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Tracing history of Raila's love-hate relationship with IEBC chairperson

Opposition leader Raila Odinga (left) and IEBC Chairperson Wafula Chebukati during the state of the nation address at parliament on April 4, 2019. [File, Standard]

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga has trained his guns on Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati after accusing him of elections tallying malpractices.

The ODM leader has on occasions since 2016 blamed the IEBC chairman of various misdeeds relating to the management and delivery of the electioneering process, a relationship that has occasionally frozen before thawing.

This time, Raila has criticised Chebukati for allegedly unilaterally declaring his opponent Deputy President William Ruto as the president elect last week without consulting four other commissioners.

“The figures announced by Chebukati are null and void and must be quashed by a court of law. He acted with gross impunity and in total disregard of the constitution and our laws,” said Raila, two days after the results were released.

Former North Rift Ford Kenya leader George Wabomba who knows Chebukati well, says he will again be put under a lot of pressure by Raila and his Azimio team.

“He is a very strong character but they will demand that he leaves and that may generate a lot of political squabbling over the independence of the commission,” says Wabomba.

He envisages a scenario similar to what happened in 2017, because a similar script has emerged, with some IEBC commissioners differing with Chebukati and siding with some powerful forces.

“Chebukati and the IEBC CEO at the time Ezra Chiloba became targets of the NASA principals after one commissioner resigned followed by three others,” notes Wabomba.

NASA, at the time, demanded the resignation of Chebukati, Chiloba and two other commissioners Abdi Guliye and Boya Molu who now also find themselves on the chairman’s side.

NASA’s spirited effort to remove Chebukati and Chiloba however, failed after the High Court ordered that they be allowed to take charge of the repeat elections after the Supreme Court annulled President Uhuru Kenyatta’s win in the original August 8 poll.

The first to resign was commissioner Roselyn Akombe, who fled to New York from where she issued a statement indicating that her decision was informed by the fact “the commission in its current state can surely not guarantee a credible election”.

Akombe also claimed she was forced to leave the country because she felt her life was under threat, referencing the murder of IEBC’s ICT chief Chris Msando days to the election.

“You’ll be suicidal to think that nothing will happen to you. I have never felt the kind of fear that I felt in my own country,” Ms Akombe told the BBC at the time.

But it was the resignation of commissioners Connie Nkatha Maina (Vice Chair), Paul Kurgat and Margaret Mwachanya in 2018 that raised questions on whether they could raise a quorum to transact business.

Political players, including MPs from Raila’s ODM party, demanded that the remaining three also resign but they stayed put with Chebukati saying they could not quit just because others had done so because they joined IEBC as individuals.

Other political analysts argue that Raila had a soft spot for Chebukati when he joined IEBC because of his past relationship with his ODM party, when he contested for the Saboti parliamentary seat in 2007.

“Raila somehow trusted him. That is why he was not hounded out although the NASA coalition was agitating for changes before the 2017 elections,” says analyst Martin Andati.

It has been argued that while Raila’s confidants had sensed blood, he was prevailed upon by then NASA co-principals, Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula to allow the electoral changes to be done legislatively.

Handshake deal

The relationship, however, soured after those elections were annulled by the Supreme court which ordered for a repeat that NASA refused to participate under the Chebukati led commission.

But focus would soon shift from IEBC after Raila and President Uhuru met on March 18, 2018 and began a political engagement that would be famously known as the handshake deal.

Apart from instituting a constitution change process, they also initiated the process of replacing four former commissioners.

As they proceeded, the IEBC boss began reforming IEBC, fixing issues that had been raised in the Supreme Court decision and implementing them in ensuing by-elections ahead of this year’s elections.

In 2021, IEBC rolled out the Election Operation Plan amid complaints from Raila’s troops who asked him to wait until the commission was properly constituted.

They spoke at Raila’s function in Homa Bay, where the then Woman Rep Gladys Wanga (now governor), then Kisumu Senator Fred Outa and Ugunja MP Fred Wandayi all zeroed on Chebukati.

 They asked that Chebukati be removed as the head of the polls body and promised to consult with MPs in Parliament to find a solution.

They argued they would not to plunge the country into chaos because of polls not properly conducted and urged Chebukati to put the tender for the electoral materials on hold.

Chebukati and his two colleagues had argued that time was running out and yet they needed to get everything ready in time, including hiring and training of staff to avoid issues that had been raised by the court.

And so apart from those noises, all was well between the IEBC boss and the Azimio leader until the final day of this year’s presidential polling process.

Chebukati appearing to have acquitted himself very well, despite some dissatisfaction that was raised by Raila’s lieutenants.

This is especially after the four new commissioners, Juliana Cherera (vice chair), Francis Wanderi, Irene Masit and Justus Abonyo Nyang’anya were sworn in on September 2, 2021. 

And so, everything appeared to be going on well, save for a few red flags here and there, until the final process of verifying the presidential votes, when Bomas of Kenya was plunged into anarchy.

Soon, after, four of the seven commissioners, incidentally the four that joined in 2021, called a press conference to reject the final tallies, claiming Chebukati had sidelined them and initiated an opaque process.

This was followed by a media address at KICC by Raila where he rejected the results showing Deputy President William Ruto as the winner. 

On Wednesday, Raila, while speaking in Mombasa, said he expected the Supreme Court to declare him and his running-mate, Martha Karua, as the winners.

“That is the truth. We won, so instead of going back to the polls, we should be announced the winners so we can take oath of office,” Raila said during a campaign meeting at Wild Waters Park in Nyali and demanded that Chebukati hand over his role to Cherera. 

Last minute drama

“They had done well in making the process transparent until the last minute drama of some commissioners leaving Bomas of Kenya and the claims that have been raised by Raila which have blotted the exercise,” says Andati.

But the build-up appears to have begun last month when Raila’s confidant and Azimio la Umoja Secretary General Junet Mohammed alleged at campaign rallies that Chebukati had conspired with Wetang’ula, who is now in Kenya Kwanza, to rig the presidential poll.

He claimed the Ford-K leader had send an aide to Greece to meet ballot paper printers, where a deal was struck for the papers to be sneaked into the country through the Kenya- Uganda border. Both Chebukati and Wetang’ula dismissed the claims and accused Mohammed of ethnic profiling. 

 Political analyst and lawyer Stanislus Murunga says Chebukati has proved to be a very rigid man who can make firm decisions, which also creates problems for politicians.