Composure to crisis in 10 months
On January 18th 2017, Wafula Chebukati walked away from relative obscurity in his law firm and straight into the eye of a fiery storm that is the chairmanship of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, a position whose previous two occupants, to put it mildly, left under acrimonious circumstances.
But like all new employees, Chebukati took over his role with a newfound, albeit, premature zeal. He had to impress. He had to make his mark. And again, just like his predecessors, he promised Kenyans the world and everything in it.
Somehow though, fate has conspired to dash his hopes. A series of unfortunate events threaten to consign him to the same fate that befell those who walked the chairmanship path before him and emerged from the other side with blistered feet.
“Our intention is to anchor whatever decisions we make in the law. The rule of law is our safeguard. We also intend to be very open to stakeholders and to address all issues amicably. I know a referee’s job is not one that involves pleasing everyone. Our business is to achieve a credible poll,” he told the Kenyan press in February, just a week into the new job.
During the interview in his 6th Floor office of Nairobi’s Anniversary Towers, he sat upright. Looked bright in the face and was full of energy. Every media appearance he gave was reassuring. Everything was under control and for the first time in Kenya’s elections history, this east African nation was going to have a near perfect electoral process.
On September 1st, while addressing the media for the first time since the supreme court ruled that his commission bungled the election, his shoulders had drooped a little, his glow faded. His spectacles sliding further down the bridge of his nose. He looked like a man on whose shoulders the weight of a nation had been placed. But, to his credit, Chebukati wore the weight well.
His composure had escaped him. After reading a short statement in which he vowed IEBC would sort its internal mess out, he walked away from the reporters trying to decode his message, then walked back out to the dozens of cameras zooming in on him, clarified a point, walked halfway away from the media spectacle then, like a man with pending, urgent business , walked back out to face the press again. This time all alone, all the other commissioners had melted away.
As a lawyer, perhaps he had too much faith in the rule of law and what the law can achieve for a man under the microscope whose every word could be interpreted politically. And now his gait is laboured. Speech punctuated with longer than usual poses and his trademark smile similar to that of a smitten school boy is slowly sliding away and replaced with something close to a smirk. The pressures of what is turning out to be one of the country’s hardest job might be on its way to claiming yet another victim and last week, the now open spat between him and his CEO Ezra Chiloba took another turn for the worst.
On September 7th Chebukati allegedly took to issuing a scathing memo to Chiloba tasking him with explaining himself over a raft of issues that might be interpreted to have impacted on the credibility of the elections.
In it, Chebukati sounds stern and direct. Those who know him say this is his vintage self. They also say he very often cuts the image of a school principal who may appear aloof to the cheeky students but knows all the details of a night of debauchery and mischief that the students previously had. The favourite uncle who will condone the naughtiness of a wayward nephew only to not only snitch on him in front of the parents but volunteer to dish out the punishment too.
It is inconceivable that he would be unaware of the kind of failings he alluded to in the memo to Chiloba. And if he was unaware, then his rant should condemn him to an even worse fate than that of his CEO and further the myth of a position cursed, a position with only one known outcome- tragedy of epic proportions reminiscent of the story of Oedipus in Greek mythology.
Oedipus was a tragic hero of Greek mythology, a king doomed to a dire fate because he unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. His story is the tale of someone who, because he did not know his true identity, followed the wrong path in life.
Once he had set foot on that path, his best qualities could not save him from the results of actions that violated the laws of gods and men. Oedipus represents two enduring themes of Greek myth and drama: the flawed nature of humanity and an individual’s powerlessness against the course of destiny in a harsh universe.
Chebukati might not be an Oedipus, but the position he finds himself in represents the Greek god’s dilemma. The scandal around his office exposes him to the flawed nature of humanity and his own powerlessness against what seems to be a course of destiny in a harsh Kenyan political reality.
When he was being vetted by parliament to be chair of the commission, Chebukati walked into the assembly armed with an election operations manual. Perhaps he anticipated technical questions about elections from the parliamentarians. It looks like he is some chapters away from completing it.
For a man who exuded so much faith, the rain is certainly coming down on his parade, and the man born during the rainy season needs to find something to hold on to- fast, if not, the water from the phenomenon he was named after might just sweep him away.
“Our intention is to anchor whatever decisions we make in the law. The rule of law is our safeguard. We also intend to be very open to stakeholders and to address all issues amicably. I know a referee’s job is not one that involves pleasing everyone. Our business is to achieve a credible poll,” he said in that February interview by Sunday Standard writer Nzau Musau.
He is clearly a man who believes in the law. And the law gave him a second chance at refereeing another bloody duel.
On the eve of the August 8th polls, perhaps sensing the gathering of an ominous cloud, he went biblical and quoted a verse from Mark chapter 8 verse 36:
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Story originally published in the Standard on September 10th 2017.