Interview with Ahmed Issack: Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission of Kenya
July 28, 2012
Editor’s Note: The Republic of Kenya is about to experience the most hotly contested presidential, parliamentary, and county assembly elections that are slated for March 2013. The man responsible for connecting the dots is Mr. Ahmed Issaack, the current Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission of Kenya (IECK). A lawyer by profession, Ahmed hails from the vast stretch of land known as the North Eastern Province (NEP). Ahmed was selected to head the Commission by the President of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, in consultation with the nation’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga. Ahmed emerged the winner out of a handful of heavyweight contestants after strenuous vetting. Youthful and outspoken, Ahmed is responsible for overseeing an election that is the first of its kind since Kenya’s attainment of independence from England in 1963.
In the past,
Ahmed has been a lawyer-advocate of the High Court of Kenya and has been a partner in the law firm of Ibrahim, Issack and Company Advocates. Ahmed holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Law, a Bachelor’s degree in Law (LLB), Second Class Honors from Nairobi University. Born in 1970, Ahmed attended high school in Garissa. In an exclusive interview with WardheerNews’ own literary doyen Adan Makina, Ahmed unveils the nature of Kenya’s first democratic election dynamics.
WardheerNews (WDN): welcome to WardheerNews Mr. Ahmed Issack. Could you please share with our esteemed readers the importance of the Independent Electoral Commission of Kenya?
Ahmed Issack: The IEBC is an independent body established by the Constitution with the mandate to manage and conduct elections and referenda in the country. It also has the mandate to undertake review of constituency and county assembly ward boundaries, every 8 to 12 years, or periodically for the case of county assembly ward boundaries.
Chairman Ahmed Issaack of the Independent Electoral Commission of Kenya (IECK)
The Constitution emphasizes that the sovereign authority of the people of Kenya is exercisable directly or through their elected representatives. The same Constitution provides a devolved system of Government, a two-tier legislature, and an electoral system with a semblance of a mixed member proportional representation providing for categories of special seats. This has translated to a system where Kenyans would vote for six (6) elective positions, all in one day. The specific role of the Commission therefore is to get Kenyans registered for the elections, regulate nomination process of candidates and the campaign period and finally, conduct their elections into office. While doing all this, the Commission is also required to create public awareness on the elections and the manner of voting.
WDN: How did the members of the Electoral Commission come about? Could you give us a brief background of members of the commission, what parties they represent and if there are any members who don’t belong to any party?
Ahmed Issack: Unlike in the past where membership represented interests of different political parties, members of IEBC are appointed through a competitive process through a Selection Panel. The Selection Panel is appointed by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister (this applies until after the first elections) and with the approval of the National Assembly.
The Panel is facilitated by the Public Service Commission. The Panel is required to advertise for the positions of the Chairperson and members of the Commission in newspapers of national circulation within seven days of their appointment. The Panel shortlists candidates and submits to the President 3 names for Chairperson and 13 names for members of the Commission. The President nominates the Chairperson and 8 members and tables the names before the National Assembly for vetting and approval. The National Assembly then vets and approves/rejects name(s). In case of rejection, the President can draw other names from the remaining list forwarded by the Selection.
Panel. If all the names forwarded to the President by the Panel are rejected, the Selection Panel is required to send fresh names to the President from those shortlisted.
The list of nominees is required to observer regional and ethnic diversity, and gender balance (at least one-third to be of opposite gender).
WDN: The commission you head is independent-meaning it is free, autonomous-or self-regulating. Since Kenya is a land that is known for corruption, exploitation, and malfeasance, do you think the Electoral Commission will carry out its activities without government involvement?
Ahmed Issack: The Commission has institutional and functional independence but not yet financial independence. The budget is a subject of negotiation with the relevant agencies. The Elections Act however has established a Fund of the Commission, which is a charge on the Consolidated Fund. In this regard, the Commission is looking forward to financial independence.
WDN: How prepared is the Electoral Commission for the upcoming elections?
Ahmed Issack: Despite the budgetary constraints, the Commission is prepared and committed to deliver a credible election. The legal framework is in place and the attendant Regulations will be approved by the National Assembly by September. Procurement of election materials and personnel is ongoing, voter education materials and operational manuals are in place, capacity building and training of staff has commenced, and ccreditation of observer groups is ongoing. The boundaries cases have now been concluded save for a few appeals filed. The Commission is about to roll out voter education on the elections and sensitization on voter registration and on the manner of voting. The ommission is in the process of mapping polling stations in preparation for the registration exercise in 40,000 polling stations.
The Commission is also preparing a vote tabulation system that would allow transmission of results of all the six (6) elective positions in over 300 tallying centres countrywide.
The Commission has put in place dispute resolution mechanisms including setting up an Electoral Code of Conduct Compliance and Enforcement Committee, Dispute Resolution Committee, Peace Committees, Conflict Management Panels, etc. Some of these are cascaded to the County and/or Constituencies for effective management of electoral disputes as and when they arise.
The Commission works closely with strategic partners in election, including relevant Government agencies with some role in electoral related matters such as in security, issuance of ID cards, schools (which are the primary premises for polling stations), transport and logistics, etc.
WDN: How many polling stations have been reserved for this mammoth exercise?
Ahmed Issack: The Commission will be increasing the number of polling stations from the current 23,000 to 40,000 polling stations. This will address issues of voters walking long distances to access registration centres/polling stations and to allow adequate time for them to cast their vote.
WDN: How is the anticipated democratic election that is to be held next year different from past high-handed elections of the Kenyatta and Moi years?
Ahmed Issack: The competitive nature of the appointment process will greatly enhance the independence of the Commission. The electoral reforms now in place will further ensure enhanced compliance with the rules and regulations on elections. The Commission has now employed Returning Officers on permanent and pensionable terms in order to make them more accountable for their actions. In addition, the law now imposes heavy sanctions for officers who subvert the process of free and fair elections or who knowingly obstruct the Commission in the discharge of its functions or otherwise interferes with the functions of the Commission; they would be liable to 3 years imprisonment or 1 million fine or to both.
WDN: What measures have you put in place to avoid a repeat of the election irregularities of 2008 where thousands of innocent civilians were either indiscriminately killed or evicted from their homes by marauding hooligans?
Ahmed Issack: The Commission has put in systems and processes in place that would ensure peaceful elections. In addition, judicial reforms have been undertaken, giving Kenyans a renewed hope in the judiciary as an avenue for seeking justice, rather than resorting to violence. The dispute resolution mechanisms outlined above have so far worked very well. The Commission is also working closely with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to ensure peaceful campaigning and elections. Lastly, the sanctions put in place, including barring of candidates or parties from contesting in elections are likely to deter any attempt to go back to 2007/8.
Furthermore, the law now grants the Commission the power to investigate and prosecute election offences. The Commission will have resident Investigators and Prosecutors, and will work closely with the Office of the Director of Prosecutions for additional support.
Lastly, the ICC process is surely a live lesson for the country.
WDN: Do you think the Kenya police force will be capable of keeping the peace despite their tarnished image?
Ahmed Issack: Police reforms have been part of the Agenda 4 reforms. Tremendous work has been undertaken to ensure that our security agencies are properly capacitated and exercise their duties within the confines of the law. The Commission engages security agencies when planning for elections for purposes of sharing intelligence and briefing them on the Electoral Code of Conduct and its implications. In return, the security agencies commit to providing the much-needed security for election staff, premises and materials and regular updates on the security situation.
WDN: Will international election observers be deployed to oversee and ensure the culmination of smooth and fair elections?
Ahmed Issack: Yes. The Commission has in the past accredited both domestic and international observers. During the constitutional referendum of 2010, the Commission accredited over 4,000 observers. We have now commenced on the accreditation process, particularly for the long-term observers, who observe the entire electoral cycle rather than the campaign and polling only. The Commission has also allowed Election Assessment Missions to assess the level of preparedness for the upcoming elections.
WDN: What punitive measures have been put in place by the election commission to fight mix-ups, misinformation, vote buying, ballot stuffing, misrecording of votes, misleading or confusing ballot papers, electoral fraud, tampering with electronic voting machines, and destruction of ballot papers?
Ahmed Issack: Part VI of the Elections Act outlines an array of election offences, including fines, imprisonment and barring of candidates and political parties from contesting in elections. The Commission has the mandate to monitor the implementation of the Electoral Code of Conduct and any possible breaches thereof. The biggest challenge however is to get hold of admissible evidence for such alleged offences to allow for prosecution of the offenders. There has been in the best allegations on such offences, but no tangible evidence to support them. The Commission appeals to all Kenyans, political parties and aspirants to be vigilant and share evidence to support such allegations.
WDN: Who will be overseeing the safety of election boxes and election cases?
Ahmed Issack: The Commission has the mandate to oversee the election and the related processes. It works closely with security agencies to ensure safety of election materials, premises and materials of the Commission.
During election times, the Commission gets security personnel from the Kenya Police, the Administration Police and other agencies, where necessary. This however calls for an additional cost, which competes against others within the budget constraints.
WDN: Electorate manipulation usually happens during or immediately after election campaigns. Manipulation of democracy is the illegal act of authorities artificially controlling electorate composition for the sake of producing foregone result. How are you going to handle such cases in a country that is entirely responsive to vice?
Ahmed Issack: The Constitution and the law guide the Commission and all players in elections. Therefore, as long as each of the players act within the law, be it the Commission, the candidates or political parties, the Police or the Courts, the hand of the law would be applied indiscriminately.
WDN: How long will it take to resolve a disputed election?
Ahmed Issack: The Constitution provides that a dispute on the presidential election should be filed with the Supreme Court within 7 days; it should be heard and determined within 14 days. On the other hand, any dispute arising out of the other elections is to be filed at the High Court and to be heard and determined within 6 months.
This is a big step forward, considering that in the past there was no time within which the court could hear and determine an election petition.
WDN: Are the Kenyan Diaspora allowed to vote in the coming elections and how will their voting be regulated?
Ahmed Issack: The Constitution provides that citizens residing outside Kenya will have a progressive right to be registered and to vote. The progressive nature of this right takes into account many factors, including the review of the legislative framework, the planning and logistics concerned and of course, the cost component related to this right.
As a start, the Commission will register citizens residing outside Kenya at the designated Kenyan Missions abroad. This will take into account the cost and logistics of the particular Mission. The Commission will designate the staff of such Missions, other than the High Commissioners and their Deputies, to be registration and eventually polling officials.
For purposes of the forthcoming elections, the Commission will register citizens residing outside Kenya to vote for presidential elections and national referenda. Best practices of other jurisdictions and domestic constraints will inform future how citizens residing outside Kenya will vote in future.
WDN: Do prison inmates have the legal right to partake in the coming elections?
Ahmed Issack: In the past, prison inmates were not eligible to vote. Prior to the 2010 national constitutional referendum, the former Commission (IIEC) was ordered by the Court to register prisoners for the referendum. The Commission complied with the Court Order and registered prisoners and facilitated their voting during the referendum. This however had its challenges, out of the 30,000 estimated prisoners, only 5,000 registered to vote. Less than 50,000 of these eventually voted for one reason or another.
Based on the lessons learnt from this exercise, the Commission has put in mechanisms to provide for the registration of prisoners.
WDN: Kenya-Somalis in North eastern Kenya are mostly Nomads, concentrated in rural areas. How will you facilitate for those Kenyans to participate to exercise their voting rights?
Ahmed Issack The law requires the Commission to put in mechanisms to facilitate registration of eligible voters and to ensure that they exercise their constitutional right to vote. One such mechanism is mobile registration centres for pastoralist areas or areas with mobile communities. The Commission gazettes such polling stations are “mobile” to allow the registration staff to follow the communities to the grazing areas or watering holes. This strategy has greatly enhanced participation of such communities in the electoral process.
WDN: There were some irregularities and rigging election that took place in last election in some parts of North eastern Kenya. What would you tell Kenya- Somalis to entrust and lend full confidence in the election process so that their votes will be counted without any fixation this time?
Ahmed Issack :The systems and processes that the Commission has put in place have taken into account the recommendations of the “Kriegler” Report and have addressed the shortcomings identified in the Report that led to the 2007/8 post-election violence. The strategies adopted by the Commission have been arrived at through intensive consultations with various stakeholders in the electoral processes, including representatives of the target groups. This has enhanced public confidence in the Commission in particular and in the electoral process in general.
WDN: Will this be the end of the era for nominated or appointed governors or officials to head a region they do not belong?
Ahmed Issack The nomination of candidates envisaged by the law is for purposes of proportional representation of special categories of sections of the communities, including youth, persons with disabilities, women, workers, marginalized and minority groups. The law does not restrict their appointment to a particular region, but it does provide that the list should have regional and ethnic diversity.
WDN: Thanks for sharing your views with WardheerNews
Ahmed Issack: Thank you so much for providing me the opportunity to share with WDN readers the work of the Independent Electoral Commission of Kenya (IECK).
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