Hardline Positions will only Worsen the Situation

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is at the centre of a political storm pitting political rivals. IEBC Commissioners have maintained that they will not be intimidated into leaving office, politicians across the political divide have maintained hard positions and ordinary Kenyans have been left to watch from the sides. Let’s face it, the current IEBC in the current environment is unable to deliver credible elections. Hardline positions by either side will not resolve the IEBC standoff in a way that serves the best interest of the Kenyan public. It is likely that the anti-IEBC movement and the State’s refusal to budge will only fuel the tensions in an already polarised environment. Is the IEBC trustworthy and capable of delivering free and fair elections given its history and lack of accountability?

A compromised commission

In 2014, documents filed in a London court show that Kenyan election officials pocketed millions of shillings in bribes to award lucrative printing contracts to a British company over a two-year period. The documents show that many of the printing costs were inflated by up to 38 per cent mainly to cater for the kickbacks – commonly referred to as ‘chicken’ – to senior election officials.[1] Pressure to initiate local investigations were met by government resistance, arguing that nobody had been found guilty even in the UK. Then in early 2015, a London court found two officials of the UK based printing firm guilty of bribing Kenya’s Electoral Commission officials and sentenced them to 3 years in prison and 250 hours of community service. Immediately afterword’s focus shifted to the Kenyan Government to investigate and prosecute the Kenyans named in the indictment against the Britons. Almost two years since the scandal surfaced and true to our poor track record of prosecuting corruption cases nothing much has been achieved. Corruption allegations aside, many continue to raise concern that three years after the last elections, some of the mishaps that rocked the polls remain largely unresolved and could still affect the upcoming 2017 elections. With public confidence in IEBC standing at 43 per cent, down from 93 per cent approval rating prior to the 2013 elections, should the IEBC Commissioners remain in office?[2] In spite of the massive investment in the commission, the IEBC is yet to give conclusive report on the elections and final vote tally 39 months after the 2013 elections.

Protests to evict IEBC Commissioners

Article 37 of the Kenyan Constitution protects everyone’s right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate, picket and present petitions to public authorities. This basic freedom is an essential component in any functioning democracy. Its protection is crucial in creating tolerance in a society where groups have divergent views. The freedom of assembly thrives even where a majority of citizens would rather suppress expression it finds offensive.

I have participated in several peaceful demonstrations. My participation in demonstrations isn’t influenced by political personalities behind the protests, but a shared feeling that institutions mandated to addressing certain social problems have failed to do so. The freedom of assembly finds root in Article 1 of the Kenyan Constitution which provides that, ‘’All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this constitution.” Article 2 reiterates this by providing that “the people may exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.” When those democratically elected fail to exercise my sovereign power effectively, I am obligated, as an active citizen, to reclaim this power and exercise it directly. Even when they do, citizens still reserve the right to direct action to breathe life into their constitutional rights. Representation does not take this right away from the citizens. We find ourselves in this current predicament because of perpetual institutional failure by the State to address questions raised with regard to the integrity of the IEBC. We have only been fed with tokenistic promises with zero results to show.

In the words of Maina Kiai, Protests act as safety valves for burning issues, and they let the state know the depth and breadth of opinion. We may hate the at times disruptive nature of protests, but the alternative could be worse. A permanent, careless show of force by the state could erode democratic values and instil silence and fear, or in an alternative situation, chaos and violence could erupt when people meet the force of the state with their own forces.[3] The courts  have continued to  remind the Government that demonstrations are legal. If anything, history has taught us that protests have inspired positive social change and played a crucial role in securing the freedoms many in the world enjoy today, it is time the state starts listening and facilitate dialogue on the much needed reforms in the IEBC.

The much needed national dialogue

The Constitution provides for a clear procedure on removing IEBC commissioners, but just as peaceful demonstrations are not unconstitutional, there is nothing unconstitutional in holding a national dialogue on the issue. A national dialogue is now a must if we are to salvage the situation ahead of the 2017 general elections. The dialogue should be open to all stakeholders, not just the government and the opposition. Civil society organisations, faith based groups, the private sector, IEBC, the Law Society of Kenya and other political parties should be party to this much needed national dialogue. The National Government should facilitate a mutually agreeable settlement for IEBC issue, invite all parties to the table for a structured meaningful dialogue.

The dialogue must not be complete without addressing the accountability and integrity question facing IEBC and largely unresolved mishaps that rocked the 2013 polls. Keeping the current IEBC in the current environment is harmful to credible elections.