From the obscurity of a Mombasa office where he practised as a lawyer, Wafula Chebukati has become Kenya’s face of elections, conducting two general elections and three presidential contests in five years.
On Tuesday, Chebukati, Abdi Guliye and Boya Molu leave the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), where the former has served as chairman and the latter two commissioners.
That will leave the agency with one commissioner, Irene Masit, who stands suspended as a tribunal looks into her conduct in last August’s election. Three others - former vice-chairperson Juliana Cherera, Francis Wanderi and Justus Nyang’aya - left before the Aggrey Muchelule-led tribunal began its investigations.
In their six-year tenures, Chebukati, Guliye and Molu have enjoyed significant success, which has often been overshadowed by the bungled 2017 presidential election and the constant partisan wrangling within the commission.
Chebukati is fresh from conducting last August’s election, hailed by observers as transparent given the IEBC’s move to open the result-transmission portal to the public. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court gave the presidential election a stamp of approval, saying it had been free and fair. And Chebukati would term the verdict “vindication”.
But the trio’s legacy varies depending on who you ask. In President William Ruto’s eyes, the three are heroes who thwarted an alleged attempt to rig him out of the presidency. Opposition chief Raila Odinga views them as criminals for allegedly bungling the presidential election twice.
The three – alongside former vice-chairperson Consolata Nkatha and ex-commissioners Margaret Mwachanya, Roselyne Akombe and Paul Kurgat – came into office in January 2017, months after a team led by Issack Hassan bowed to opposition pressure and resigned.
The Raila-led opposition accused the Hassan-led IEBC of allegedly bungling the 2013 presidential election, despite a Supreme Court determination that the election had been credible. After years of push and pull, Hassan and other commissioners would accept a hefty send-off package and pave the way for Chebukati and team.
Hassan had taken over from the late Samuel Kivuitu, who oversaw the most controversial election in 2007, which the late Kivuitu would claim had been heavily rigged. After conducting a referendum with an interim electoral commission that he chaired since 2009, Hassan was appointed to chair the first IEBC in 2011, rebranded from the Electoral Commission of Kenya. He would conduct the transitional election of 2013.
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Being at the helm for nearly four years, there was optimism that the Hassan-led commission would hack Kenya’s first electronic election. But a spectacular failure of voter identification gadgets on election day and subsequent claims by Raila that the presidential polls had been rigged sowed scepticism among Kenyans.
It is this scepticism that Chebukati and team walked into as they took office. The fresh team had eight months to conduct the general election, whose highlight was a high-stake presidential contest between Raila and former President Uhuru Kenyatta. Eight months, many would state, was setting up Chebukati’s commission for failure. Some 19.6 million Kenyans registered to vote in the 2017 election, a significant rise from the 14.3 million voters registered in 2013. It was Kenya’s biggest election then. It still is, given the high turnout of voters. It was also the most expensive, costing taxpayers close to Sh50 billion.
Eight months was significantly shorter than Justice Johann Kriegler recommended deadline for electoral reforms – two years. In the end, the job proved overwhelming for Chebukati’s commission. A successful petition by Raila saw the Supreme Court nullify Uhuru’s victory, the first election in Africa to be nullified, ordering a fresh presidential election.
Chebukati would use the second chance to conduct a fresh election that the Supreme Court said met the credibility test. But Raila’s boycott of the election, snubbed by his strongholds, reduced the repeat poll that came with a Sh10 billion price tag to a sham. The opposition chief said he could not trust the IEBC to conduct a fair election. And hence the IEBC boss would hardly claim vindication.
Following the botched poll, cracks within the IEBC had gotten to the surface, with Akombe the first to leave the polls agency. She would express her doubt in the IEBC conducting free and fair elections, given the partisanship that had taken root within the commission. Three others, Nkatha, Mwachanya and Kurgat would later fall out with Chebukati, claiming the IEBC chair lacked leadership.
In the following weeks, Chebukati would find himself in Hassan’s shoes – at the centre of an opposition push to have him, Guliye and Molu ousted from the IEBC. Unlike his predecessor, however, Chebukati would soak in the pressure and watch the protests staged outside his office with indifference. That would prove effective in warding off such calls. The March 2018 handshake between Raila and Uhuru further tamed the former prime minister, who stepped down his protestations against Chebukati.
“Chebukati has been very courageous,” former IBC deputy CEO Wilson Shollei says. “You need such qualities in such an institution.”
The IEBC boss survived to oversee the second election and a third presidential election in 2022. With slightly less than a year to go before the August 9 polls, Uhuru appointed four commissioners – Cherera, Masit, Wanderi and Nyang’aya – to join the trio of Chebukati, Guliye and Molu. Only the new commissioners were new to managing elections.
Chebukati had had five years to prepare for the polls. At times, however, it hardly felt as though the commission had been preparing. Six months before the election, the IEBC was yet to audit the register of voters, amid concerns over its integrity.
And when the audit finally happened, there had been reports that audit firm KPMG was unable to access the original register, claims that the IEBC denied. There was confirmation that the IEBC electronic systems had been breached. At a meeting with European diplomats, Ruto would say one million voters from his perceived strongholds had been affected. The electoral body struggled to assure that its systems were secure, given an audit by KPMG had also exposed its vulnerabilities.
IEBC was yet to test its election technology, the hugest factor that caused the nullification of the 2017 presidential poll. A simulation exercise on deadline day (June 9) registered massive failure, but the IEBC said it would rectify the weaknesses.
The result-transmission simulation showed areas within the country that lacked proper network coverage. In the weeks before the exercise, and even afterwards, the IEBC clashed with the Communication Authority of Kenya over whose job it was to test 3G network coverage.
“Although many of the components are not within its control, the IEBC has always been dilatory in sequencing and managing the electoral calendar, leading to a last-minute crunch, and forced decisions. We are concerned that multiple critical processes are occurring simultaneously, including “cleaning up” of the register by commission staff, while voters verify their status, and an audit of the register is presumably being conducted,” civil society groups, led by the Kenya Human Rights Commission, said in June last year.
Last year’s election was, perhaps, the most critical in Chebukati’s career as the IEBC boss as it gave him the chance to lighten the blot on him courtesy of the bungled 2017 election. Politicians hardly trusted him and his commission, but opinion polls ahead of the election showed that as much as 60 per cent of Kenyans had confidence that he would deliver a credible election.
Like for much of his career, Chebukati largely kept away from the press, with journalists later complaining that they could hardly get any information from the commission. Stakeholders, too, lamented that the commission was deaf to their concerns.
And Chebukati would adapt fast, engaging election stakeholders frequently, even as he provided consistent updates on the commission’s state of preparedness. And the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the presidential election as free and fair was Chebukati’s crowning moment.