Sunday, December 21, 2008



By Oscar Obonyo

Top Government officials have declined to meet representatives of a US poll body caught in controversy over the 2007 General Election.

The Standard On Sunday has exclusively learnt that key officials of the International Republican Institute (IRI) are in the country and have been pleading with Government authorities to "put in a good word" for them. The group is chaired by Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in the November election against Barack Obama, and it is fighting to salvage its credibility.

The IRI team pitched tent at Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s office at Treasury House last Wednesday and Thursday, where they pleaded with the PM, last year’s presidential candidate, to save the organisation’s image.

"Our concern, which I am confident you appreciate, is that any skepticism of IRI’s integrity as an institute will directly affect our ability to work not only in Kenya but around the world," says Elizabeth Dugan, IRI’s Vice President for Programmes, in a letter addressed to the PM.

Coincidentally, the letter to the PM is dated December 16, 2008, the very day Parliament sounded the death knell on the local polls body — Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK). Legislators unanimously voted to amend a clause in the Constitution stripping ECK commissioners of security of tenure in office. The electoral body was found guilty of bungling last year’s presidential polls and the changes executed by Parliament are part of the wider ongoing institutional reforms.

New evidence now indicates that a host of other institutions — local and international — risk going down with ECK over the highly discredited poll. IRI is presently on the spot. "The Nation" a New York newspaper and "New York Times" magazine first published IRI’s predicament early this year and have consistently audited the institution.

Pressure on IRI has been mounting worldwide, particularly from the US media and non-governmental organisations that accuse the institute of withholding exit polls of last year’s presidential polls. While critics do not implicate the body in rigging the Kenyan polls or perpetuating the post-election violence, they indict it for failing to "arrest the situation" by concealing the truth.

IRI withheld the results, indicating the PM won the election with a margin of six points, at the instigation of the US Government. IRI eventually released the Election Day Exit poll results in August, eight months later.

But terming the allegations as "absolutely false", Dugan explains that IRI did not release the data "because we had concerns, which proved true, that the initial results of the exit poll were inaccurate".

"We want to inform you of these allegations and ask for your consideration in dispelling the fabrications and attesting to the quality and professionalism of IRI’s work in Kenya," she says in a letter to the PM.

An aide of Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi, who is privy to IRI’s mission in the country, told The Standard On Sunday that the ODM leadership was unhappy with the way the institute handled its findings.

"I am aware that the party leaders have been consulting and the PM has, in particular, made it clear to IRI that had they released the poll results on time, it would have made a huge difference and even saved lives," said the official.

Apparently the IRI top guns entered the country quietly and neither is their mission known to many, including Cabinet ministers. Forestry and Wildlife Minister Dr Noah Wekesa, who has over the years worked closely with the institute was shocked at "how IRI top bosses can quietly sneak into the country without getting in touch".

"I know IRI leaders too well and if they are in the country in search of any form of recommendation, I want to publicly invite them to look for me if they are faced with difficulties. This Government appreciates IRI’s work and we shall help them," said Wekesa.

The Kwanza MP, who helped mould President Kibaki’s Narc and PNU coalition outfits in 2002 and 2007, has trained under IRI and been seconded by the institution as an election observer in many countries.

The voices for and against IRI are so divergent and replicate the PNU-ODM divided opinion, as was the case shortly before and after December’s hotly contested presidential elections.

Curiously, the Chairman of IRI is Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican’s challenger in November’s US polls against Democratic Party’s Barack Obama, now the US President-elect. By the time Kenyans went to the polls Obama’s presidential bid had not peaked. In fact, former US First Lady Hillary Clinton was the frontrunner for the Democratic ticket.

The American link in the Kenyan polls controversy is particularly discomforting to US State Department and US Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger. According to a report by Karen Rothmyer, Ranneberger told the Washington Post on December 31 that "the US would accept" the announcement that Kibaki had won.

And talking to the local media outside KICC — tallying centre for presidential votes — moments after President Kibaki had been declared victor, Ranneberger urged Kenyans to accept the results "and move on". The State Department went ahead and congratulated Kibaki, only to retract a few hours later, when election protests turned violent.

"IRI faltered and chances are they did it to protect American and Republican interests. But now they realise after the Democrats’ victory that Obama is not (President George W) Bush and that he will embark on a serious audit of all public institutions," observes Director of Haki Focus, Mr Harun Ndubi.

The lawyer regrets that IRI has lost credibility and instead embarked on playing politics.

Separately, sources close to the PM indicated that the ODM presidential candidate was in deep dilemma over how to handle the IRI question. Although irked by the developments of last December, Raila is reportedly not keen on heaping blame on a foreign establishment.

The PM would rather exert his energy on re-organising local institutions that may have played a lead role in bungling the 2007 polls. Indeed, this explains why Raila has been focused more on having ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu and his entire team sent home.

Like Wekesa, Raila has a long-standing relationship with IRI spanning over 20 years. The PM has participated in its training and planning sessions and served as an election observer in many countries, including Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

It is probably because of these links that he is at pains to react to IRI’s request. However, after three days of soul searching, The Standard On Sunday learnt that the PM put in a carefully worded brief response.

"It has been my experience that IRI’s work in Kenya has been professional and has helped to strengthen democracy in my country. Overall, I appreciate IRI’s past work in Kenya," says the PM in a letter addressed to IRI President, Lorne W Craner.

While Kenyans have no control of IRI’s activities, the noose is tightening around the ECK commissioners. They are destined to pack up and leave once the President assents to a new law that strips them of security of tenure.

More institutions are destined to fold and heads to roll over a series of planned institutional reforms. On line at the moment are police reforms that could see change of guard at Vigilante House.

The Justice Philip Waki-led Commission to Investigate Post-Election Violence (Cipev) further touches on the Civil Service, in particular the Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, whom it accuses of usurping the mandate of security agencies.

But it is the bit about politicians, believably listed in the so-called secret envelope, that is bound to generate even more fire.

That IRI, a foreign institute, already feeling the heat of this fire lit by the events of last December, is a critical warning message. However, the threat that local institutions that may have fuelled last year’s bloody events will go down with ECK, is real.