The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) sent shock waves across the country when different commissioners gave inconsistent positions on the credibility of the recent presidential election. Kenya is no stranger to public drama by IEBC Commissioners. In 2017, an IEBC Commissioner resigned ahead of a re-run of the presidential election and fled to the US. Then followed the resignation of three commissioners alleging the improper removal of the CEO and claiming lack of faith in the IEBC chairperson’s leadership.
Once again, and just as the IEBC chairperson was announcing the presidential election on 15 August 2022, four commissioners rushed to Serena Hotel to issue a presser disowning the results for what they termed as the “opaque” manner in which the results have been handled. Counteraccusations ensued, with the IEBC chairperson accusing the commissioners of attempting to “moderate results”, an allegation that they vehemently opposed. At the core of this IEBC circus is whether commissioners have a role to play in counting, tallying, verifying, and announcing the presidential results. Public opinion has been divided over the role of the IEBC commissioners in the conduct of the presidential election but what many pundits have ignored is the role and structure of the IEBC, as part of the independent commissions, which might shed light on the commissioners’ role in the presidential election.
This piece argues that a holistic reading of the constitution on the conduct of the presidential election reveals that the IEBC, including the commissioners, should be involved in all stages of the election. To prove this, it makes three arguments. First, Article 138(3) (e) of the constitution enshrines the role of the IEBC as a body in the conduct of presidential elections. Second, the jurisprudence on the running of the business of the IEBC provides for the centrality of the commissioners as the “linchpin of the Commission”. Third, the architecture of the independent commissions as watchdogs of democracy ingrains internal checks and balances and disfavours limitless powers of an individual or of one arm of the commission. Lastly, the paper debunks the analogization of the role of the IEBC and chairperson and returning officers. It offers three reasons why the parallelism of the two positions commits the logical fallacy of false analogy or false equivalence.
This article proceeds on the assumption that the IEBC chairperson exercised the role of the national returning officers to the exclusion of other commissioners. It is informed by the chairperson’s statement released on 17 August 2022, where the chairperson quotes the role of returning officers as being to tally, verify, and announce results. He concludes, “The role of the National Returning Officer for Presidential Election is not shared responsibility and not subject to Plenary decision of the Commission.” The paper argues that the chairperson of the IEBC has failed to examine his role in the context of the entire constitutional provisions on the conduct of the presidential election and operations of the commission.
While the failure to involve the commissioners raises an important question, this piece observes that it is not enough to overturn the election. Beyond demonstrating the lack of participation of the commissioners, it must be shown that there is a “substantial effect” on the integrity of the election as a whole.
Role of IEBC chairperson vis-à-vis the other commissioners in the conduct of the presidential election
As in any other election, in the presidential election, under Article 86 (c) of the Constitution, the IEBC is required to ensure that the results from the polling stations are openly and accurately collated and promptly announced by the returning officer. This generic provision lays out the oversight role of the IEBC in the conduct of the election. Public discourse over the election has been engrossed in the question of the exact duty of the commissioners in the conduct of the presidential election. Some have taken their scepticism to the extent of questioning the reason for voting if the commissioners “have a say in the presidential election results”. Others have argued that the law only requires the IEBC commissioners to vote only on the business of the commission, and the presidential election is not a business of the commission.
While the arguments on the commissioners’ role and the perception of subversion of the will of the people raise an essential question, these contentions fail to address the broader context of the presidential election. The presidential election requires a heightened oversight because of its importance and critical nature in Kenyan society. This part considers the constitutional provisions which give the commissioners a general oversight role, including verification of forms 34A and 34B to determine their accuracy.
Some have taken their scepticism to the extent of questioning the reason for voting if the commissioners “have a say in the presidential election results”.
It is crucial to first clarify that this debate is not about the quorum of the IEBC. The quorum of the IEBC has been used to conflate it with the debate on the role of the commissioners in the presidential election. However, the question of the role of commissioners is distinct from the question of quorum. Quorum addresses the question of whether there are enough commissioners to transact business, an issue that was settled in the BBI case. The pertinent issue in the current discourse is the role of commissioners since they were present but did not participate for lack of a part to play in the process. For quorum to be an issue, all commissioners should have received a notice to attend the plenary, but only the minimum number availed themselves.
The structure of independent commissions as commission-centric
A holistic reading of the constitution on the nature of the independent commissions reveals the integral role that commissioners play in overseeing the implementation of a commission’s functions. In this part, I argue that most proponents of a super-chairperson of the IEBC on the national tabulations of presidential results fail to read the constitution holistically. Specifically, they fail to examine the structure and functioning of the independent commissions, including the IEBC. An isolationist and narrow reading of Article 138 (10) of the constitution on the role of the IEBC chairperson will lead to an erroneous conclusion that the IEBC chairperson collates, tallies, and verifies forms 34A and 34B received from the polling stations. This piece cautions against drawing hasty conclusions regarding the role of the IEBC chairperson from reading a single article of the constitution.
Chapter 15 of the constitution provides for the architecture of the independent commissions. Article 249 of the constitution decrees the object of these bodies as the protection of sovereignty, and promoting democracy and constitutionalism. The commission’s composition and nature are listed in Articles 250 and 253 of the constitution, and it is stated to be a corporate body. The commission as a body functions in a manner that guarantees internal accountability, as depicted by the uneven number of commissioners and the insistence that the existence of the commission depends on the existence of commissioners.
Most proponents of a super-chairperson of the IEBC on the national tabulations of presidential results fail to read the constitution holistically.
Kenyan courts have discussed the place of commissioners in relation to the secretariat. A close look at some of the foundational cases on independent commissions will shed light on the relationship between the chairperson of the IEBC and commissioners as a body. One typical running theme is that the commissioners are the linchpin of the commission, and no duty is beyond the commissioners’ oversight since they are the nub of the commission. This argument does not mean they have unfettered powers—even to the extent of changing election results—but they can oversee and note mistakes on the report to be submitted to the Chief Justice.
At the centre of their function is policymaking for implementation by the secretariat, and oversight. The rationale for the emphasis on the centrality of commissioners is that they are responsible for realizing the mandate of the IEBC as an enabler of democracy and a guarantee of the right to self-determination. The secretariat assists the commission in the discharge of its mandate. Court decisions on the relationship between the secretariat and the commissioners reveal the vital place of commissioners in discharging the commission’s mandate. In the Constitutional Application N° 2 of 2011, the court was emphatic that “the several independent Commissions and offices are intended to serve as ‘people’s watchdogs’ and perform this role effectively”.
Courts in Kenya have termed the existence of commissioners as a foundation for the powers of the secretariat. The implication is that for a commission to exist properly, it must have commissioners; from there, all other functions flow. Ordinarily, the outcome of the functioning of the secretariat should be ratified by the commissioners of the IEBC. In Michael Sistu Mwaura Kamau v Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and 4 others 2017, the court stated,
“The Secretary and the Secretariat can only carry out the powers vested in their offices when the Commission exercises its powers since they implement what the Commission has resolved. The Commissioners must ratify the outcome of the tasks undertaken by the Commission’s staff if they are to be deemed as the decisions of the Commission” (Emphasis mine).
Therefore, given the central position of the commissioners in the conduct of all functions of the IEBC, they cannot be excluded from an essential role in the national conduct of the presidential election. Although officers of the IEBC might have specific statutory duties, the exercise of their functions is subject to general oversight by the commissioners. Therefore, officials such as returning officers assist the commissioners in conducting the election at the lower levels. It is illogical to argue that returning officers can exclude the commissioners from oversighting the elections they are conducting.
Misuse of the tag of national returning officer
The general posture of the Kenyan constitution is that it adopts a pessimistic outlook on those who wield power. This position of the constitution informs the distribution of duties among various parts of the IEBC. Here, I will argue first that Article 138(3) (c) of the constitution provides for the general task of the IEBC as a body, the chairperson’s role being limited to the announcement of the presidential election results under Article 138 (10) of the constitution. Second, I will contend that the constitution does not eliminate the oversight role of commissioners regarding the presidential election. Third, the constitution is aversive to an individual exercising monopoly of power. Put differently, the constitution favours the distribution of powers, oversight, and internal checks and balances. Lastly, I will deflate the false analogies of equating the chairperson of the IEBC in the conduct of the presidential election with other returning officers. I will argue that it is a simplistic view of the conduct of the presidential election.
As a body the IEBC has the role of the conducting of the presidential election. Article 138 (3)(c) of the constitution provides that in the presidential election, the IEBC shall tally, verify, and declare the results after counting the votes in the polling stations. This role is given to the commission as a body to be discharged by its employees with the commissioners’ oversight. At the national level, the IEBC verifies and tabulates forms 34As and 34Bs to generate form 34C. All commissioners have a right to be involved in the tabulations in the exercise of their oversight role over the employees of the IEBC.
Although officers of the IEBC might have specific statutory duties, the exercise of their functions is subject to general oversight by the commissioners.
Unlike Article 138(3)(c), which provides for the general role of the IEBC, Article 138(10)(a) of the constitution provides that the chairperson of the IEBC shall declare the results of the presidential election. The implication of this is that the role of the chairperson is exclusive in so far as the declaration of the presidential result is concerned. The chairperson does not single-handedly oversee the secretariat in the generation of form 34C, which contains the collated presidential election results. Additionally, the commissioners have a role under Article 86 of the constitution to ensure that results are accurately collated and announced by returning officers. In this case, and for argument’s sake, even if we equate the chairperson to the returning officers who announce the results, the commissioners will have an oversight role over him on how the national total results are arrived at. This oversight will ensure that the chairperson of the IEBC is accountable to the commission in the conduct of such an important role. The Court of Appeal in Al Ghurair Printing and Publishing LLC v Coalition for Reforms and Democracy and 2 others 2017 held that the commissioners formulate strategy and oversight IEBC employees and the commission’s functions, meaning that the tabulation of results in the forms was subject to the supervision of the commissioners.
To counter the above arguments on the commissioners’ involvement, some people have argued that commissioners are not required to oversee other elections before various returning officers announce them. This argument fails to consider the unique nature of the presidential election in our constitutional design. Of course, all polls are unique, and in substance, they are supposed to adhere to the same constitutional principles. However, due to the controversies surrounding the presidential election, the constitution favours the involvement of commissioners as a collegial body to guarantee electoral integrity. Because of Kenya’s history in the presidential election, the constitution requires heightened oversight at all election levels, especially the final national tabulations.
The other counterargument offered is that the IEBC chairperson exercises the powers of a returning officer, which are individualized duties not subject to the plenary powers of the commission. To answer this claim, I make three arguments. First, the characterization of the role of the chairperson of the IEBC as a presidential returning officer does not mean that the commissioners are excluded from oversight of the national tallying of the presidential election. Put differently, the characterization should not affect examining the exact constitutional dynamics between commissioners. Thus, the commissioners have a role in oversighting the chairperson of the IEBC because he exercises the commission’s mandate.
Due to the controversies surrounding the presidential election, the constitution favours the involvement of commissioners as a collegial body to guarantee election integrity.
Secondly, while the role of the IEBC chairperson has a similarity with that of the returning officers of other elections, they are not the same. Under section 38 of the Election Act, the returning officer is responsible for conducting the election. Further, section 39(1A) of the Election Act provides that the returning officer is responsible for tallying, collating, and announcing the election results. In contrast, Article 138(3)(c) of the constitution provides that the responsibility of conducting the presidential election lies with the IEBC. While the chairperson of the IEBC exercises specific duties similar to those of IEBC returning officers, the constitution explicitly adopts the language of the IEBC as a body when addressing the specific electoral duties such as counting, verifying, and tabulating the presidential election. Contrasting Article 138(3)(c) of the constitution with Article 138(10)(a) of the constitution, which provides that the IEBC chairperson shall announce the presidential election, demonstrates that he exercises constricted powers. When it comes to the announcement of the results of the presidential election, Article 138 (10)(a) of the constitution drops the language of the commission and specifically identifies the chairperson as the individual with the role of declaring the aggregated results. Therefore, if the constitution wished the chairperson to singlehandedly exercise the role laid out in Article 138(3)(c) of the constitution, it would have included it in Article 138(10) of the constitution or in any other part that exclusively addresses the duties of the chairperson of IEBC.
Thirdly, the involvement of the chairperson of the IEBC in announcing the presidential election demonstrates a constitutional intention of engaging the highest levels of the commission in the national tabulations of results and declarations. The functions listed under Article 138 (3)(c) of the constitution, especially the national tabulation of results, involve the highest organs of the IEBC. The rationale for this involvement of the highest organs of the commission is not hard to discern, owing to the perennial controversy surrounding the presidential election in Kenya. The commissioners are selected with a unique obligation of securing democracy, and what other level epitomizes this democracy if not the presidential election? The stakes in the presidential elections are very high in Kenya, and it would be barmy not to involve the entire commission or vest the national level powers only in the chairperson of the IEBC. Granting the IEBC chairperson the exclusive role of the presidential election returning officer to the exclusion of the commissioners has no serious constitutional value. With regards to the manipulation of results, the presumption should be that the more transparency and involvement, the less likely it is for them to be changed.
Relevance of the Maina Kiai case
The import of the case of Maina Kiai on the powers of the chairperson of the IEBC has caused considerable controversy in the country. Some have argued that the Kiai case addressed the issue of whether the chairperson can change the results declared at the polling station. Others have argued that Kiai’s statement on the powers of the IEBC chairperson was an obiter dictum. This part seeks to answer these questions and make the fourth argument why the commissioners of the IEBC should have been involved in the conduct of the presidential election.
The answer to the concerns raised regarding the relevance of Kiai on the discourse on the role of commissioners is both “yes” and “no” because the case touches on the role of the chairperson of the IEBC and yet not in the manner in which the four commissioners cite it. On the one hand, the Kiai decision is relevant to the extent that it indicates the scope and nature of the role of the chairperson of the IEBC. Although not exactly dealing with the current crisis, it elucidates the role of the chairperson of the IEBC in the conduct of the presidential election. On the other hand, the Kiai decision does not address the role of the commissioners versus the chairperson of the IEBC in the conduct of the presidential election. The implication is that when the court is discussing the limitation of the powers of the chairperson of the IEBC, it is doing so in the context of whether the chair can alter the results announced at the polling level. Nevertheless, the Kiai case sheds light on the nature of the powers of the chairperson of the IEBC. From Kiai’s case, it is clear that the chairperson exercises limited powers, and the constitution disfavours the chairperson from having exclusive powers in the presidential election other than the announcement of the collated results.
The commissioners have a role in oversighting the chairperson of the IEBC because he exercises the commission’s mandate.
The constitution disrelishes the concentration of powers on one individual in the conduct of an important election such as the presidential one. This is to ensure an effective discharge of the role of the IEBC as the safeguard of democracy and the right to self-determination. The nature of the independent commissions as having embedded checks and balances was articulated by the Supreme Court in the matter of the National Land Commission (2015). The court believed that checks and balances were the mainsprings of accountability. It stated that “the spirit and vision behind the separation of powers are that there be checks and balances and that no single person or institution should have a monopoly of all powers.”
The commissioners provide a heightened level of oversight and verification, which means that the chairperson cannot act unilaterally in the tabulation of forms 34A and 34B. It is illegitimate for the chairperson to conduct the presidential election in an exclusionary way, especially the generation of form 34C without the involvement of other commissioners. This conduct goes against the rationale of the independent commissions, which is to be the people’s watchdog for democracy. The Court of Appeal captured this position in Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission v Maina Kiai & 5 Others (2017):
“To suggest that some law empowers the appellant’s Chairperson, as an individual, to correct, vary, confirm, alter, modify, or adjust the results electronically transmitted to the national tallying centre from the constituency tallying centres, is to donate an illegitimate power . . . We reiterate, as we conclude that there is no doubt from the architecture of the laws, we have considered that the people of Kenya did not intend to vest or concentrate such sweeping and boundless powers in one individual, the Chairperson of the appellant.” (Emphasis mine.)
In sum, while the Kiai case did not directly deal with the role of the commissioners and chairperson, the obiter indicates the limited powers of the IEBC chairperson. The court in Kiai’s case reinforced the need for a limited role of the chairperson of the IEBC in line with Article 138(10) (a) of the constitution. Thus, to ensure the IEBC’s accountability and checks and balances, it is constitutionally absurd to exclude commissioners from verifying the presidential election.
Failure to include the commissioners must substantially affect the election
Overturning an election should not be an easy task for any petitioner. This is because the election represents the people’s will, and the courts should be slow in overturning the people’s expressed will without clear and convincing evidence. There is also a presumption that the actions undertaken by government officials are legal unless they are impeached by evidence. The other concern is that elections are expensive, and for a developing country like Kenya, economic realities should be balanced with constitutional purity.
Globally, no election is perfect, so normal errors do not suffice to overturn an election. The core question is whether the errors or irregularities are substantial enough to overturn an election. Section 83 of the Election Act provides that non-compliance with the constitution and the law must substantially affect the election. In Raila Amolo Odinga & another v Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission & 2 others (2017), the court held that trivial irregularities are not enough to overturn an election, and the error must have a substantial effect on the election. Further, the court noted that the election should be looked at as a whole to determine whether the constitution has been substantially breached.
The Kiai decision does not address the role of the commissioners versus the chairperson of the IEBC in the conduct of the presidential election.
The failure to involve commissioners in generating form 34C should not automatically invalidate the election. The constitution does not adopt a purist approach to the election. Instead, all mistakes must substantially affect the integrity of the election. A presidential election is a highly regulated process. If it is proved that the results in forms 34As and 34Bs were collated adequately at the national level, the non-involvement of the commissioner will not rise to the “substantial effect” level.
However, if it were to be demonstrated that the failure to include the commissioners led to unverified results, which have numerous mistakes, then the non-involvement would have substantially affected the election. The errors would not be characterized as “harmless errors” because they would have a tangible effect on the election’s credibility. The commission as a body would have failed to realize its mandate of conducting a free and fair election as enshrined in Article 86 (c) of the constitution. Thus, the commissioners’ oversight role in the conduct of the presidential election would be unconstitutionally impeded, leading to the unverifiable and inaccurate collation of results at the national level.
To conclude, a hasty and exclusive reading of Article 138(10)(a) of the constitution would lead to the erroneous conclusion that only the chairperson of the IEBC has the role of tallying, verifying, and declaring presidential results in forms 34A and 34B. However, a holistic reading of the constitution and jurisprudence on the structure and the functioning of the IEBC demonstrates that commissioners should be involved in generating forms 34C for the presidential election.