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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 December 2007, 12:07 GMT
Kivuitu: Poll ringmaster
By Noel Mwakugu
BBC News, Nairobi

Samuel Kivuitu, the man in charge of ensuring that Kenya's 27 December election is free and fair is a blunt-speaking man, not afraid of challenging his political leaders.
ECK chairman Samuel Kivuitu
Samuel Kivuitu is a devout Christian

But in the run-up to what looks set up be an extremely tight race, both government and opposition supporters have voiced their concerns about him and the Electoral Commission of Kenya he leads.

Mr Kivuitu was due to step down this month, but his term was only extended in November, under pressure from foreign diplomats.

Kenya has a long history of complaints about poll-rigging but the outcome of the 2002 poll, organised by Mr Kivuitu, was widely accepted.

The question is what will Mr Kivuitu do if there are, as predicted, attempts to rig the poll.

Latest opinion polls suggest President Mwai Kibaki is on course to lose out to opposition candidate Raila Odinga.

So the rumour mill is already grinding out theories about just how the Kibaki campaign might contrive to turn things around.

Already the political parties have expressed concerns over the revelation of numerous faults in the electoral register, suggesting thousands of voters could be disenfranchised.

Defiance

Mr Kivuitu was first recognised as someone not afraid to speak his mind as a student leader at the University of Dar es Salaam.

He reportedly berated former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere at a public forum, over plans to make the country a one-party state.

When people are appointed without statutory guidelines, we can have thieves and people without integrity at the commission
Samuel Kivuitu
"If you want to be a dictator then come and address us," he told East Africa's most revered president, in an act of defiance rarely - if ever - imitated by others.

After President Kibaki announced last month that he was renewing Mr Kivuitu's five-year term at the helm of the ECK, he was equally outspoken.

"Too long," he said, adding that he would rather be allowed to retire and study theology.

Very few Kenyan public servants are inclined to speak in such a way to their head of state.

But to those familiar with Mr Kivuitu, this is nothing new.

He also has a sense of humour which his confidants say is fuelled by an unexpected penchant for reading comics.

They say he is a humble man who takes the time to chat with street hawkers and who will do his own shopping, alone, at his local supermarket.

Mr Kivuitu is a staunch Christian and says: "I have learnt a lot from the Bible, it is so enriching and rewarding in its messages."

Vigilant

Some of those connected to the Kibaki re-election campaign were less than happy with news of Mr Kivuitu's reappointment, branding him "an opposition sympathiser".

This is partly because during the 2005 constitutional referendum campaign, Mr Kivuitu openly criticised President Kibaki's government for using public resources for their "Vote Yes" campaign.

President Kibaki submits his nomination papers to the KEC in November 2007
Some doubt the neutrality of the commissioners

In the event, the majority of the electorate rejected the proposed constitutional reforms - a victory for the "No Vote" campaign led by Mr Odinga, who now is challenging Mr Kibaki for the top job.

While the Kibaki camp worries about the ECK chairman's independent streak, others are concerned about the neutrality of some of Mr Kivuitu's commissioners.

The opposition say nearly half of them are new-comers, appointed without cross-party consultation, who have no experience of handling elections.

They suggest individual commissioners may be vulnerable to manipulation by the executive and question whether the chairman can ensure non-partisanship.

Mr Kivuitu is on record as admitting that the composition of his team plays a major role in the quest for a free and fair election.

"When people are appointed without statutory guidelines, we can have thieves and people without integrity at the commission," Mr Kivuitu said.

The chairman, who was first appointed to the electoral commission in 1992, is banking on his experience at home and abroad, such as when he served on the observer mission for South Africa's elections, to forestall anything underhand.

But Mr Kivuitu underlines that it is not only the ECK's role to ensure the poll is not rigged - all players in the elections need to be vigilant.

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