Former elections deputy boss GABRIEL MUKELE speaks about opening Kakamega’s first African law practice in 1969 and the intrigues of conducting an election in a country with trust issues.
When did you establish a law firm in Kakamega? Was it a first?
I set up my law firm in Kakamega back in 1969 after practising as a magistrate for a year and spending another year as a State prosecutor. I recall it was the first law firm fully owned by an African in the entire western Kenya. It was located on Kakamega-Mumias Road. The practice was then very lucrative: Opening a file cost between Sh200 and Sh300. Sounds meagre until you learn that two cows used to cost that much.
What were your commonest cases then and now?
The cases were majorly criminal and family disputes. Today, we have more civil cases as Kenyans grow litigious, with an overwhelming number being land succession disputes.
By any standard, you are a senior counsel. Why haven’t you sought this tag?
Well, I am 83 and have humbly attained what is enough for a man who lost a father aged 2 years and was raised by a single mother. I no longer pick fresh cases and have handed a number of old ones I used to handle to fresh-blood law firms, including those of my four sons. If I was still full of life, I would have gone for it, but of what significance is the title now?
Which lawyers are you proudest of as a mentor?
I don’t want to mention them but within the legal fraternity, many will tell you the part I played in building their careers. If they mention me like it has happened several times with a number of judges I will not mention them except for the late renowned advocates, Grey Tsuma and Eli Owinyi.
Who was in your class in law school?
I went to Dar es Salaam University with Justice Effie Owuor, Richard Nyaga, Lucian Ouma, among others. I think we were about 10 Kenyans, many of whom have passed on. We walked out of university to find jobs waiting for us. After becoming a prosecutor and magistrate where I earned some Sh1,200 per month, I joined private practice which was very profitable. Not even an offer to be a judge in 1982 could pull me out of practice. But I got a part-time job in the commission of assize five years later.
What did you pick from your stint as deputy Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) chairman?
I gathered that you have to be of a strong moral compass to stay afloat of constant political interference and machinations. I retired from the then Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) before the chaotic 2007 elections partly because I refused to honour a call to privately meet a powerful minister who together with other powerful people were keen that I retire rather than renew my contract for another five years. I joined the Commission in 1992 when it was messy and was a key cog in ensuring the 1997 and 2002 elections were largely acceptable. If I had stayed around, I think I would have done the right thing in 2007.
Our voter tallying process takes ages unlike countries with bigger populations. Why so?
Trust. No one trusts one another in the country, not on election matters. It looks odd that the tallies take longer when the country prides itself as a techno-savvy giant in the region.
Would you say working for the Commission is a thankless job?
No. If I was young enough, I would take up the job to straighten up things. If you are firm and incorruptible, it is a patriotic duty worth your life. Many call to laud what I did, especially as then ECK’s deputy to Samuel Kivuitu in 2002 before I retired months to the 2007 polls.
There is a sense that our election process is rife with malpractice. What are the loopholes?
That’s largely a perception peddled by poll losers. There will always be, however, a few cases of malpractice which are largely tied to the high stakes and expectations we place on elections. Recall an election is an event which brings together leaders who can change or fail to change things and you ought not to bank your all on it. With party agents, commission employees, NGO observers, media and all sorts of people at voting centres, most malpractices are kept at bay.
How can they be sealed?
Change our value systems on elections. Let the commission speak and act independently; politicians should shun violence and voter bribery and the voters should refuse to be bribed.
If you examine our voting patterns in the last 20 years, would you say it’s likely that some communities will never produce a president?
Very likely as tribalism and ethnicity still play a big role in informing the average voter on whom to elect as opposed to other factors like competency, integrity and discipline. It’s a bad disease that is hurting democracy in Kenya.
It’s become the norm for IEBC commissioners to be split right in the middle due to their political and or community affiliations. Is this healthy?
Differing opinions in the commission are welcome. I used to disagree even through letters with Kivuitu but that did not stop us from making up and working for the good of Kenyans. To sort out differences in the commission, I think the commissioners, including the chairperson, ought to come to a consensus by going with the view of the majority on contentious issues. The commissioners are midwives of a democracy and should be democratic and not irrational when handling burning issues.
Would you say IEBC commissioners are hired on merit?
Sure. Most of them are hired on merit but those who are not firm enough on morals are swept over by sectarian views. For example, Kivuitu and I were hired on merit.
Did you and Kivuitu speak after he presided over the 2007 election?
Unfortunately no, but I went to his funeral. I really wished to ask him how he ended up making the presidential declaration of 2007 that split the country. I couldn’t help but notice he was not in his element on TV explaining the declaration.
There have been suggestions that we stagger elections for certain positions, eg vote for president, governors and MPs first and the rest of the leaders later. Your views?
I have witnessed a similar thing in Nigeria but I doubt whether the cost of running such an exercise is worth it in Kenya.