From the imposing darkness of a cold evening, Ezra Chiloba, the CEO of Kenya’s elections agency, IEBC, emerges and slinks into an empty restaurant along Riverside Drive, a well-worn cap pulled low over his face.
It is a few days after the announcement of the presidential results and, like his cap, he looks knackered but somehow still manages to hang on a thread of stoicism.
He doesn’t unbutton his blazer and mostly leaves his arms crossed across his chest the whole time, speaking calmly, efficiently, as if words and paragraphs are crystalware he has to balance atop each other.
Rarely, he surprises you with bursts of laughter, but mostly he’s structured and meticulous in character.
Mr Chiloba studied law at the University of Nairobi, has a Master’s in public policy from Central European University (Budapest) and is currently pursuing a PhD in political science and government (UoN).
He has hinted at his possible exit from the election agency in pursuit of his long term ambition of being a private sector business leader.
He met JACKSON BIKO for a drink. (Well, water for him, he’s a teetotaller).
You realise that things will never be quite the same again because there are people who hate you, people who love you and people who just want to have your babies…
(Laughs loudly) You know, I don’t have a life anymore. I have to camouflage a lot. I don’t think if you met me last week you’d recognise me. That’s changed now. I went for shopping at Galleria Mall and everyone just stares and stops. They want selfies and families call out and say, “Hey Chiloba come and say hello to my children!” Then I went to Yaya Centre and the same thing happened and I was like, oh my God, this is not nice. So my security guy was like, “CEO, I think next time just go home straight from the office.” But Kenyans being Kenyans, they’ll forget soon.
Is the attention by the womenfolk flattering or do you feel grossly objectified, do you feel like meat and is it an absolute outrage?
The question I keep asking myself is, “Where did that come from?” I’ve been in town for the last two and a half years and nobody has paid me a passing glance. (Chuckles) I’m not the type of guy who goes out searching for fame. I just focus on my job. This is some sort of brief national infatuation. On the flip side, it’s a good thing because it drew attention to elections with the younger demographic. They paid attention.
How has all this hullabaloo affected your immediate family?
I don’t know. (Laughs) My son is two and my daughter is eight so I don’t think they understand this. That leaves my wife...(Pause) Of course she reads these things but I don’t know how she takes them. But for us, the challenge has been much bigger than all these: to ensure that we are safe amidst this love-hate encounters.
Talking of wife. There’s talk about town that you’ve married in the Kenyatta family.
(Laughs) Well, as much as it might be flattering it’s not true. I have no relations with the Kenyattas. You know when I was appointed, they said I was appointed because of Jomo Gecaga, a guy I’ve never met in my life. When the ballot paper thing came up, they said oh, it was Chiloba and Muhoho who fixed this stuff. Never met these guys in my life! Never met the president one-on-one. I saw pictures the other day of me and a lady in a wedding line-up who is supposedly my wife. That’s not my wife. I was in a wedding two years ago as the best man and the lady—an MP’s wife, was the best maid.
What do you think was your greatest weakness as the CEO of IEBC?
(Pause) I think I gave a lot of people the benefit of doubt. When I got there, there are certain changes that we needed to have effected at a certain time to strengthen the organisation that didn’t happen. So people think that I was too slow in making certain decisions that were critical at the time but on reflection, it is just the idea that you want to give each person a chance. People can be better.
There are certain critical decisions that we needed to have made much earlier which we did not. So what that meant is that we had to use extra resources to compensate for the weakness that the organisation might have had.
Then I trusted. That’s the mistake that I made when I was dealing with the politicians, especially. There are members of my staff who also said I’m too strong-willed and don’t accept alternative view. One year later, I think they also saw the style of work, the expectations, and they quickly adjusted.
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Are you satisfied with the process of the just concluded election, will your children one day look back and say their father presided over a solid and credible process, is your conscience clear?
I’m 200 per cent confident. I can tell you that maybe because of my upbringing, sticking to the rules is very important for me, so are my personal values. And at my age why would I want to mess up systems? I have children who I want to grow in a country that I can be proud of and this was an opportunity to try and demonstrate that the right things can be done. I remain undeterred by the propaganda flying around.
You lose friends, I’ve lost many. People look at me differently. My phone currently has over 5,000 unread messages ranging from the good to threats. But I can tell you this, if I were to do it again, I would do the same, same thing.
Has this experience sort of stirred the politician in you?
(Laughs) I don’t know. One of the things I know about myself is that I grew up and I’ve been trained for public service. Although my ambition after I left the UN was to join the private sector, I wanted to be a CEO in some private sector at the age of 39. Now I’m 39. (Laughs) So I don’t know whether that will happen. In terms of political ambitions, very remote chances. After doing what I’ve done, the job, the responsibility I’ve held, I ask myself what else.
I’ve interacted with politicians, I see how they behave, I know who they are… seriously, okay, should I do the same things? It will take lots of introspection to come to a conclusion that I’m actually headed into politics.
Called upon, would you preside over another General Election?
I don’t know for sure. Whilst I love challenges, the only thing I don’t like is doing the same thing over and over again. I avoid monotony. This was an unparalleled experience and I’m glad so far, all the efforts invested in the last two and a half years, have gotten us to where we are. Would I do this again? I think that’s gone. It’s passed.
Someone mentioned that you are an SDA church elder, and I thought, “really?” So is it true?
(Chortles) I was brought up an Adventist and I grew up in church for a long time. While at the University of Nairobi, we, the youths, used to have a congregation at the university so that’s where the title elder came. I was one of the leaders. Now I’m not a church elder. Of course I used to be at Lavington SDA were I was engaged actively in church. I’m liberal in many senses, I question a lot of stuff especially the construction of reality and how the church constructs reality, and how reality plays out itself. I try to balance the sense of rational thinking and faith and faith remains my moral compass in life.
Our elections are obviously very polarising and unfortunately someone in your position will draw the same feelings. This is going to be a monkey on your back for a while, are you conscious of this fact?
Like I said, you don’t have many friends when doing this type of job. The question I ask myself is, if history will have to judge me, on what basis would that be? So I set up parameters, did I follow the law? Yes. Did I make the right decisions when it was necessary? Yes. Were people pleased along the way? Was everyone happy? Not necessarily so, because it did not matter.
Legacy is not being written now, it’s not being affirmed by the people now. It’s about the guys who will come after us. When they look back, will they see a pattern or a product of decisions or actions and be proud that actually we made the right decisions, we did the right thing? That’s the satisfaction that I get.
It’s about the future, not the present. And that’s how we build resilient institutions. These politicians, you meet them and they’ll tell you, “chief, you know, leave politics with us. You just do your job.” And I’m like, “I’m just doing my job.” Because at the end of the day they are politicking and the rules of politics are totally different. (Pause) They don’t like order, they thrive in disorder, so mine is to ensure that we’re just doing what’s orderly.
How much did the chatter on social media affect you as the CEO?
(Pause) I think it’s just been prominent in the last couple of days. The first instance it came as a surprise. When I became aware of it I thought, “OK, what’s going on here?” but given the fact that we were in the middle of a critical process, I just blocked my ears and eyes. My philosophy is — if you’ve seen something you want you have to focus on getting it. Just keep your eyes on the ball. So ...it didn’t bother me.
Did you attend Sabbath this past Saturday?
No. I haven’t been to church for quite a while — which also kind of made me lose friends. (Chuckles). But like I said before, this was not just a job, I consider it service and every opportunity required me to make a difference while at the Commission. I haven’t consistently gone to church for the last six months but that does not mean I’ve lost the faith. (Chuckles) It means it was a service to my country.
What surprised you the most about this experience?
(Pause) I mean, I’ve gone through different phases of this process. I always thought I knew a lot about the business of politics having worked in a more or less similar field before. I thought I knew a lot about IEBC until I got in then you realise it’s a totally new place. That forces you to have a mind shift and adjust accordingly.
You can’t approach an institution like this with a Mr. fix-it attitude, you just get there and try and understand the organisation and then adjust. You quickly realise that when you manage politicians don’t expect that they are going to say thank you. There are no accolades, it’s not a celebrity place. It’s a place where you let go a lot of privileges to get things done.
If you were to advise the next CEO of IEBC, what would you tell them?
(Sighs) You got no friends in town so just do your job. Since it’s a political process, it doesn’t matter how long it takes just stick to the rules. Also, never ever receive praise from a politician because they’ll abandon you the next day. A politician doesn’t love you, there’s nothing like that. It’s self-interest.
So now? What next?
I haven’t been on leave for the last two and a half years. This historic moment is over and I’m satisfied with everything. I want to take a holiday, spend time with family, go back to doing what I used to do with friends I still have. I want to watch my daughter play with her two dogs.
(Pause) This moment is also a contradiction in a sense; satisfaction and anxiety. I set out to run a very good election, technically effective, efficient, and credible and I’m confident that happened. The anxiety is wondering what’s going to be the end game for the country. Because having a politically stable society is important for me, but then again I have no control over that.
Do you secretly love your new nickname — Chilobae? You can be honest with me…
(Laughs loudly) Oh boy. Can I tell you something? Do you know what my private e-mail address has always been? It’s Chiloba with an “e” at the end. So I guess I have always been Chilobae.
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