The light was fading rapidly outside by the time William Samoei Ruto was declared Kenya’s president-elect yesterday evening. It capped a dramatic day that threatened to cloud an election that had, until then, shone bright with the hopes of a nation and the region.
Patience was already in low supply after what many criticised as the slow count of about 14 million votes cast last Tuesday – an agonising count in which Mr Ruto and his main rival, Raila Odinga, constantly exchanged the lead in the tally.
Patience thinned further when the clock struck three in the afternoon – the appointed hour at which the final declaration had been scheduled – without the ceremony getting underway at the Bomas of Kenya, a popular events venue.
A choir dutifully belted out patriotic and heart-warming songs, to which diplomats and other invited guests, including politicians from the two main opposing camps, swayed to, to stay awake and while away the hours.
Then after a week in which it felt as if nothing had happened, weeks happened in minutes. First, word trickled out that the last-minute delay had been caused by internal disagreements within the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) over the final results.
Then four of the seven IEBC commissioners, led by deputy chairperson Juliana Cherera, called an impromptu press conference at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi City centre to disown the long-awaited official results.
“We are not at Bomas because we cannot take ownership of the results that are going to be announced,” Ms Cherera told journalists at the press conference. She promised to give details at a later time, but refused to answer questions at the end of the brief press conference.
Within no time, news of the press conference had travelled to the Bomas, 10 kilometres outside Nairobi, sparking a brief but violent reaction from attendees believed to be supporters of Mr Odinga.
On resumption, things moved much faster than over the past week. Mr Wafula Chebukati, the chairperson of the IEBC, took to the podium to kick-start proceedings.
Bereft of his four colleagues, Mr Chebukati looked exhausted and eager to put the election behind him. The two other fellow commissioners who weren’t at Serena or at the Bomas with him, he announced, had been injured, but he did not say how, when, where, why or by whom.
But his staff, he revealed, had braved insults and harassment during the campaigns and the counting of the votes.
“I took an oath of office to serve this country and I have done my duty in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of the land,” he said, noting with discernible relief, that this was the last election he was managing.
“For those who will come, we have created for you what the Constitution envisaged; an independent electoral commission.”
He did not directly respond to the claims of his colleagues at the Serena that the tallying had been conducted in an “opaque manner” but in his defence, he added: “These results are in the public portal, the same results which I am reading here are the ones that are in the public portal.”
Those results, which he proceeded to read, put Mr Ruto across the line with 7,176,141 votes, or 50.49 percent of the valid votes cast.
The president-elect, when he spoke later, unsurprisingly threw his weight behind the official result and Mr Chebukati.
“The hero of this election is the IEBC led by Wafula Chebukati,” Mr Ruto said. “I say this with conviction that the IEBC amazed all of us. With the results in the public portal, all the servers were open. Everybody, all you needed was a simple calculator and you’d have the results.
“That became the game-changer in this election,” he said.
“I want to congratulate the IEBC for raising the bar and I want to say, without fear of any contradiction, that one Wafula Chebukati is our hero. Soft spoken but firm.”
More work ahead
Yesterday’s announcement of the official result should answer the question of who Kenya’s fifth president will be, but it also leaves President-elect Ruto with work to do before and after he takes power.
First is the matter of the streets. The official announcement sparked protests in heavily pro-Odinga areas in Kisumu, western Kenya, and in Kibra, a Nairobi suburb that includes the sprawling Kibera slum.
The initial protests seemed small and spontaneous and will probably fizzle out but after the post-election violence in 2007/2008 in which thousands were killed or displaced, this is a tinderbox that needs to be carefully managed.
Second is the possibility of a legal challenge against the official election result. It isn’t clear what evidence of malpractice, if any, the four IEBC commissioners have and whether it is enough to be argued in court.
But after Kenyan courts struck down the result of the 2017 presidential election and ordered a re-run, this remains a legal threat for Mr Ruto to overcome.
By press time, Mr Odinga’s camp was yet to speak out on the official announcement and whether they would be challenging it.
Notably, his running mate, Ms Martha Karua, said, in a tweet after the announcement, “it is not over till it is over”.
Should he successfully jump through these two hoops and get sworn in, Mr Ruto will face at least two other challenges once in office.