Death Threats, Split Authority Endanger Kenyan Vote

  • Divisions within authority put credibility of vote at risk
  • Kenya scheduled to hold rerun of presidential election Oct. 17

A supporter of Kenya's opposition leader Raila Odinga listens during his political rally in Kibera slum in Nairobi on Sept. 12.

Photographer: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Death threats to top members of Kenya’s divided electoral body are endangering preparations for a rerun of last month’s annulled presidential election, a senior official at the authority said.

The relatives of one administrator at the Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission fled the country after their lives were threatened, while Chairman Wafula Chebukati made additional security arrangements for his family, said the official, who asked not to be identified citing personal-safety reasons.

“The fact that there’s a split at the IEBC and the fact that threats are being made to specific commissioners means we have external influences controlling the IEBC,” said Dismas Mokua, an analyst at Nairobi-based risk-advisory firm Trintari. “There’s a very high risk that the wrangling between the commissioners and the external influences may compromise the ability of the IEBC to prepare a free, fair and credible election,” scheduled for Oct. 17.

The seven-member commission is split over issues including the removal of staff suspected of being complicit in last month’s vote. The Supreme Court nullified the outcome of the Aug. 8 ballot, the first time a presidential-election result has been legally overturned in Africa, after finding the commission committed unspecified “irregularities and illegalities” and failed to conduct the vote in line with the constitution. There is a risk that if the commissioners aren’t able to address their differences there could be a repeat of violence triggered by a disputed 2007 election in Kenya that left more than 1,100 people dead, the official said.

Growth Slump

Following that election, economic growth slumped to 1.7 percent in 2008 from 7.1 percent a year earlier and the shilling plunged as much as 15 percent against the dollar. Kenya is the world’s biggest black-tea exporter and serves as an East African hub for companies including General Electric Co. and Coca-Cola Co.

Chebukati didn’t answer his mobile phone when Bloomberg tried to contact him. IEBC spokesman Andrew Limo said the commission will provide comment on Monday.

The declaration of President Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner of last month’s vote sparked protests and led to clashes between security forces and opposition supporters in which 24 people died, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, 72, has demanded sweeping changes at the commission, including the removal of Chief Executive Officer Ezra Chiloba before the rerun takes place.

The ruling Jubilee Party led by Kenyatta, 55, has rejected any changes to the commission.

In a Sept. 5 memorandum to Chiloba, Chebukati demanded to know why a user-name created in his name and without his consent had been used to log onto the electoral authority’s computer system more than a thousand times. He also sought responses on why satellite phones distributed to constituencies for results transmission failed to work, along with the absence of security features on ballot papers and the failure of the IEBC’s election-results transmission system.

Commissioners ‘Split’

Three calls to Chiloba’s mobile phone and a text message requesting comment weren’t answered.

The split among the commissioners is preventing Chebukati from firing staff members complicit in the failed August vote, according to the official. The chairman doesn’t have veto powers and has only two of the at least four commissioners needed to back his decisions, the official said.

The opposition alliance led by Odinga wants a “thorough, independent, transparent, end-to-end audit and quality assurance” of systems prior to the vote.

The electoral body will hire an international firm to conduct an independent audit of computer servers. The audit and a detailed written judgment from the Supreme Court, due this week, could be used remove staff complicit in the August vote, the official said. IEBC commissioners want the audit in order to know whether its servers were hacked, as alleged by the opposition, after the authority failed to comply with a Supreme Court order to open the computer servers to scrutiny, the official said.

The current state of affairs means the commission may need divine intervention to pull Kenya back from the brink of a crisis, the official said. Some commissioners have taken hard-line positions and may not realize the gravity of the situation, the official said.

“Kenya could still go ahead and hold an election in October, but not necessarily a credible one,” said Emma Gordon, an analyst at Bath, England-based Verisk Maplecroft. “What Kenya needs is a credible election. The delay has created uncertainties among investors and if there is an opposition boycott, that would be a huge period of uncertainty.”

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