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Tower of Babel as electoral officials call it a day after controversial poll

 IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The recommendation of the Justice Aggrey Muchelule-led tribunal investigating the conduct of commissioner Irene Masit could see the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) without a team in January.

IEBC chairman Wafula Chebukati and commissioners Abdi Guliye and Boya Molu are set to exit this month when their terms in office end.

Three others, former chairperson Juliana Cherera and former commissioners Francis Wanderi and Justus Nyang’aya resigned ahead of investigations into their conduct. If Masit survives the purge, she will be the only IEBC commissioner in office. Her removal will see an entirely new team take over.

The last time the IEBC witnessed such an overhaul was in January 2017, when the Chebukati-led commission took office in the wake of the resignation of the Issack Hassan-led IEBC. The difference will be that this time, only four commissioners would be forced out, with three seeing out their constitutional terms.

Coming into 2022, the polls agency had just been freshly replenished with the appointment of the Cherera four, as they have come to be known. For four years, Chebukati, Guliye and Molu had run the IEBC following the resignation of four commissioners – former vice-chairperson Consolata Nkatha, Roselyne Akombe, Margaret Mwachanya and Paul Kurgat.

Repeat poll

Akombe fled the country shortly after the bungled presidential election of 2017, with the rest leaving in April 2018 citing differences with Chebukati. Months earlier, they had conducted a fresh presidential election, which opposition chief Raila Odinga boycotted. The Supreme Court declared the repeat poll credible.

Despite the Supreme Court finding, public confidence in the IEBC waned in the intervening years, with the Raila-led opposition repeatedly calling for Chebukati’s ouster.

The IEBC boss would get the rare chance at redemption in the August 9 General Election. Late last year, he had quit a Chief Justice Martha Koome-chaired election preparedness consultative forum, accusing it of encroaching on his mandate. With a new team in place, he was keen to put the botched 2017 election, the first in Africa to be annulled, behind him. And so were Guliye and Molu, who had been part of the commission.

For much of the year, the commissioners seemed to enjoy cordial relations, appearing jointly in public engagements. The occasional rumours of discord would be promptly dismissed.

A surprise arrival of ballot papers in the run-up to the elections would catch the Cherera-four off guard, but they dismissed talk of exclusion by Chebukati, Guliye and Molu.

That would change during the Supreme Court’s hearing of the petition challenging President William Ruto’s win, when the IEBC came out as a tower of Babel, with revelations that commissioners were regularly at loggerheads.

The Cherera-four had disputed the election’s result before Chebukati had declared Ruto winner, terming the verification and tallying process “opaque”. In court, they said the chairperson had locked them out of the process, accusing him of dictatorship, claims that four former commissioners had previously levelled against Chebukati.

Other stakeholders had previously made such claims of opaqueness against the entire IEBC. Political parties had claimed the electoral commission would frequently ignore their concerns and took time to answer their queries.

Future elections

Sections of civil society were concerned that the IEBC did not take their job seriously and had shown reluctance to implement the guidelines of the Supreme Court on the conduct of future elections. They were also concerned that the IEBC was waiting out critical deadlines, such as testing election technology, among other issues. The press lamented that it was difficult to get any information from the commission.

In the face of this criticism, the IEBC would amp up engagements with the various stakeholders.

The move to open up the result-transmission portal to the public was, perhaps, the greatest step in establishing the commission’s openness. Many would laud the IEBC for that action.

But that – and the Supreme Court’s affirmation that the August 9 presidential election had been credible, which Chebukati would term “vindication” – was overshadowed by the dysfunctionality at the commission, brought to light during the hearings.

The Supreme Court judges were not amused, stating that there was a “serious malaise” in the IEBC’s governance, proposing reforms in the institution.

Fresh revelations that commissioners allegedly met politicians secretly only serve to dent the body’s credibility. Politicians from both sides of the divide mistrust the IEBC. While the president and his allies view the Cherera-four’s rejection of the presidential election results as subversion, Raila views Chebukati as a “criminal” who should be prosecuted. The Azimio leader wants the polls agency reformed.

“IEBC needs to immunise the electoral process from special interest groups and cartels that almost always want to sabotage electoral outcomes,” political commentator Dismas Mokua says, arguing that the presidential petition had demonstrated that the IEBC has the infrastructure to deliver free and fair polls.

“Accusations and allegations presented by Chebukati suggest that the political class has the capacity to compromise electoral outcomes,” he adds, proposing criminal action against those implicated in attempting to influence election results.

In the next few weeks, the IEBC will have at least six new commissioners – seven if Masit is removed from office – but the process of their recruitment should encounter some friction. President Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Alliance has proposed a bill that seeks to alter the composition of the selection panel that will recruit the new commissioners.

The move is seen as one that will give the president more say in the recruitment process, given that one slot in the panel will go to the Public Service Commission, which he essentially controls. That will take one of the four slots reserved for the Parliamentary Service Commission, which will now nominate two persons to the panel.

The Raila-led Azimio has rejected the proposal, reading malice in its timing, given the vacancies at the commission. That potentially sets up new battlefronts with Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza. Political players have fought over the composition of the electoral body.

“There is no problem with the IEBC,” says Election Observations Group national coordinator Mulle Musau. “The issue comes in the appointment process where political interests influence who gets in.”

Mr Musau attributes the divisions within IEBC and previous commissions to political interference, which he says is indicated by the fact that the country has had new commissions before and after elections “since 1992.”

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