Former electoral commission chief Ahmed Issack Hassan has opened the lid on how politicians, among them Azimio leader Raila Odinga, interfered with the country’s first independent electoral body after 2010 constitutional moment.
In his book “Referee of a dirty game- in the theatre of Kenya’s election, an insiders account”, Issack doles out insider tales of a commission held captive from outside, but also inadvertently reveals his manoeuvres to win favour with politicians and interest groups.
From the book, Issack says from the moment he landed at Anniversary Towers, first as Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) chair and later as Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), he was handed a powerful understudy in the name of former Commission CEO James Oswago. He was to checkmate, and tame him in operational matters.
On the day he placed his bid for the IIEC boss position at the instigation of Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua, he was called by former Chief Justice Evan Gicheru and offered position of judge -- but he was only given five hours to make up his mind. Karua in her final hours as Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister, had prodded Issack to apply after noticing the grandstanding at political level.
“I would like you to apply for the position. It is becoming tougher within the coalition to pick a suitable candidate, as political leaders affiliated with ODM keep shooting down everyone being proposed. We are encouraging people from the smaller communities and minorities to apply for the position, to bring in a balance,” he quotes Karua as having said.
Four men who would play critical roles in his future battles helped Issack navigate through this conundrum. Two of them- Justice Mohamed Warsame and lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi wanted him to drop the IIEC position and go for the position of judge while two others, Supreme Court Judges Mohamed Ibrahim and Isaac Lenaola wanted him to go for IIEC.
“I was a bit suspicious about the offer he (CJ Gicheru) had made. It seemed laced with an agenda, probably to bait me into withdrawing my candidature for the commission position or so I thought,” he writes in the book published by Big Books Ltd.
He opted for the IIEC job. He reveals that ahead of the interview, he was coached by two members of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) from his Garissa backyard- MPs Aden Duale and Sophia Abdi, on what to expect at the parliamentary grilling.
“I was briefed that beyond the professional qualifications, I would need help in navigating the politics that dominated and largely controlled any decisions made in parliament. I was to come prepared for questions on constitution. I had to make every effort to engage the political leadership and get their support ahead of the session to avoid a last minute surprise objection,” he writes.
A team from North Eastern leadership was quickly assembled to do the necessary bidding for him. He says the team spearheaded further lobbying in their different political circles. On May 7, 2009 he was formally appointed chair of IIEC, alongside other commissioners.
An anecdote he offers in the book, upon taking over former chair Samuel Kivuitu’s official car, aptly locates the dusty paths, and the fate that lay ahead of him:
“I turned on the car, and the AC immediately blew a puff of dust my way. Upon switching on the radio, a blaring tune in Kamba language, Kivuitu’s mother tongue, belted out from Mbaitu FM. It was the local radio station he had listened to the last time he was in the Mercedes.”
He says when they first landed at Anniversary Tower offices of the former ECK, there was an eerie air about the whole place. The dust lay still and thick on all surfaces, and a half-drunk bottle of soda with a refilled glass lay in one of the tables.
The first stop for him to seek advice was office of the Police Commissioner, Major-General Hussein Ali. In the book, he says Ali told him not to give in to demands of politicians, and that they will always try to intimidate, threaten and walk over him.
The second port of call was his predecessor Kivuitu whom he met over lunch, and was shocked at how he was treated by hotel staff many months after the election.
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“We began our conversation and soon ordered for lunch. The waiter took my order and expressly ignored Kivuitu as he went off to have my meal prepared. For a while no one came to take his order, and as embarrassing as it was, he seemed strangely calm,” he says in the book.
Kivuitu confessed to him that “this is what has been going on everywhere”, that “we cannot get service anywhere,” and that “the people have been poisoned against us.” The order was taken after Issack threatened to leave the place.
“Never get close to politicians. They don’t care about you,” Kivuitu advised him, describing how he was carried shoulder high by politicians in 2002, only for the same groups to bay for his blood in 2007.
These pieces of advice would ring true in the days to come. In the South Mugirango by election, lands Minister James Orengo stopped the live transmission of results, and was backed by his counterpart Anyang’ Nyong’o.
In the Matuga by-election, Issack censured Ali Mwakwere over some conduct, and he wouldn’t believe it: “Chairman, this is wrong. How could you do this to me? You know I am the Coast kingpin. How could you do this to me?”
Later, Issack received a call from Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi: “You know this man from the Coast is a little rough, but you have to excuse him. He is our candidate in the PNU and we do not have any other. Please just excuse him.”
He reveals that in the runner up to the 2010 referendum, Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka wanted to slow down the referendum process. He says Kalonzo had his own misgivings about the constitutional process, in private.
“Kalonzo and other ministers used the office of the president to generate false alarm that not enough eligible voters were registered to legitimise a referendum. The colors symbolizing the two options- green and red, provided the perfect analogy to equate him to a watermelon,” he writes.
When the referendum was eventually held, and results were in, Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo wanted Issack to announce the results at KICC where a jubilant government led by its two principals was holding a bash.
Issack claims he refused and insisted on announcing results from Bomas. He credits the leader of No side William Ruto, now the President, for accepting the results of the referendum. With the referendum now done, focus shifted to the next elections and composition of the new IEBC.
In his memoirs, Issack claims there was a through campaign of hatred designed to lock them out of the new body. He says the campaign was largely led by the ODM side with proposals to amend the law to raise the bar for the chair post among other means.
“I reached out to Mutula Kilonzo to talk to the stakeholders about retaining all, or at least half of the commissioners. He promised my request would be considered. What I did not know was that by mentioning the names of some of the commissioners I hoped would be retained, I was actually sealing their fate,” he said.
He says when IEBC was being debated, it was debated with idea of empowering Oswago and to emasculate the commissioners and himself at the same time. He said the manner it was passed, and its provisions, cemented the perception that the CEO was “equally powerful and would be a counter to the chairperson.”
During this period, he reveals, a decision he made recalling earlier decision to revoke nominated ODM Councillors allied to Ruto worsened his case with ODM bigwigs. A further comment he made asking ODM to start with the “big fish” before going for councillors sealed his fate.
ODM fans set out to finish him in public eye, he writes. Media went on a blitz on the happenings of the commissions, including alleged nepotism. He claims they later fingered a personal assistant to Oswago as the man who was leaking the negative information and suspended him.
He then went for Oswago’s neck but was stopped by Raila who asked him to allow him to stay and that he would talk to him.
“He pointed out that it would be good for him as the Prime Minister if Oswago stayed. He reminded me that the commission needed the support of his office,” he writes.
When he succumbed to the pressure, Deputy CEO Gladys Boss expressed disappointment. She told him that he had lost the opportunity to strike the hammer when the iron was still hot.
Issack also gives another interesting account of how his mother tried to persuade him not to apply for the IEBC post. She had travelled all the way from Garissa to convince him not to go for the job because she had heard Raila was opposed to him.
He eventually convinced his mother that he would drop his interest in the job if he got it from Raila himself that he was not supporting his bid. He then set out to find out from the PM if he supported his bid.
“Prime Minister, I need your confirmation on this matter. Please look me in the eye and tell me whether you have confidence in me as I apply for the position of IEBC chair,” he asked Raila.
The matter of “look me in the eye” would later prove to be quite an issue as Oswago would later tell him that the PM did not take it kindly.
All in all, Raila responded in the affirmative: “I have no problem with you, chairman. But the commissioners will not be coming back.” He tried to intercede for some but received a blunt “I am sorry” from the PM.
True to his word, apart from the chairman, only one commissioners- Yusuf Nzibo survived the purge.
“I left his office a dejected man. The fate of the IIEC commissioners was sealed,” he writes.
With a new commission, Issack says they decided to give Oswago the benefit of the doubt. The next biggest test, he writes, was the delimitation of boundaries which got politicians utterly worked up.
“This can’t be! This is wrong! Its bad, what nonsense,” Issack quotes former President Mwai Kibaki fuming when his commission went for its first session with him on March 7, 2012. The president has been presented with the delimitation report and was furious but later pretended it was not the case:
“Oh chairman, you have come! Sorry, its not you.. its not you, please come in.” Parliament went on to trash the report, making new suggestions to the commission which in turn his commission ignored.
“Next time you come to Parliament, you will check your independence at the door,” former Mandera Central MP Abdikadir Mohamed cautioned him. Demonstrations rocked everywhere, including his hometown of Garissa.
In the book he says the very MPs who campaigned for his bid in the commission were now waging a full-fledged war against him. Parliament clipped the commission’s powers to making regulations and gazetting them. It also began to make numerous adjustments to commission documents and proposals.
He said it took the intervention of the late Yusuf Haji for some of the MPs from his backyard, including Abdikadir to back down, and took an ambivalent, agnostic stance about the whole matter.
Yesterday, Abdikadir dismissed the claims in the book, questioning why Issack expected a smooth sailing from him as chair of the three parliamentary committees, with immense oversight powers.
“He clearly did not understand my position at all. And why would he expect an automatic support from me as against other members of parliament?” he posed.
The book is set to be launched over the weekend, but is available in leading bookshops across the country.