IEBC: Graveyard of careers that never seems to fill up

IEBC commissioners

From left: Juliana Cherera,  Francis Wanderi, Irene Masit and Justus Nyang’aya.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The exit of three commissioners has painted a grim picture of career uncertainty at the electoral body, dating back three decades ago.

Ejections and resignations of commissioners before the end of their terms have become the norm.

Amid accusations of being “rogue” and heightened political activities on their role in the August 9 elections, the three commissioners of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) — former vice chairperson Juliana Cherera, Francis Wanderi and Justus Nyang’aya — are the latest victims of the  ‘IEBC jobs curse’.

Through her Lawyer Donald Kipkorir — who appeared before the Justice Aggrey Muchelule-led tribunal put in place by President William Ruto to investigate the commissioners’ conduct — Ms Massit alleges that she was ordered by an unidentified caller to resign like her colleagues or face unspecified consequences, further lifting the lid on the complexity of working for IEBC.

She revealed to the tribunal that her staff, including bodyguards, and vehicle had been withdrawn despite being on suspension and not having been sacked, with Mr Muchelule seeking evidence, even as he insisted that “whatever it is that the commissioner is entitled to, they must receive it”.

The uncertainty of working for the commission continues to rear its ugly head even as the tribunal resumes its hearings on December 20.

In all, 16 commissioners have been pushed out in the past six years alone.

Ms Cherera, Mr Wanderi and Mr Nyang’aya’s resignations came barely a few days to the status conference by the tribunal.

In his letter of resignation to President Ruto, Mr Wanderi, who was the last of the three to relinquish her position, defended their actions, accusing chairman Wafula Chebukati of “high handedness, dictatorial mannerisms and devoid of principles of good corporate governance”.

The letter mirrors another one by former IEBC commissioners who resigned in 2018 including then vice chairperson Connie Nkatha Maina, Margaret Mwachanya, Paul Kurgat and Roselyne Akombe.

Under Mr Chebukati’s leadership, they said, “the commission boardroom has become a venue for peddling misinformation, grounds for brewing mistrust, and a space for scrambling for and chasing individual glory and credit”.

But it is the high stakes of elections in the country, analysts believe, that has caused the frequent disruptions of the electoral commission, where “those in power seek to have a friendly composition” to execute their desires.

“IEBC has become a graveyard of careers because the stakes are too high in that organisation and this depicts the problem with all government appointments which are done based on loyalty and not merit and competence as required by Article 232 of the Constitution,” argues Prof Gitile Naituli of Multimedia University.

Competence, he says, has not been the guide for appointment and promotion in government agencies “and so we will continue seeing that game of musical chairs at the commission”.

Political analyst Dismas Mokua also shares similar thoughts, arguing that ‘taking up a role at IEBC is seen as professional suicide’.

“Kenyan presidential elections are high octane. A number of presidential candidates who have massive political capital don’t entertain the probability of losing the election. When they lose the elections they cry foul and use their political capital to push out IEBC commissioners,” Mr Mokua says.

He insists that a number of commissioners have also abandoned the high calling of their office and become “special purpose vehicles for special interest groups and cartels”.

He laments that because of the high turnover at IEBC, a number of professionals who have capacity and competence to serve at the commission have given the role a wide berth.

“This means that competent persons who can deliver an election in a manner aligned to national and public interests have poor appetite for the IEBC role,” he avers.

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition leader Raila Odinga this week threatened that the opposition will not allow President Ruto to reconstitute the commission in his own liking, warning that they will mobilise Kenyans to boycott the polls should that happen.

Mr Odinga spoke in light of a Bill by Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wa seeking to alter the membership of the selection panel that picks commissioners, which he argues would give the President more say in the process thus disadvantage his opponents.

“We are demanding that the four IEBC commissioners be reinstated and Ruto to stop any plans to reconstitute the commission without consultations otherwise there will be no elections,” the ODM told an enthusiastic crowd at Kamukunji grounds.

The Kriegler Commission formed following the disputed 2007 elections recommended that the process to appoint members of the commission be given a ‘legislative grounding and have consultations including with political parties and civil society in its broadest sense’.

“It is not essential to any purpose that the actual appointment be made by the President. Alternative means should be considered, including appointment by Parliament. IREC recommends that the maximum number of commissioners be reduced to such a number as are functionally able to do the work. The currently bloated structure at the top should be trimmed radically,” the report reads in part.

Kenya's journey to an independent electoral commission has been long and winding, coupled with State schemes and opposition threats.

Before 1991, elections and the registration of voters were under the supervisor of elections, a civil servant in the Attorney-General’s chambers.

The supervisor of elections manned only parliamentary and local elections held in 1969, 1974, 1979, 1983, and 1988. A 1969 constitutional amendment meant that the President was declared winner of non-held popular elections.

This was changed in 1997 when an Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) model meant that leading political parties were allowed to name persons to the commission.

That year, Samwel Kivuitu was named electoral body chief replacing Justice Zacchaeus Chesoni, whose appointment by President Daniel Moi in 1991 was vehemently opposed by opposition parties, with Jaramogi Oginga Odinga famously saying “he cannot serve even as a member of a school committee”.

The appointment of the team that presided over the 1992 elections was made solely by President Moi.

Kivuitu, who died in 2013, was replaced by a nine-member IEBC team led by chairman Issack Hassan in 2011 before the entire commission was sent home in 2016, paving way for Mr Chebukati’s team.

Mr Hassan’s team that was sent packing following wide protests by Mr Odinga’s team included Ms Lilian Mahiri-Zaja (vice-chairperson), Mr Yusuf Nzibo, Mr Albert Bwire, Mr Kule Galma Godana, Mr Abdullahi Sharawe, Mr Mohamed Alawi Hussun, Ms Muthoni Wangai and Mr Thomas Letangule.

President Ruto and Mr Odinga have in the recent days been embroiled in online and public attacks over the handling of the IEBC impasse.

Mr Odinga insists that the President is attempting to take the country back to the dark days of the Kanu regime, by seeking to have control of the electoral body to enable him secure a second term in 2027.

But in a Twitter post on November 25, President Ruto said that under his administration, the rule of law will prevail, and not the wishes of big men.

The President termed Mr Odinga as among the lords of impunity, who destroyed oversight institutions ‘using handshake fraud’.

“The lords of impunity, who destroyed oversight institutions using the handshake fraud, should allow Parliament to hold rogue officials who put the nation in danger by subverting the democratic will of the people to be held to account. The new order is rule of law not wishes of big men,” President Ruto said.

Moments later, Mr Odinga replied to the tweet, saying: “There is due process and natural justice, things aren't just done at the whims of the executive. The rule of law must prevail and not your jungle laws that you want to institute so as to subjugate Kenyans to a conveyor belt system of elections come 2027. We shall not relent.”

Mr Odinga insists that through his public engagements that begun on Wednesday, he seeks to “stop a return to one-man rule, a rule through Executive fiat.”