Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission chair Ahmed Issack Hassan regrets taking up the job that made his a household name and put him at the centre of intense political heat, controversy, speculation and threats to his life.
Had he listened to his family, he says, he would not have taken the job that generates love and hate in equal measure.
One year after conducting what is easily Kenya’s most watched General Election since independence, Mr Hassan has told the Sunday Nation that he had hesitated to take the job up that would put him at the heart of an enduring controversy.
He found himself on the receiving end of powerful propaganda machinery and received threats and insults on text messages from masked numbers.
The controversy over the vote was set off by the belief within Cord that the presidential election was below par, and that Jubilee’s Uhuru Kenyatta should not have been declared the winner. The matter went to the Supreme Court which found that the election was free and fair. But there are those who believe this to be untrue.
“It’s a thankless job. I regret that I applied for this job,” the energetic-looking IEBC honcho told the Sunday Nation in an interview on Friday.
“I have had to contend with all manner of tantrums on social media and even rumours that I was bribed. Or that I was dying of cancer.”
But he is proud today that he pulled it off and the conduct of six elections in one day has won him, the Commission and Kenyan voters acclaim around the world. In his office are trophies that he has received from institutions which deal with elections, while he has been elected to chair the Commonwealth Election Network.
It’s one year this week since the March 4, 2013 General Election that Mr Hassan says he could have delivered better if only he had had more time to prepare.
The Commissions’ plans were hurried, since there had not been enough time to settle and get down to work before they had to conduct the massive exercise.
Coupled with stringent and rigorous procurement procedures, most things were done in last-minute rushes.
Mr Hassan, whose term ends in November 2017, says that IEBC’s faith in technology failed what he thinks would have been an otherwise flawless process.
“The biggest lesson is that you have to test technology in good time,” he said. “As the African proverb goes, you never test the depth of a river with both feet.”
A year later, he has had to advise election officials from Tanzania, South Sudan, Libya, Uganda and Nigeria who sought counsel and his one line has been; “Do not deploy technology for the first time on election day.”
Had his plans fallen in place, every voter would have walked into the polling station, and been identified by their fingerprints.
Voters would have been issued with ballot papers to select their choice candidates for all the six positions, cast their ballots and waited for the result.
At the end of the day, IEBC staff and agents should have counted the votes at every station and the results transmitted electronically to the tallying centre at Bomas for onward broadcast to Kenyans and the world.
But the electronic systems failed. Where everyone had expected to receive presidential results from late evening, the system worked a while and then failed, raising anxiety and political temperatures as well.
It never helped matters that the electronic voter identification system that was supposed to keep off impostors and dead voters worked in only 40 per cent of polling stations and clerks had to revert to the manual records.
That technology failure marked the start of a grueling three days for Mr Hassan.
“On March 4th, 5th and 6th, I never slept. I lost my appetite completely,” Mr Hassan says.
In addition to the internal anxiety generated by failing systems, he received numerous calls from Jubilee presidential candidates Uhuru Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto, and Cord’s Raila Odinga, their agents, supporters and the media.
An anxious Kofi Annan, who brokered the deal that ended the chaos following the bungled 2007 General Election, was also on Mr Hassan’s neck, seeking to understand what was going on.
Social media was in a frenzy with all manner of rumors.
The whole world was watching, and diplomats and other representatives of foreign governments and election observers wanted to know why the systems had failed and what would happen to the presidential vote.
In his analogy, “If I were to send you money on M-Pesa, it means that I have a fast way of doing it and you can withdraw the physical cash. However, if the system fails, there is nothing to stop me from taking a matatu or using other physical means to bring you the same amount of money.”
On March 6, when the commissioners realised they had to revert to the manual system, they decided to work in shifts. Only then could the besieged Mr Hassan get some sleep.
The stakes were high.
It was the first General Election after the infamous, bungled, 2007 precursor which degenerated into bloodshed, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, displacing hundreds of thousands and sinking Kenya into what some called the darkest chapter in post-independence history.
In fits of anxiety, presidential candidate agents demanded to scrutinise every last detail of what the commission was to announce – a repetition of what polling station agents had already done.
“We had allowed them to come and watch us receive the results and then announce them, but they demanded to verify every entry.
“It was at this juncture that the commission decided that they would move the agents to a different boardroom and only give them documents in a bid to make things move. This decision has been repeatedly and intensely criticised by the Cord leadership as a scheme to rig elections.
But Mr Hassan is satisfied with the presidential election, its challenge at the Supreme Court and the outcome.
“To nurture democracy, we need to concede defeat and accept losses and look inwards. Maybe we will find better answers there. Mr Raila Odinga accepted the outcome of the petition, and right now, is rebuilding his party for the future,” Mr Hassan says.
The IEBC said that the commission is about to complete an internal audit report which they will share with the public and political parties by next month.
“The best teacher is your last mistake,” he says in hindsight. “We must give ourselves time to build institutions and not disband them every five years.
A year after the election, and with a good number of the senior officials he worked with facing charges in court over procurement related charges, Mr Hassan does not think that the electronic systems were sabotaged.
He says the “powerful propaganda” applied against the commission has taken its toll on some employees who have sought jobs elsewhere, affecting institutional memory.
But he says that the biggest loophole opened with the disbandment of the IEBC’s precursor, the Interim Independent Election Commission which conducted the 2010 referendum on the new Constitution.
According to him, politicians erred gravely by throwing out a majority of the experienced commissioners who had served in the interim team.
According to him, politicians erred gravely by throwing out a majority of the experienced commissioners who had served in the interim team. It was the same reason that his family had asked him to turn down the job – that he would be working with a virtually new team.
The commission was also affected temporarily by the decision to replace chief executive officer James Oswago. After the new commission took office, they advertised the job.
The matter ended up in court which ordered that Mr Oswago should stay to the end of his term.
“After the court made its finding, we found a way of working together and it was not an issue afterwards,” he said.