Pain of working for IEBC: Election officials say it is a dog's life

IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati is whisked away by security officers after chaos erupted between Azimio and UDA leaders at the auditorium, Bomas of Kenya on August 15, 2022. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Elected leaders from the August 9 General Election are first settling into office. But for Jane (not her real name), it is the beginning of emotional healing.

Her emotional scar has nothing to do with the outcome of the election. It is everything to do with the trauma she went through as a returning officer for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

The events of the five nights at the tallying centre she was charged with still play in her mind. For the contestants, it was all about the win. For Jane, it was almost about losing her life.

She reached out to her bosses at the national tallying centre at Bomas of Kenya, Nairobi, through a phone call. But those at Bomas, nearly 500 kilometres away from her tallying centre, had their own share of troubles.

“You people want me dead. I don’t have medicine. I’m hungry. I have been here three days and yet I can’t leave because the gangs are outside waiting for me,” Jane sobbed on the phone as she sought help from one of the IEBC commissioners.

The middle-aged woman, who has a chronic illness, was being held at ransom by political gangs in a remote tallying centre upcountry.

It was her first time serving as a returning officer and she had not mentally prepared for what she would face.

She was begging for help from her bosses at Bomas. She was in deep pain, coughing and needed security to access a hospital.

While she desperately wanted medicine, a good diet, and water after staying in a cold-tallying centre for four days, all the politicians and their supporters wanted was one thing—results.

Unknown to her, the bosses she was reaching out to had their own share of problems. But all founded on the same thing—election results.

Health issues could not wait. But not in the political arena, where some of her colleagues had paid the price through intimidation, injuries, and even death.

At Bomas of Kenya, time was of the essence. The clock was fast ticking away and moving closer to the constitutional deadline for announcing presidential results.

Jane says her only crime was refusing to alter the poll outcome in favour of some candidates.

She was seen as the author of her own tribulations—a price she had to pay for staying true to the integrity of elections. A section of agents reportedly disowned the results.

On social media, many Kenyans were having fun to cool off the anxiety. Some joked that it was an open secret that IEBC officials had gone for days without bathing.

For Jane and other officials caught up in the leadership position contests, it was anything but a joke.

“It was the fourth day and we did not have access to water to drink or shower. The washrooms were dirty; we could not change clothes or brush teeth for days,” a clerk at the centre said.

With many IEBC centres being public primary schools, the cold nights only served to worsen the situation. All for a temporary job.

Presiding officers, who work for about 13 days, earn Sh2,000 a day while their deputies earn Sh1,800. Polling clerks work for nine days, earning Sh1,000 per day. At Towheed polling station in Eldas Constituency, IEBC staff, who spoke to The Sunday Standard on condition of anonymity, said on the third night, they were ordered to lie down and the lights were switched off.

Mohammed Kanyare, who was the presiding officer at the station, narrated the chilling event that left him wounded.

For him, the Sh26,000 he is waiting for from IEBC cannot measure up to what befell him during the process.

“I was submitting the election results at the constituency tallying centre. We were ordered to lie down, which we did, and thereafter, the lights were switched off,” Kanyare said.

“I was shot thrice in the right leg but was only taken to Wajir County Referral Hospital after relative calm had resumed.”

Kanyare’s leg was amputated after doctors said it could not be salvaged.

In Embakasi East Constituency, Daniel Musyoka, a returning officer at the East African School of Aviation tallying centre, was not lucky to make it out of the election cycle alive.

At the height of tension at the station, he excused himself to make a call on August 10. He disappeared and was found dead days later.

“The next day (Thursday, August 11), my mother tried to reach him on the phone, but he was unavailable. We did not give too much thought to it given that IEBC officials were busy tallying the votes,” his wife Prudence Mbolu, now a widow, told the media at the time.

IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati reassigned Musyoka’s duties to the deputy returning officer. The assignment at hand could not wait.

In the afternoon, Mbolu was glued on the TV screen, hoping to see her husband announce results. To her shock, it was a different person making the announcement.

“Upon seeing that, we tried calling him again, but he was unavailable,” Mbolu said.

Chebukati, on August 12, explained that they tried in vain to reach the officer after he failed to return to the office.

At Bomas, several reports of kidnaps were also made. At least two IEBC staff were reportedly taken from Bomas by police and interrogated for days before being released without being charged in court.

“We have staff who have been profiled. We have staff who have been arbitrarily arrested for no reason. We don’t know where they are. Some from this national tally centre,” Chebukati said in one of the media briefings.

Years after Chris Musando, an IEBC ICT manager, was murdered in 2017 just days to the General Election, the safety of IEBC staff is one that cannot be guaranteed. Not even with thousands of police officers that are usually deployed.

Former IEBC Commissioner Roselyn Akombe resigned days to the 2017 repeat presidential election, following threats to her life.

Ms Akombe in August tweeted that she still hoped the killers of Msando will face the law someday. She believes Msando’s killers were out to thwart efforts to hold a credible election.

“While your (Msando’s) traitors have been rewarded and electoral integrity remains in jeopardy, justice will be served, no matter how long it takes,” Akombe tweeted.

IEBC officials who did not want to be named said some insiders within the commission profile staff before releasing their information to criminal gangs. 

“For instance, during the last polls, there were people who were found recording others,” an IEBC official said.

Beatrice Muli, a returning officer who worked in Kiambu, said some of the returning officers were physically assaulted at tallying centres and their property stolen.

“Today, what we are telling the country is that we are human beings and Kenyans. We are tired of intimidation by the political class and we are demanding an end to this,” Muli said.

Some quarters feel the intimidation, abduction, and murder of IEBC officials, which are meant to interfere with the electoral process.

According to Booker Ngesa, Vice Chairman of the Communist Party of Kenya, the ills meted out on IEBC officials is all aimed at silencing the will of the people. “There are people who have committed grave crimes. They are determined to stay in office for protection,” Ngesa said.

He said it is possible that some law enforcers entrusted to protect IEBC officials are used by politicians to threaten and intimidate IEBC officials.