Chebukati's dignified exit as IEBC shrugs off controversy tag

IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati. [File, Standard]

He has been at the helm of the electoral commission for the last three general elections with several highs and lows. And after completing his six-year term, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman Wafula Chebukati will exit the Anniversary Tower corner office in January next year.

The IEBC Act stipulates that the process of replacing a chairperson or an IEBC member commences at least six months before the lapse of their terms or within 14 days of the declaration of the vacancies, with the appointment of a selection panel by the President.

Mr Chebukati is one of the lucky few electoral agency chairpersons to exit office harmoniously unlike many of his predecessors who were hounded out of office. He survived weeks of protests by the opposition dubbed Machozi Monday, demanding that he quits office.

After battling questions over the integrity of three presidential elections, Chebukati's crowning moment should be when the Supreme Court upheld this year's August 9 election results.

He has overseen two contested elections and one repeat presidential election and he must be breathing a sigh of relief as he hangs his boots.

In the 2017 and 2022 elections, Chebukati faced a rebellion from a section of commissioners but steered the electoral process despite immense pressure from the political divide to do things their way.

In 2018, IEBC Vice Chairperson Connie Maina, commissioners Paul Kurgat and Margaret Mwachanya resigned and accused Chebukati of failing to show leadership in turbulent times.

"The commission chairperson has failed to be the steady and stable hand that steers the ship in difficult times and gives direction when needed, the boardroom has become a venue for peddling misinformation, grounds for brewing mistrust, and a space for scrambling and chasing individual glory and credit," the trio said in a statement.

Maina, Kurgat, and Mwachanya said they had no faith in Chebukati but insisted that the nullified 2017 presidential election was properly conducted. They claimed IEBC was dysfunctional with arbitrary decision-making, leaking of internal documents to serve personal goals, and pursuing personal interests.

Sharp divisions had become synonymous with the electoral agency since the nullification of the August 8, 2017, presidential election with the decision by a section of the commissioners to send CEO Ezra Chiloba on compulsory leave to allow an audit of the process, further putting the commission at odds.

The Supreme Court nullified the presidential election following a petition filed by NASA presidential candidate Raila Odinga and his running mate Kalonzo Musyoka, after which Chebukati is said to have sent a show cause memo to Mr Chiloba.

The former IEBC Chief Executive Officer was asked to explain why he had contradicted the position adopted by the commission, what happened to printed forms meant to have approved security features and names of candidates printed in accordance with ballot proofs as verified by teams sent to Dubai, with this aspect being one of the grounds for nullification of the poll.

The memo questioned why the Sh848 million satellite phones bought by the commission were not used to relay data from polling stations as it was supposed to be which was a ground in the Raila petition. However, a section of the commissioners disowned it at the time seeming to stand with Chebukati as he underwent tribulations.

The commission had already been reduced to six members prior to the October 26, 2017 repeat presidential election with the resignation of Commissioner Roselyn Akombe a week earlier, accusing IEBC of becoming party to the political crisis. She said her decision to quit was due to threats to her life and she fled to US.

"The commission has become a party to the current crisis, it is under siege, and it has become increasingly difficult to continue attending plenary meetings where commissioners come ready to vote along partisan lines and not to discuss merit of issues before them," said Akombe.

During the August 9, 2022 General Election, Chebukati faced rebellion from Vice Chairperson Juliana Cherera, commissioners Francis Wanderi, Irine Masit and Justus Nyangaya who accused him of making unilateral decisions.

The four commissioners termed the presidential results a mathematical absurdity since the total aggregation allegedly exceeded 100 per cent with more than 142,000 votes unaccounted for due to the extra 0.01 per cent with results not indicating the total number of registered voters, total number of votes cast and total number of votes rejected.

Cherera, Nyangaya, Masit and Wanderi claimed Chebukati had conducted the election as though he is the National Returning Officer, a non-existent position and that his role in declaring the results that were not approved by a plenary of all seven commissioners renders them unconstitutional.

The four IEBC Commissioners, however ate humble pie after the Supreme Court upheld President William Ruto's election and dismissed their claims.

Chebukati one month ago defended the commission's handling of the election and took a swipe at his colleagues who disowned the outcome, praising commissioners Abdi Guliye and Boya Molu whose term is also ending in January.

"As I prepare to exit as chairman of the IEBC in January 2023, I am proud that I have performed my duties as spelt out in the Constitution, I am very grateful to Kenyans for having accorded me an opportunity to serve in this challenging role, I will leave office with my head high knowing that I did what was expected of me always," said Chebukati.

He said it was insincere for any commissioner or senior staff to allege that they were barred from providing assistance to the election management process and it was even tragic that some members would petition the Supreme Court to nullify results collectively worked on.

He faulted what he termed as false accusations by some staff members that exposed colleagues to arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment by security agencies, citing how commissioners Guliye, Molu and CEO Marjan Hussein were physically assaulted at Bomas as he prepared to declare presidential results.

Before being appointed by former President Uhuru Kenyatta to chair the IEBC in January 2017, Chebukati was managing Wanyonyi & Company Advocates, a law firm he founded in 1986, a year after graduating from Law School at the University of Nairobi.

He later partnered with another law firm to form Cootow & Associates, specialising in maritime, shipping, company, aviation, insurance, international trade, intellectual property, mining, environmental and labour law.

An alumnae of Lenana School, he graduated from the university in 1985 with some of his classmates in legal practice including former director of the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission PLO Lumumba and senior counsel Philip Murgor among others.

The enthusiastic golfer is associated with several local clubs and is member of the Kenya Golfing Society and previously served as the Captain and Chairman of both Mombasa and Nyali Golf clubs and is a committee member of the Kenya Golf union.

Chebukati was born in Bokoli village in Bungoma County in 1961 and holds an MBA degree from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

He contested for Saboti constituency seat in 2007 on an ODM ticket but lost to Defence Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa in what he termed an electoral process marred with malpractices.

During vetting by the National Assembly's Justice and Legal Affairs Committee before appointment, Chebukati said he wanted to lead the commission to conduct a free, fair and credible election given that he had been a victim of electoral fraud and intimidation in the past.

"I resigned as a life member of ODM party and I am currently not a member of any political party, I last met my party leader Raila Odinga in 2007 when they came to campaign in Saboti in the company of other Pentagon members," Chebukati told the vetting committee then.

President Ruto has already gazetted vacancies for IEBC chairperson and two commissioners after serving a mandatory six-year one term.

During his inauguration, President Ruto showered IEBC with accolades praising it for doing its work under challenging circumstances raising the integrity bar singling out Chebukati specifically for resisting bribery and intimidation.

"The IEBC did its best in the just concluded election with results relayed in the public portal as they came in with Kenyans being in a position to tabulate and get the correct figures. I salute Chairman Wafula Chebukati and call him the hero of this election for resisting threats and intimidation to subvert the will of the people," said Ruto.

Political analyst Barrack Muluka said Chebukati has been a resilient individual who navigated the country through a troubled electoral season in 2017 and 2022, adding that he was more sinned against than sinning for anyone.

Dr Muluka said this generation may revile him yet one day, history will remember him as a gallant votary for democracy since he has walked the country through some of the most difficult self-imposed challenges

Political analyst Dismus Mokua said Chebukati is the only IEBC chairman who has so far presided over three presidential elections and so far completed his term in office harmoniously.

"There is need for an inquiry into allegations Chebukati presented to the Supreme Court via sworn affidavits, he suggested that special interest groups and powerful personalities wanted to compromise people's will and that IEBC officers were subjected to blackmail, intimidation and violence," said Mokua.

He said the fact that the Supreme Court validated the third presidential election presided over by Chebukati enables him to go home a happy man and that his last performance overwrote any wrongdoing done in the past in the eyes of many Kenyans.