Chesoni: The only poll agency boss who left seat smiling

Justice Zaccheaus Chesoni. He was the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya. According to Chesoni, Moi won the 1992 election because he was smarter than the opposition. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The obsession with casino almost made Chesoni declared bankrupt as auctioneers set up tent at his gate.
  • Regarding the 1992 elections, he said the opposition fielded three strong candidates and scattered their votes.

Mid-1995, Justice Zaccheaus Chesoni, then chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) – the precursor of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) – was invited to address a seminar by a non-government outfit (NGO) called Bureau for Electoral Research and Monitoring (Beram).

Beram, which has since wound up, was among the first in what has now become a Kenyan tradition – the phenomena of NGOs crawling from the woodwork every election cycle.

The latter is now a fully pledged cottage industry attracting billions of donor funds and creating an army of what lawyer Ahmednasir Abdullahi unkindly calls national irritants.

INVITATION

Beram was a church associated NGO but that couldn’t stop it from being wound up over controversies revolving around how to share the donor cake.

It folded up at an acrimonious session where the Holy Spirit wasn’t invited.

The outing Chesoni was invited to was held at a top-end hotel in the Aberdares.

It was a housekeeping affair and the media wasn’t invited.

I was the only journalist present courtesy of my friend and then head of communications at the Anglican Church, Ms Jane Gitau.

GAMBLER
Chesoni had been invited to present a paper on the role of election monitors.

He made a brilliant presentation, of course sugar-coated with phrases his hosts would pick when writing the next proposal for funding.

The ECK chairman had a curious background. He had been a chronic gambler.

I wonder what he would say today if he learned that Kenya has become a casino nation with hordes of youth abandoning any productive work to make a full time career in betting.

CHIEF JUSTICE

The obsession with casino almost made Chesoni declared bankrupt as auctioneers set up tent at his gate.

It also made him twice lose jobs in the Judiciary.

But one man had faith in him for whatever reasons, President Daniel arap Moi.

He had appointed him chair of the electoral body in the first multiparty elections, and would later appoint him the second African Chief Justice after a long time.

But with all his personal shortcomings, Chesoni was a brilliant lawyer and judge.

INTERVIEW

Senior Counsel Paul Muite once described him as having a “first class legal mind” and wrote “judgments that were in a class of their own”.

During the excursion at the Aberdares, I also got to know Chesoni to be a humorous man who took everything in his stride.

I wouldn’t let the opportunity slip by without having a one on one with him.

Come dinner time, I planted myself at the table where he sat with retired head of Anglican Church Archbishop Manasses Kuria and one Reverend Japheth Gathaka.

As soon as the two men of the cloth left the table, I ordered a double brandy to chase away the cold of the Aberdares.

ALCOHOL

Chesoni liked the idea and ordered his as well.

I must have been the only person in the seminar who he heard mention alcohol.

Though I later came to learn some faithful brethren in the seminar had sneaked in sachets of liquor in their bags and would imbibe inside their rooms in the wee hours of the night when Satan is on the prowl.

By the way, have you wondered why even with about 80 per cent of Kenyans being practising Christians, EABL and Keroche still make handsome profits!

Apparently Kenyan Christians go overboard on the little Saint Paul allowed disciple Timothy to take on account of stomach disorders.

RIGGING
After a second round of brandy, Chesoni and I sufficiently warmed up to one another as we moved to the fireplace at the bar.

It was a week day and we were only the two of us at the fireplace.

“Mr chairman, everybody believes you rigged the 1992 elections in favour of President Moi and will do so again in 1997?” I shot at him.

He laughed uproariously and said:

“Everybody says so. The other day a friend showed a grandson a picture he had taken with me and the grandson told him that people say I am a thief!”

“But now that you have asked”, he told me, “I will give you an analysis on how a Kenyan presidential election can be won, lost, or stolen.

"There are four factors to that – voter blocs, structural rigging, ballot rigging at the grassroots, and ballot rigging at the national tallying centre.”

VOTER BLOCS
In the 1992 election, Chesoni told me, the first three factors determined who won the presidential election.

This is how he put it to me: Kenyans primarily vote in ethnic blocs.

Out of the 42 ethnic communities, five ethnic blocs make up 65 per cent of the voters roll.

They are the Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin and the Kamba.

The next four blocks, the Meru, Kisii, Mijikenda, and the Somali constitute about 20 per cent of the vote register.

CANDIDATES
To win the presidential election, one needs to work out a formula around those nine ethnic blocs.

In the 1992 election, there were four main candidates in the presidential ballot: the incumbent Moi, Kenneth Matiba, Mwai Kibaki and Oginga Odinga.

This is how they shared the spoils. Odinga had the entire Luo bloc in his bag and shared the Luhya vote almost proportionally with Moi and Matiba.

The latter split the Kikuyu vote with Kibaki and took the Embu, while Kibaki ran away with the Meru.

MOI WINS
Moi, on the other hand, had the Kalenjin, the Kamba, and the Somali under lock.

He also sprinted away with a huge chunk of the Kisii and the Mijikenda vote.

Numerically, Moi bloc vote constituted slightly over one-third of the total vote as the other three shared the two-thirds.

“That’s just about how it turned out at the ballot,” Chesoni told me.

Moi polled about 1.9 million votes out of about 5.3 million votes, which mathematically is about one-third of the total.

Matiba had about 1.4 million, Kibaki, about a million, and Odinga about 900,000 votes.

“Structural rigging also gave Moi and Kanu advantage over the opposition,” Chesoni went on.

CAMPAIGNS

First the use of government machinery and secondly denying the opposition a chance to campaign in the Kanu zones.

Chesoni told me that while opposition got mesmerised in seeing huge crowds turn up at their meetings, they blinded themselves to the fact that sweeping the entire vote in their own backyards wouldn’t take them anywhere. It is like preaching to the converted.

The third factor that brought Kanu victory, Chesoni told me, was possible ballot rigging at the grassroots.

“Look at it this way, the opposition had no agents in many of the far-flung Kanu zones.

"Neither were there election observers in many areas where Kanu had support. So what could have stopped Kanu from exaggerating its figures?”

TALLYING CENTRE
“How about cooking figures at the national tallying centre?” I asked him.

“It wasn’t possible to do so,” he told me with a straight face.

“You know everybody was convinced Chesoni would steal the election for Moi. For that reason, they swarmed the national tallying centre with local and international observers.

"We had observers almost outnumbering election officials. There was no way we could have cooked figures at the KICC and get away with it!” he told me.

According to Chesoni, Moi won that election because he was smarter than the opposition.

ELECTION MONITORS

He told me the opposition made the first goof by agreeing to rush to the election before the ground was levelled.

Secondly and most self-destructing, they fielded three strong candidates and scattered their votes.

Third, they monitored elections in their own strongholds and at the national tallying centre, leaving Kanu to have a field day in its own zones.

It was like guarding the door but leaving the windows and the wall cracks unattended!

Chesoni told me he found it ridiculous that everybody was convinced that figures were cooked at the national tallying centre to give Moi victory while, in reality, the voter bloc combination and structural rigging had long handed him victory ahead of voting day.

Twenty-five years on, Chesoni, who died in 1999, would be surprised to know Kenyans still believe the presidential election is won at the national tallying centre and not at the grassroots.

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