After 2017 blunders, poll agency shouldn’t let Kenya down again

Voters queue at Chaka polling station in Nyeri County during the repeat election.[Nderitu Gichure, Standard]

Flashback to 2017. In a series of reports released by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG), a number of key election preparedness challenges were identified. Two months to the election, the Public Procurement Oversight Authority had found fault with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) procurement of ballot printing services and there was pending litigation on the matter.

A voters’ register audit by KPMG firm had estimated that there were over one million dead voters on the register. Questions were also being asked about the reintroduction of manual processes as an alternative to electronic results transmission that had raised public suspicion and doubt. In a devastating blow, the IEBC’s Information, Communication and Technology Manager was found dead hardly a week to the election in a still unresolved murder. The rest is history.

The country set off on a political roller coaster that resulted in a Supreme Court election nullification, two presidential elections, and mass protests. No less a person than President Uhuru Kenyatta in his latest State of the Nation address estimated that the country lost Sh1 trillion during the worst of that election season.

Fast forward to 2022. The first mass voter registration in October 2021 was a big disappointment, only registering 25 per cent of eligible new voters, despite a court-mandated extension. This prompted a second briefer round in January 2022. While the dismal numbers have been blamed on voter apathy, a deeper underlying issue is confidence in the entire political system of which the electoral process is a key cog.

The IEBC has not had a substantive Chief Executive Officer (CEO) since the previous office holder’s ignominious exit in 2018. An advertisement for a new CEO expires in January, just over six months to the General Election. That’s a big red flag. Even an entry level job has a settling in period as one learns the ropes. The job of IEBC chief executive is extremely complex and should never have taken this long to fill substantively.

Members of the public have been informed that the general election will cost at least Sh40 billion. That’s a huge sum especially in a Covid-19 environment and with the country facing a cash crunch as we battle to manage our sovereign debt. There was a lot of back and forth between the IEBC and the National Treasury on providing the full amount until the recently formed National Multi-Sectoral Consultative Forum on election preparedness resolved to close the budget gap. Incidentally, after concerns were raised by various political players, the IEBC officially exited the forum, citing independence issues.

The IEBC’s performance since 2017 would be laughed off as a comedy of errors if it did not involve elections that are quite literally a matter of life or death. All is not lost though. After a long drawn out process, the commission is now fully constituted with the public recruitment and prompt swearing in of four new commissioners in September 2021. Time will tell but at first glance they seem up to the task and Kenyans expect them to challenge the status quo to ensure integrity in the August poll.

While the National Multi-Sectoral Consultative Forum has been accused of compromising the IEBC’s independence and being partisan, methinks we need to give it a chance. It goes without saying that government bodies directly involved in the election need to speak to each other. However, they must remain impartial from a political standpoint, otherwise they become fodder for another election nullification.

The IEBC has a second roll of the dice with mass voter registration. More could have been done to reach out to potential voters, but as a compromise, there should be registration teams at every polling centre for the entire period. Additionally, the process to change polling centres should be straightforward. The register verification will be a big test for the commission and hopefully its technical teams are burning the midnight oil to get the data right and avoid unreasonable hitches.

Finally, the commission must communicate like our lives depend on it.

While occasional press releases may please governance wonks, the current apathy requires a lot more. Details on polling centres, opening hours, constituency headquarters and answers to queries must be available in real time. Commissioners must raise the alarm promptly if required.

The IEBC has a Twitter account that reads like a series of photo ops and press releases. There is little public engagement on daily registration challenges. The Instagram account is even less engaging with less than 7,000 followers, which is very low given the IEBC’s mandate.

As the saying goes, like Caesar’s wife, the IEBC must be above suspicion. Every person of goodwill is praying that they get it right at the first try this time. The alternative is too big a burden for us to bear.