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IEBC must be reconstituted before roll out of polls plan

By Barrack Muluka | January 16th 2016

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has this week rolled out its roadmap to next year’s General Election. The programme gives the steps Kenyans will walk through in what is expected to be a democratic process – from recruitment of registration officials all the way to voting and announcement of winners. However, the commission has not addressed the most important question troubling many minds. How will they restore lost public trust? The credibility of the IEBC has occupied the public mind since before the last election. Kenyans will recall the public spat between former Prime Minister Raila Odinga and IEBC Chairman Ahmed Isaack Hassan. A leaked audiovisual clip showed an angry Mr Hassan complaining that Raila “had threatened IEBC officials.”

While the matter was smothered over, suspicion and bad blood between the elections body and a significant constituency has remained. There are those who believe, perhaps wrongly, that the IEBC knew the presidential election result even before the voting. The IEBC must remove this perception. For three years now, the Opposition has consistently expressed mistrust for the IEBC. It keeps calling for its reconstitution. The government’s attack dogs respond barking in defence of the electoral body. This gives the IEBC a bad partisan image. Meanwhile, it has also emerged IEBC officials took bribes from a British firm, Smith and Ouzman, to influence supplies of electoral materials. Some former employees of this firm have since been jailed. The firm has also been blacklisted and fined in the UK. However, back in Kenya, it is business as usual. This matter is hush hushed. The electoral commission goes on with the business of rolling out a fifteen-point programme as if this matter of Chickengate does not exist or bother their conscience.

When the Opposition brings up the issue of Chickengate, voter registration and overall credibility of the IEBC, they are dismissed as “a bunch of noisemakers.” The Jubilee Government is not bothered that at least half of the country considers the IEBC a “dangerous tool in their hands.” Nor are the institutions charged with criminal investigation, or with integrity in the public service showing that they are bothered about the reputation of IEBC. Kenya therefore sustains a critical institution whose integrity is in doubt.

For their part, the IEBC officials who have been implicated in the Chickengate Scandal have developed a thick skin. They don’t really care what anyone thinks about them. You can go jump in the sea, for all they care. Now this is a perfect recipe for disaster. Common decency dictates that these persons should step aside, just by the fact itself that those said to have bribed them have been jailed in the UK. Their reputation is fatally injured, unless they resurrect it. They cannot be trusted; at least I don’t trust them anymore. If they can be bribed in the UK they can be bought in Kenya. If they can be paid to compromise procurement of electoral materials, they can be bought to compromise election results. This is the concern of many. It is concern which – if things remain the way they are – will return to haunt Kenya in August next year. This concern should not be taken lightly.

Before IEBC begins rolling out its roadmap in earnest, it must be reconstituted. There is need to restore lost faith in this very important national institution. You cannot go into a game with a huge swathe of stakeholders not trusting the referee. And there are many things, which – rightly or wrongly – entrench lack faith in the IEBC as constituted. I have mentioned Chickengate. Consider also that IEBC has been quietly registering voters in parts of the country for the past three years. They have been working only in easy-to-access parts of the country. This not only disenfranchises citizens in other places, it skews the election outcome even before the elections! Then there is the matter of public communications. Their roadmap talks of planning for “crisis communications.” In this profession, this is called “firefighting.” It comes in when you need to talk your way out of a coffin. Is this the brand of public engagement that the IEBC is planning for? Why?

Consider also that the IEBC has now embarked on recruitment of officials to register voters. The joke of it is that there will be only two officials per ward. This needs to be corrected. The IEBC should get more funds and register voters in a manner that looks credible. The primary role of the IEBC is to nurture democracy. Its conduct should at all times be beyond suspicion. Officials implicated in scams like Chickengate should be urgently separated from the commission. They should be replaced with men and women of unquestionable integrity.

When you put the question of the reputation of the IEBC together with ongoing arguments about how the Chief Justice should be appointed, you begin seeing preparation for a repeat of 2008. If citizens do not trust the IEBC or the Judiciary – the latter because of the manner in which the CJ was appointed – then you have another electoral tragedy in waiting – only slightly worse than you saw in 2008. The disastrous dress rehearsal is reinforced by assertions by some people that next year’s elections are about to be stolen. Likewise, there are those – like the Deputy President – who have been saying, “If we defeated you when we were not in Government, how do you expect that we could possibly lose now that we are in Government?” They only make the suspicions worse.

Of course the IEBC deserves praise for announcing its programme. However, institutional credibility is sitting badly. It is in a dangerous place. There is only one way to restore trust – reconstitute the commission.

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