Unassuming. Stubborn. Steely, controversial and tenacious; these are the five words that come close to describing the contrasting figure of former Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati.
He strikes a fixed gaze, but if you look keenly he’s quite shifty. You can hardly get a byte off him.
In six years, he has run three presidential elections, stoking controversy at each turn. In the wake of each, it was praise and condemnation in equal measure, cheers and jeers, honour and dishonour.
If the August 2017 presidential election was a national exam, he scored an F for fail. The Supreme Court invalidated the results, dispatching the country back to the ballot on account of a myriad of transgressions attributed to the commission he chaired.
With zero qualms, and a bit of buck-passing to the Ezra Chiloba-led secretariat, Chebukati dusted himself up to conduct the repeat polls. A boycott from the petitioner Raila Odinga saved the day for him, and his disgraced commission.
Double luck shone on him when chief protagonists, Raila and President Uhuru Kenyatta, struck a handshake, shielding the commission from the spotlight. For the next five years, Chebukati kept his calm, as “bromance” between the pair swept the country.
Described recently by a commentator as a man and half, with a piercing glance from the deep shrewd eyes of a medieval mafia, Chebukati glided past time to finish the race in similar contrasting terms of ignominy and virtue.
When he talks, he slumps just a little, affording the camera a perfect shot of his unassuming looks. A perfect case for contradiction in terms, he is now retiring with full honour and dishonour, as a saint and a villain at the same time. The stuff public service is made of is resplendent in his fate.
In this exit interview, he confesses he went for this thankless job out of his own accord, declares he did his best, invokes African Union (AU) to take a greater interest in election management across its membership, and reveals the game changer of his last election.
The interview is part of a series of stock-taking sessions with players of last year’s elections, conducted by the European Centre for Electoral Support (ECES) and the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) with the support of the European Union (EU). The Saturday Standard has obtained exclusive access to them.
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What made you become a commissioner?
ANSWER: Having served as a private practitioner for more than 30 years, I felt I needed to serve my country in a different capacity. I decided to cross to public service. At the end of the day, I believe I have made my contribution.
What was your motivation, what inspired you to apply, and was it to get rich?
Well, it's not about riches. In fact, in comparison to what I was earning in the commission, I was making more money as a private practitioner of law in Nairobi.
I believe public service is about someone making a contribution to their country. On inspiration, this is a matter I discussed with my family, and I remember my daughter telling me ‘you need to go take up this job’. The family supported me throughout this period. When I came in, I was not supported by any side of the political divide, nobody had talked to me when I made the application, and that’s how it has been for me all through, playing the role of referee.
From your experience, what makes African elections so special?
When we got independence, we went the route of democracy. It has since been the most acceptable way of changing governments. It behoves electoral management bodies to make democracy work. Of course, we have issues, especially in times of incumbency.
We have challenges, and we have issues, but because of the nature of the society we live in, we have to make it happen. It is not easy.
I know for a fact that US democracy was at that level until the insurrection happened and opened the soft underbelly of the country, to the extent that doubts emerged on college mode. I believe direct voting is a very good thing and we need to sustain it in Africa.
Are there things you wish you could have done better in 2022 in light of what has happened since then?
I believe what we did in 2022 is what is expected to be done by any election management body like IEBC. As for me, I’ll do the same and of course, build on it. I believe those success stories need to be taken up by those who will come after me, and for them to improve on the areas we could have done better.
Why didn’t young people turn out to vote?
During the voter registration period, some agencies carried out surveys and some of the reasons came out. This was early enough before the election. Our Constitution also gives people the freedom to vote and not to exercise freedom. Still, I believe this is an area that we need to delve deeper into.
Tell us about the challenges of not receiving funds long before the elections?
Funding is critical, and is to be provided throughout the electoral cycle. In the case of IEBC, we only got funding in the election year. What this means then is that we had programs that could not be implemented, for example, voter education, registration of voters and all key pre-election activities. We had to start running around last minute to undertake these, register voters, start voter education and procure critical components.
We managed but it was a bit of a challenge. Governments in Africa need to understand that funding ought to be provided throughout the electoral cycle, and this is good for democracy.
Is transparency the foundation for acceptance of results?
The results were there, and they were there in the portal. Still, there were petitions filed in the Supreme Court but they were found to be unwarranted and dismissed. There are a lot of other things that went into preparation, it's not just the results. The election is about the process. For example, one of the things that cause rigging is vote stuffing.
We made sure we printed ballot papers equivalent to the number of voters, and we made sure each polling station had ballots equivalent to the number of voters. We bound them in a small booklet to avoid chances of mischief or foreign materials being introduced. On transmission, we installed what my team calls a military grade portal which resisted all the many attempts made to infiltrate. They all failed, and there was no breach. There will always be complaints, but if the process is transparent, it will stand scrutiny.
In our case, Supreme Court did the scrutiny, and all the 45 polling stations identified by the petitioners, and it was 100 per cent accurate. They checked everything, but still they complained. Maybe complaining is normal, but the issue is whether there is evidence of malpractice. For us, the most important thing is to be transparent, and with that nothing can go wrong. We learnt this in 2017 and prepared better.
You have also been serving as the president of the general assembly of the association of African election authorities, what was your experience?
We came into office in 2021 and then Covid-19 came with its challenges. We held continental conferences where we shared experiences. Most significant for me, is we came up with the idea of a solidarity mission to support peers having elections across the continent. I appreciate the solidarity mission the AEA then send to Kenya, that support from my peers and fellow chair was quite commendable.
You need a shoulder to lean on as a commission because it’s a very difficult time, especially because the buck usually stops with the chairperson. It’s been quite an experience interacting with colleagues. What we need to keep up is peer-to-peer support, very very important! Most important, we need to bring the government on board to appreciate the necessity to fund and support independent electoral management bodies, because that’s the only way to have peace in the continent.
Any shortcuts to power by influencing commissions can only lead to instability in a country. Only a strong, independent commission will guarantee peace in Africa, and of course, peace comes with development.
What is your vision for your country and its people? What would you like to tell Kenyans?
I joined the commission barely six months to the 2017 election, and found most of the things done by our predecessors. The election had its own challenges. Immediately after we started preparing for 2022, embarked on institutional restructuring. We found a commission which did not have procedures and policies for its directories.
We also embarked on stakeholder engagements, including players in justice, law and order sector, and others. We trained many entities… we entered an MOU with the media on results transmission. Media is another story because despite our MOU with media on election coverage, I don’t remember a single media house coming up to say these are the results.
But one major thing; where I have taken the Kenyan election is that simple word called transparency. That to me is the game changer for the Kenyan election. We put everything out there, into the public portal. All the results, accessible to everyone, within 48 hours.
I know for a fact there were 380 million people who logged in and downloaded the results. At the time we were finalising the announcement, everyone had the results. They were out there. Going forward, we need to build on the gains we made. We need to ensure transparency at every stage.