13 December 2012

Kenya: Biggest Challenge That the IEBC Faces


When it comes to politics, one of the surest ways to detect ignorance is to take note when someone says, "But that is obvious..."

Over the past two decades since the return of multi-party politics, there have been all kinds of things which were widely alleged to be "obvious" - only for this assumption of "obviousness" to be revealed as hopelessly misguided.

For example, there were those who said in 2001 that one Mwai Kibaki, who had twice lost in his efforts to ascend to the presidency, was now "obviously too old" to be president: by 2003, he was safely in State House.

Earlier still, during much of the 1990s, it seemed "obvious" that President Daniel arap Moi would never be outmaneuvered by the opposition: come 2002, his chosen successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, was swept away in the Kibaki landslide of the 2002 presidential election.

And in the era before we had laws on hate speech, it was at one point stated openly by political opponents of current PM, Raila Odinga that "a Luo can obviously never be president of Kenya": well, that may not have happened yet, but in the 2007 presidential elections, over four million Kenyans turned up at the polling booths to refute this assumption by voting for Raila.

Likewise, before Uhuru Kenyatta created his TNA party and won two by-elections earlier this year, there were those who said it was "obvious" that President Kibaki, being Kikuyu, could not possibly be succeeded by Uhuru, another Kikuyu: now everybody is talking about the "two horse race" with only Raila and Uhuru considered to have a really good chance of winning.

And there are so many other previously "obvious" things which have since been found to be anything but obvious: that Luos would not vote for a Kikuyu presidential candidate (demolished in 2002); that Kikuyus and Kalenjins could not possibly vote together so soon after the terrible events of 2008; and that the 2007 General Election left too much bad blood between VP Kalonzo Musyoka and PM Raila Odinga for the two to ever work together (these final two assumption are being demolished right before our eyes, at this very moment in time); etc

So, as I said, anyone who declares anything in politics to be "obvious" generally only reveals that they have no idea what they are talking about.

And this extends beyond the drama of ongoing or past political events, to matters far more fundamental. For example, if you were asked what the key function of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was - as we now head toward a crucial General Election - what would you answer?

Well, the "obvious" answer is that they are mandated to conduct a free and fair election. Which is true enough: but there is more to it than that.

There is a crucial psychological dimension to the work of the IEBC, when it comes to the electing of a new president. It was well explained in a few passages I recently came across in the online magazine, Slate:

"One of the main goals of (an) election is to produce credible evidence to the loser that he's really lost...legitimacy matters, and it rests on a delicate understanding: the belief that those who govern have a right to govern. It's devilishly hard to measure or quantify, but we know it when we see it."

Many will remember that one Samuel Kivuitu, Chairman of the defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) was widely condemned for his frank admission, following the ill-fated 2007 presidential election, that he really had no idea who had won that election.

In my view, Kivuitu's failure was not what mattered most: I think that it was far more significant that Martha Karua - back then the constitutional affairs minister; now an outer-fringe presidential candidate - proved keen to violate the unlegislated 1997 "IPPG agreement" which had previously permitted opposition parties to also nominate commissioners to the ECK.

This was the first - and by far the most important - step in the process of delegitimizing the ECK. Kivuitu's unfortunate statement was only the icing on the cake.

But the bigger point here is that what really counted in that election was not that we should have a clear winner. Rather, what got us into so much trouble was the fact that the alleged loser Raila Odinga (and his millions of supporters) could not find any convincing reason to accept that he had lost.

And this effectively delegitimized the second Kibaki administration, until a power-sharing formula was created, which led to the Grand Coalition government.

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