MPs grill Kenya electoral body over voter kits

Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Isaack Hassan when he appeared before the Justice and Legal Affairs committee on the tendering process and cancellation of the Biometric Voters Registration equipment at County Hall, Nairobi August 2, 2012. SALATON NJAU

Kenya’s electoral commission was on Thursday grilled by a joint parliamentary committee over its handling of the biometric voter-registration kits procurement process.

Though the tender has been cancelled, the MPs said they were not convinced by the reasons the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) advanced when they opted for the manual registration of voters.

At the meeting in Nairobi’s County Hall Thursday, the MPs said the manual system relied on the “goodwill of individuals” which is obviously not guaranteed, given the history of the country’s elections, the violence and the attendant rigging.

The MPs said the next General Election –the first under Kenya’s two-year-old Constitution— was “too important” to be done in the “old ways”.

The Justice and Legal Affairs Committee, together with the Constitutional Implementation Oversight Committee, had summoned the electoral commission, seeking answers on why the tender was cancelled, and what safeguards to shield the poll from manipulation.

Justice minister Eugene Wamalwa and Attorney General Githu Muigai attended the meeting.

Hiring BVR kit

The minister proposed that the IEBC should explore hiring the BVR kit from other African countries, like Ghana.

The MPs cited the report of the Justice (rtd) Johann Kriegler led Independent Review Commission, saying that “going back to the manual system was dangerous”.

“It is too high a risk to take at this stage. There must be a way that we can do a fast-tracked procurement of the BVR kit," said Dr Eseli Simiyu (Kimilili), a member of the Oversight Committee.

IEBC chairman Issack Hassan, his commissioners and the Chief Executive James Oswago attended the meeting chaired by Njoroge Baiya (Githunguri).

They said the IEBC will now update the voters’ register that was used at the referendum –even though the last one covered just 210 constituencies, while the country now has 290 constituencies.

“The process shall be open and corroborative,” said Mr Hassan.

Mr Hassan said that since in the referendum “people could register anywhere’, this time the voters will be allowed to change their electoral areas and new ones picked.

Mr Hassan said the tender was cancelled after two of the four shortlisted bidders failed the due-diligence test; while the other two had quoted above the IEBC budget. He added that the situation had become “very murky” and that there were “very many extraneous interests” hovering around the procurement process.

The IEBC chairman added that the electoral body had been notified of the violence hotspots and had already trained its officials on how to handle the conflict.

He said his commission had already spoken to security agencies to ensure law and order at polling time.

But MPs were not convinced.

“Have we forgotten what Kriegler told us?” posed Mutava Musyimi (Gachoka), who has announced that he’ll vie for the presidency in the polls to be held on March 4, 2013.

Millie Odhiambo (nominated), who co-chaired the meeting, also asked the IEBC to come clean on the meetings it has been holding with the National Security Intelligence Service and other security agencies “to clear the perception that you’re not working for one side of the coalition government”.

Big let down

Mr Hassan said they’re aware of the big let-down to the country for going back to the manual system.

“We gave a promise that we were going to automate the electoral process. We understand the disappointment that you, as our leaders have.

"We’re also disappointed ourselves. Nothing is lost. We’ve learned our lesson. I know we’ve tripped, but we’re not out,” the IEBC chairman said.

The IEBC appears to bank on the electronic transmission of results –the way the interim commission did in Kenya’s referendum in 2010—to mitigate the potential for poll-rigging in the manual system.

“For us to have a credible election, the first step is a credible voters’ register. We’ve a rudimentary technology which still relies on the integrity of the presiding officer. The system you’re telling us about still relies on the integrity of individuals. The only choice you have is to go to BVR,” said Dr Eseli.

Mr Hassan said the returning officers will be updating the country at regular intervals – in the morning when the polling stations opens, at mid-day, at three in the afternoon and at the time when the polling station closes—so that should there be a sudden surge in the number of voters at a certain period, then, it’d mean “there’s a problem”.

The chairman and Mr Oswago said the recruitment was such that the senior people in the areas are not locals.

“Dead voters can only vote if there’s collusion up to the highest level in the commission,” said Mr Oswago.

The CEO added that the commission will “randomly” post electoral officers to different areas in the country, and that those postings will be done secretly and that the people will be posted to areas “where they did not know and where they have no influence”.

Kept in the loop

But still questions lingered. What for example, would happen if the network is jammed, or the special phone issued to returning officers is stolen or fails to work? That was posed by Ms Odhiambo and Elizabeth Ongoro (Kasarani).

Mr Oswago said the phones will have special codes and will be ‘locked’ to the polling station via the geographic information system and the global positioning satellite.

Mr Oswago and Mr Hassan said they were no divisions in the commission. He said the perception that they were not in step was a “creation of the media”.

“As a commission, we’re united. There are no divisions among commissioners; there is no division between the commission and the secretariat,” said Mr Hassan, as he noted that the commissioners was committed to do a good job.

“We want to have other lives after these elections; after the commission and after the tender” the IEBC chairman added, noting that the commission has to be kept in the loop over everything that the secretariat does through reports.

“At the end of the day, the commission takes political responsibility, that’s why as the chairman I am cartooned in every newspaper when things go wrong."

Mr Oswago added: “I don’t want to say anything about that. If only we’d be given time to work, then things would be better. When these things are said over and over, they can create a perception that is not right.”