NAIROBI — One of Kenya’s s top officials in charge of overseeing the Oct. 26 elections resigned Wednesday, fled the country, and said the imminent vote could not be fair.
Rather than contradict her, however, the commission’s chairman, Wafula Chebukati, afterward said he did not think a credible election was possible either.
Roselyn Akombe, one of seven election commissioners, said in a statement that the upcoming elections had no chance of being credible and fair and it had become “increasingly difficult” for her to perform her duties at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
“We need the commission to be courageous and speak out, that this election as planned cannot meet the basic expectations of a credible election,” she said. “The commission has become a party to the current crisis. The commission is under siege.”
The move is the latest blow to Kenya’s 20-year-old democratic process, which has been reeling under accusations of bias and wracked by angry demonstrations. The social unrest and prolonged election process has impacted an economy already faltering under a severe drought.
Instead of defending the commission, its head, Chebukati, held a long news conference later in the day in which he praised Akombe for her work and said he too had not been able to reform the commission.
“I have made several attempts to make critical 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. “Without critical changes in key secretariat staff, free fair and credible elections will surely be compromised.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta handily won reelection on Aug. 8 with 54 percent of the vote, but in an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court annulled the results a month later, citing irregularities. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga demanded the electoral commission be scrapped for being biased and his supporters began picketing its offices.
Then on Oct. 10, Odinga himself pulled out of the election, saying it would be impossible for it to be free and fair under the current commission — something Akombe appeared to confirm in her statement.
In her statement, Akombe said that fixing the problems of the August elections by Oct. 26 was a tall order.
“It would therefore have been logical for the commission to be frank with the Kenyan people and clearly state the challenges we face in organizing a free, fair and credible election,” she said.
In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday morning from New York, Akombe, who holds an American passport, said she fled to the U.S. because she feared for her life, noting that the commission’s head, Chris Msando, was murdered before the election.
Some election officials had been attacked in certain parts of the country and the environment was not conducive for a general election, she said in her statement.
“It broke my heart in the last few days to listen to my staff in the field, majority of whom truly want to do the right thing, express to me their safety and security concerns,” she said, adding that her fellow commissioners were not sympathetic.
“This was met with more extremist responses from most commissioners, who are keen to have an election even if it is at the cost of the lives of our staff and voters,” Akombe said in the statement.
In her BBC interview she added that it was likely officials for the new election would commit the same mistakes that had invalidated the previous one.
Her comments appear to echo the rallying cry of “no reforms, no elections” from Odinga’s supporters ahead of the re-run.
“Akombe’s resignation just shows us that there is a lot going on behind the scenes that we may not know, but what is for sure is that as Raila said, we cannot go into the elections with the IEBC as it is,” said Joe Oketch, an opposition supporter in Nairobi’s Kibera slum.
For supporters of incumbent Kenyatta, however, the resignation changes nothing and they insist the country must just get through this fraught electoral season.
“People resign from their jobs every day. . . . It’s not a big deal. She had her own challenges. We all experience various challenges in our various places at work. We choose to stay or leave. She chose to leave,” said James Mango, a trader at Nairobi’s Wakulima market.
“Things have to move on. We believe that we will have this elections and we will move forward as Kenyans,” he said.