The unsmiling Chebukati and electoral rough waters

IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati

IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In public, Wafula Chebukati cuts the image of the unsmiling elder. Before he was nominated as chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, few people had ever heard of him outside legal circles and in Bungoma County, where he was an aspiring politician.

But after taking the country through two general elections and a repeat presidential election, Mr Chebukati is now a household name. His doorstep is where the electoral-bad-manners buck stops – and where faith in the electoral system rests.

After the bungled 2017 poll, Mr Chebukati had been written off and it seemed he would have followed his predecessors Samuel Kivuitu and Zacchaeus Chesoni’s paths to infamy and not conduct another General Election. 

For several weeks, starting in October 2017, supporters of the now-defunct National Super Alliance (Nasa), led by Raila Odinga, took over the streets chanting ‘Chiloba must go’ and calling for an overhaul of the IEBC. Mr Chebukati was also supposed to quit. He didn’t.

From his office at Anniversary Towers in Nairobi, he could watch the streets below as police battled demonstrators with a mix of tear gas, water cannons and batons and as he became the target of opposition politicians who had turned University Way into a battleground.

But rather than throw in the towel, Mr Chebukati clung to his seat – as pressure increased and as police battled the unrelenting crowds: “I know there are elements who would love nothing more than to hear me announce my resignation at this point. Resignation would be the easiest thing to do but I am determined to make this work. I will not go down as the chairman who plunged the country into a deeper crisis,” he said as he started preparing for a repeat presidential election.

Even as the opposition issued new demands and the IEBC appeared to be under siege, Mr Chebukati refused to budge. Finally, IEBC CEO Ezra Chiloba and member Roselyn Akombe quit ahead of the repeat polls. Dr Akombe claimed that Mr Chebukati was “a leader under a siege” though he was a “very well-meaning person”.

Interestingly, Mr Chebukati had been appointed, seven months before the 2017 elections, after the opposition staged street protests demanding the removal of the Issack Hassan-led nine-member team that had conducted the 2013 elections, which ushered in Uhuru Kenyatta as President.

The Hassan team had opted to resign and pave the way for new members picked by the Bernadette Musundi panel.

But if Mr Chebukati, who was working with inexperienced commissioners, thought he would have a smooth ride, the 2017 elections turned into a major headache after the presidential results were nullified.

After that, both Mr Chiloba and Mr Chebukati, and other commissioners, became targets of the Nasa leaders led by Mr Odinga, his running mate Kalonzo Musyoka, and principals Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula who demanded their resignation. The IEBC had also become divided.

“It has become increasingly difficult to continue attending plenary meetings where commissioners come ready to vote along partisan lines and not to discuss the merit of issues before them," Dr Akombe told the Nation after she fled to exile.

Nasa principals had insisted that the IEBC officials implicated in the nullified presidential poll resign ahead of the fresh vote that was set for October 17, 2017.

Mr Chebukati’s position was complicated by Mr Odinga’s threat to boycott the rerun until the IEBC officers stepped aside. He cited the Supreme Court observation that the August 8, 2017 elections were marred by “irregularities and illegalities” and hence the officials should quit over integrity.

Mr Odinga’s sentiments were echoed by his co-principals Mr Musyoka, Mr Mudavadi and Mr Wetang’ula who insisted that sweeping changes must be made to the commission. Besides Mr Chiloba, the Nasa team wanted the IEBC to fire commissioners Abdi Guliye and Boya Molu.

But attempts to remove Mr Chebukati and Mr Chiloba failed after the High Court cleared them to proceed and oversee the repeat poll. The court held that the Supreme Court did not find them culpable.

In 2018, three of Mr Chebukati’s commissioners – Connie Nkatha Maina (vice-chair), Dr Paul Kurgat, and Ms Margaret Mwachanya – resigned, throwing the IEBC into a legal crisis on whether it could function without a quorum.

“We will not resign because some people have resigned. We came to the commission as individuals,” Mr Chebukati told a parliamentary committee.

After conducting yet another election, Mr Chebukati has defied the odds and survived the rough terrain of electoral drama. The man who kept the country waiting.