NAIROBI — One of the officials in charge of overseeing next week's presidential election in Kenya resigned Wednesday, fled the country and said the vote could not be fair.
Rather than contradict her, however, the election commission's chairman, Wafula Chebukati, also said he did not think a credible election was possible.
Roselyn Akombe, one of seven election commissioners, said in a statement that the Oct. 26 election had no chance of being credible and fair and that it had become "increasingly difficult" for her to perform her duties at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
"We need the commission to be courageous and speak out, that this election as planned cannot meet the basic expectations of a credible election," she said. "The commission has become a party to the current crisis. The commission is under siege."
The move is the latest blow to Kenya's 20-year-old democratic process and comes after a previous election prompted accusations of bias and protests. The social unrest and political uncertainty have hit an economy already faltering because of a severe drought.
Chebukati praised Akombe for her work and said he had not been able to reform the IEBC.
"I have made several attempts to make critical changes, but all my motions have been defeated by a majority of the commissioners. Under such conditions, it is difficult to guarantee free, fair and credible elections," he said at a news conference. "Without critical changes in key secretariat staff, free, fair and credible elections will surely be compromised."
President Uhuru Kenyatta handily won reelection Aug. 8 with 54 percent of the vote, but in an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court annulled the results a month later, citing irregularities, and ordered a new election. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga accused the IEBC of bias and demanded that it be scrapped.
On Oct. 10, Odinga pulled out of the fresh election, saying it could not to be free and fair under the current commission.
Kenyatta on Wednesday recommended that Kenyans turn to prayer to see the nation through the election.
"After consultation with religious leaders, I have reached this decision to call on all Kenyans to pray for their country in their mosques, temples and churches, culminating in a national day of prayer on Sunday," he said.
In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday from New York, Akombe, who holds a U.S. passport, said she fled to the United States because she feared for her life. She noted that a senior election official, Chris Msando, was killed before the August election.
Some election officials have been attacked in certain parts of the country, and the environment was not conducive for a general election, she said.
"It broke my heart in the last few days to listen to my staff in the field, [the] majority of whom truly want to do the right thing, express to me their safety and security concerns," she said.
"This was met with more extremist responses from most commissioners, who are keen to have an election even if it is at the cost of the lives of our staff and voters," Akombe said.
Her comments appear to echo the rallying cry of "no reforms, no elections" from Odinga's supporters ahead of the rerun.
"Akombe's resignation just shows us that there is a lot going on behind the scenes that we may not know, but what is for sure is that, as Raila said, we cannot go into the elections with the IEBC as it is," said Joe Oketch, an opposition supporter in Nairobi's Kibera slum.
For supporters of Kenyatta, however, the resignation changes nothing. They insist that the country must just get through this fraught electoral season.
"We all experience various challenges in our various places at work. We choose to stay or leave. She chose to leave," said James Mango, a trader at Nairobi's Wakulima market.
"Things have to move on," he said.
Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.