairobi Provincial Commissioner Joseph Kaguthi. As DO 1 in Nairobi, Kaguthi had to make a quick decision, for the 1979 polls in Uhuru Ward to go on smoothly.

In the elections, two candidates had their symbols mixed up during the printing of ballot papers. One candidate had the lantern symbol while the other had a watch. However, the Swahili term for lantern, taa, was mixed up with the rival candidate's saa (watch).

"It was an innocent mistake made by the Government Printer who used to print voting materials back then. However, if we did nothing, this would have disenfranchised voters since the problem came to light when papers were being opened at the polling station," says Kaguthi.

Kaguthi made a decision that baffled some officials but one that made the electorate happy. He ordered that two stamps be made in downtown Nairobi immediately, one marked saa and the other taa. He then correctly stamped the corresponding symbols on the ballot papers. The problem was solved.

"I made this decision with the mandate of the queuing public," he says. "They were the owners of the elections. They had come in early ready to vote and there was no way we would send them back because of an unintended mishap. The worst administrator is one who is indecisive. Sometimes people suffer because of indecisive public officials who fear being sued."

This was not the first time Kaguthi had intervened in electoral matters. In the 1974 elections, he almost ordered Public Service Vehicles in Kakamega to ferry polling clerks to polling centres.

"I had permission from my superiors to have PSVs ferry polling officials in case government vehicles were unavailable. Fortunately, the government vehicles were provided in the nick of time," he recalls. 

Years later, Kaguthi asked a local bank to let its tellers voluntarily help in vote counting.