from Africa in Transition

Uncertainty Abounds as Top Kenyan Election Commissioner Flees Country Amid Death Threats

October 19, 2017

Kenyan IEBC commissioner Roselyn Akombe, who recently fled Kenya after receiving death threats, flanked by chairman Wafula Chebukati, addresses a news conference at their offices in Nairobi, Kenya, July 6, 2017. Picture taken July 6, 2017. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
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Elections and Voting

Sub-Saharan Africa

Kenya’s new elections are scheduled for October 26. If they take place, it appears increasingly likely that their results will lack credibility, and that there will be violence. The standoff between Kenya’s two 'big men' continues. President Uhuru Kenyatta insists that the elections go forward, while opposition leader Raila Odinga has adopted the position of no reforms no elections. He is promising “the mother of all protests” on October 26, which he insists are legal under Kenya’s constitution. Kenyatta, on the other hand, is saying that efforts to prevent the elections from going forward will be met with force. (Already, at least forty Kenyans have been killed in election-related incidents, mostly by the police.) According to Kenyan media, Odinga told Kenyatta that he should stop “using the inspector-general of police Joseph Boinnet to kill and maim Kenyans.” And, “Mr. Boinnet has become the butcher-man of the people of Kenya but we will not accept it.” 

Meanwhile, some Kenyans are characterizing the entire political system as rotten. The chief of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Wafula Chebukati, doubts credible elections can be held because the Commission is divided and politicized by “a creepy political class.” In the same vein, he said, “political leaders who are supposed to build the nation have become the greatest threat to the peace and stability of the nation.” He also condemned the “arrogance and narcissism of our political class.” Roselyn Akombe, the IEBC commissioner in charge of election operations, has left Kenya for New York and resigned. In her resignation statement, she said that the IEBC could not provide a credible election and that “I do not want to be party to such a mockery to electoral integrity.” “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 also said she had received death threats. Meanwhile, neither Kenyatta nor Odinga is responding to Chebukati’s call for them to enter into “dialogue.”

Recent events, especially Chebukati’s statements and Roselyn Akombe’s resignation, indicate that the IEBC is in much worse shape than most foreign observers realized. It is hard to fault Chebukati’s conclusion, citing former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon speaking in a different context, that while Kenya technically may be ready for elections (a view strongly disputed by Oginga), credible elections rely on more than just effective ballots and voting machines: “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.” In a country with a history of election-related ethnic conflict, an October 26 train wreck is in the making. Should election violence morph into ethnic conflict, neither Kenyatta nor Odinga are likely to be able to control their followers. If there is mayhem of the magnitude of that post the 2007 elections, there will be calls for outside intervention. Kenya’s “big men” and the broader political class are failing their country.

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