History of elections rigging in Kenya since independence

Sunday August 13 2017

An Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission official opens a ballot box at a polling station in Kiboro Primary School, in the Mathare slums of Nairobi on August 8, 2017, ahead of counting votes in the nationwide elections. PHOTO | LUIS TATO | AFP

An Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission official opens a ballot box at a polling station in Kiboro Primary School, in the Mathare slums of Nairobi on August 8, 2017, ahead of counting votes in the nationwide elections. PHOTO | LUIS TATO | AFP 

By OSCAR OBONYO
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From the 1960s through to the 1980s when the government – a highly interested party – played the referee in General Elections to today where the exercise is executed by an independent legal entity, Kenya has come a long way in reforming the electoral process.

But the more the process has been made fair and transparent, the more politicians and their agents have come up with ingenious and sophisticated avenues of poll rigging.

If, for instance, the claim by the opposition and civil society that the electoral body’s database was hacked and manipulated to generate favourable results to certain candidates is true, then poll theft has surely gone high-tech.

At independence, for instance, election malpractices were characterised by simple, plain and less intelligent tricks executed mainly by use of force.

The instance of retired President Mwai Kibaki versus one Jael Mbogo, who kicked off her political career in 1958 in the pre-independence era as councillor of the then Native Eastlands ward in Nairobi’s Bahati estate, is one such prominent case.

Coming up in the 1969 contest against the then Finance and Economics minister in the President Jomo Kenyatta administration, Mbogo was viewed as the underdog in the Bahati constituency poll.

MWAI KIBAKI

However she took a surprise lead during the vote-counting only for the Kibaki agents to switch off lights in the counting hall and execute the plot that absolutely changed the poll outcome.

Then each candidate was assigned a ballot box with his or her picture on it and Ms Mbogo claims, in an earlier interview with this writer, that some of her ballot boxes were sneaked out of the counting hall and burnt.

Kibaki survived the scare with an advantage of 111 votes and switched his base to his rural home in Othaya, Nyeri, thereafter. 

The idea of assigning a ballot box for each candidate indeed facilitated easy poll rigging in the 1960s through to 1970s.

In most cases, candidates destroyed or tossed opponents’ ballot boxes out of the counting halls, with some literally fleeing with them upon sensing defeat.

Another archaic rule was that which stipulated midday of a given day as the deadline for aspirants to present nomination papers.

Dramatic, absurd and even laughable scenes were witnessed as some aspirants were hijacked, driven off and released shortly after the midday deadline.

HIRED GOONS

There were also cases of hired goons snatching and fleeing with nomination papers of aspirants. Local District Commissioners, who served as Returning Officers, were largely indifferent to such dirty manoeuvres.

The presidential candidate, ordinarily the incumbent, only survived similar mischief courtesy of state power and security.

During his tenure of office, retired President Daniel arap Moi routinely presented his nomination papers to the National Supervisor of Elections at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.

And after excited murmurs from government officials and supporters, the supervisor would rise from his seat a few seconds to midday.

UNOPPOSED

At exactly midday, the President would be declared the sole candidate and therefore duly elected unopposed.

Also under the Kenyatta senior and Moi administrations, the election date was regarded as the Executive’s “secret weapon” unleashed only when circumstances were favourable for them to win elections. 

Most of these archaic rules have since undergone gradual changes – thanks to the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group reforms in 1997, the proposed electoral reforms by South Africa’s retired Justice Johann Kriegler and a new Constitution that came into effect in 2010.  

But as head of the EU election observer mission in Kenya, Marietje Schaake, aptly observes, it is foolhardy to place faith in reformed electoral avenues and institutions without investing in trust.