Electoral commission chief Wafula Chebukati on Wednesday cast doubts on the possibility of holding credible elections next week, blaming it on a sharply divided commission and a creepy political class.
Mr Chebukati, who said he would not quit his job, asked both Jubilee and opposition coalition leaders to keep off Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) staff, and told top secretariat managers who have been adversely linked to electoral malpractices to resign, to pave the way for free, fair and credible elections.
He painted the picture of a commission which is deeply divided, and which has been taken hostage by political interests, with commissioners acting as stooges of rival political parties.
“Under such conditions, it is difficult to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. I am convinced that without critical changes in key secretariat staff, we may not have a free, fair and credible election. I ask the staff who have been adversely mentioned to step aside and allow the project team to function without interference,” he said, referring to a group of managers he recently mandated to manage the October 26 presidential election.
Mr Chebukati said he would organise a meeting of all the presidential candidates to prevail upon them to put Kenya first.
“I know there are elements who would love nothing more than to hear me announce my resignation at this point. In reality, that will be the easier thing to do, but we all have to put Kenya first and that is why I am determined to make this commission work,” the besieged chairman told journalists at the Bomas of Kenya.
He spoke just eight hours after commissioner Roselyn Akombe, the vocal official in charge of election operations, fled the country and resigned while in New York, USA.
“She was one of our finest and it is sad that we could not provide an environment for such minds to find full expression without fear for their lives,” Mr Chebukati said and urged Jubilee and Nasa leaders to shelve their hardline stances and resolve the differences that have led to heightened tensions across the country, in addition to holding the commission hostage to their interests. He asked the leaders to allow the commission to conduct its affairs independently, saying it was the only way to a free and fair election.
“As a referee I want to issue a stern warning to the players in this game on all sides that they should stop all attempts to interfere with the process. Let me and my commission do our job and we shall deliver. Interfere as you have been doing and we get stuck as a country,” he said.
In her resignation letter, Dr Akombe blamed a divided commission that she said had made her take positions she never believed in.
“Sometimes, you walk away, especially when potentially lives are at stake. The commission has become a party to the current crisis. The commission is under siege,” she said in a statement she sent out at 5.30 am.
The last straw that broke the camel’s back, she told the BBC in an interview, was when she received threats on her life.
“I have never felt the kind of fear I felt in my own country. If you get such messages and you have seen your own staff get that and be murdered, you would really be suicidal to think that nothing will happen to you,” she said, adding that she feared for her life and that “I don’t feel safe enough to go back home”.
She described Mr Chebukati as well-meaning with a temperament to run the agency, but one who needed to be a little firmer.
“If he was much more firmer (sic), I think, probably, we would have gone further, but you know there are aspects of his character that are helpful in a situation like we have right now but there are times that you just need firmness to be able to move on,” she said.
Eight hours later, Mr Chebukati, accompanied by motivational speaker Wale Akinyemi, emerged and echoed Dr Akombe’s description of the commission as deeply divided.
“I have made several attempts to make crucial changes, but all my motions have been defeated by a majority of the commissioners. Under such conditions, it is difficult to guarantee free, fair and credible elections,” he said.
He warned that he would no longer give in to pressure from a majority of the commissioners to accept partisan decisions.
“I cannot continue to be pushed by majority commissioners to accept legal opinions that serve partisan interests and are not grounded on the Constitution or the law,” he said.
Save for the October 26 project team members Salome Oyugi, Sidney Namulungu and Tabitha Mutemi, no commissioner accompanied Mr Chebukati at the press conference.
He said he had been forced to take a legal opinion from the commissioners — all of whom are not lawyers — against his better judgment as an advocate of more than 30 years.
“I cannot move forward with a divided commission. I cannot move forward when presidential candidates refuse to put their personal interests aside for the country,” he said, adding that the technical aspects of the polls were ready, citing the standardisation of results declaration forms, printing of ballot papers, re-configuration of technology to right the August 8 errors, training for returning officers and improving network coverage in polling stations to guarantee fast and reliable results transmission.
Quoting former UN head Ban Ki-moon, Mr Chebukati said, however: “Conducting genuine elections requires more than improving technicalities or comparing processes against international practice. Elections are fundamentally political rather than technical events and are not an end to themselves.” For such a free and fair poll to occur, Mr Chebukati said, key secretariat staff adversely mentioned as having overseen the August 8 election irregularities should step aside.