Wafula Chebukati: A man with the hardest job in Kenya today. Will he deliver?

IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

There is never a good time to be the chairperson of the electoral commission, especially in Kenya where the stakes of the elections are always high.

Ask former chair Isaak Hassan and his response would be affirmative. Former chairmen Zacheaus Chesoni and Samuel Kivuitu had it rough too. The current chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission Wafula Chebukati is living this reality.

But as the troubles that the commission seems to be facing increase by the day, and Chebukati having overseen the past election in 2017, he could be feeling a sense of Deja vu. The script is similar. The court cases, interference from political interests, concerns about technology and electronic transmission of results.

With little time remaining and so much happening can Chebukati and team hold free and fair election?

Aside from him and two other commissioners Prof Abdi Guliye and Boya Molu, the commission is different from the one which was heavily indicted by the Supreme Court for its failure to hold a free and fair election. The team has four new commissioners – Juliana Cherera (vice-chairperson), Irene Masit, Justus Nyang’aya and Francis Wanderi.  Ezra Chiloba is long gone and has been replaced by Hussein Marjan as Chief Executive Officer.

Yet with all the changes in the commission, IEBC is still the same. Like in 2017 when the former commissioner Dr Roselyn Akombe described Chebukati as a man under siege, the chairperson is feeling the walls close in around him as the election comes into sight and the commission falters towards it.

Chebukati is scrambling to put out the little fires in the commission, some of which could become an inferno, which if not neutered early, could consume it and the country. 

IEBC is expected to take a second delivery of ballot papers today as it scrambles behind the scenes to settle the matter involving some employees from Smartmatic - the company contracted to supply the election technology, who were arrested. Three Venezuelans were arrested with electronic kits identification stickers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

IEBC CEO Marjan Hussein Marjan. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The IEBC is not just battling with itself, but with political parties and security organs as well. What initially appeared as a miscommunication between IEBC and security agents has snowballed into an investigation and back and forth between Chebukati and the Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti. The DCI confiscated a laptop, flash disks, a smartphone and some travel documents.

Kinoti went on ahead and accused the IEBC chief of deliberately misleading the country and withholding information. Chebukati’s silence on a matter, whose implications could likely carry to next month’s elections, has been curious.

Aside from issuing a written statement, he has largely kept away from the matter.

“The commission is still troubled by the acts of the police and demands cessation of harassment of personnel legitimately contracted service providers and calls for the immediate release of all confiscated items,” Chebukati said in a statement on Friday.

Winning the public’s confidence is something that the commission has been trying to do. Chebukati has opened the process of results tallying by allowing the Media to do their own tallying of the votes from results declared at the polling station.

Smartmatic, on the other hand, has been faced with credibility issues in some of the countries where its technology has been used during elections. After the 2016 elections in the Philippines, the Cybercrime Investigation and the Coordinating Center found that Smartmatic had compromised the elections which led to the election of President Rodrigo Duterte.

In Uganda, the biometric voter kits failed and forced the election officials to revert to the manual voter system. In Venezuela, in 2017 Smartmatic acknowledged that the turnout voter figures were manipulated by at least one million voters. The company has, however, denied the allegations.

Director Directorate of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti. []David Njaaga, Standard]

According to IEBC, the evaluation committee had not included those details in the checks about Smartmatic and the commission was unaware when it awarded the tender.

“I rely on the evaluation committee after they do the due diligence and provide me with the report. Therefore, these are things that I was not even aware of,” Marjan said.

IEBC has had a slew of excuses over why it left it delayed procurement of critical supplies for the election, citing external factors such as a budget that was provided too late.

The first batch of the 132,722,748 ballot papers to be used in the August General Election arrived in the country on Thursday, July 7. The news seemed to catch some of the commissioners off guard. They said they were not aware that the commission was taking delivery of ballot papers from Greece.