The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman, Isaack Hassan asks rhetorically, “How can you question our integrity and at the same time seek our services?” This question does not need an answer. For, the answer is implied within the question. “We will not give you the services you crave, if you question our integrity.”

Linguists and psychologists have taught us the notion of semantic priming. They talk about implicit memory. Exposure to one stimulus conjures up memory of another. This is because the two tend to go together. Thus if we are exposed to the stimulus “doctor” we are likely to think of “hospital” than “railway station.”

This is also called “associative priming.” Given one notion, your mind is primed to look for other notions associated with it. There could be dozens of notions associated with any one stimulus. For the stimulus “doctor,” some associated notions could be “nurse, medicine, injection, x-ray, clinic and theatre.”

However, Mr. Hassan makes our work fairly easy. He does not subject us to a wide search for association of thought. It is all contained in the self-same construct. In this case, the association is between the notions “question our integrity” and “not get our service.” He is saying, “We will not serve you, if you question our integrity.” Put differently, he is saying, “If you want us to serve you, don’t question our integrity.”

Never mind, if you find things like “semantic priming” too complicated. There is something simpler, which we all deal with everyday. It is called paralinguistic features. You have often heard someone ask, “How can you speak to me like that?” They might even add, “I don’t like your attitude.” Very often, how you say it tells it all. The same words uttered in exactly the same sequence will mean two very different things.

This is where paralinguistic features come in. And what are these features? They are verbal aspects of communication that don’t exactly include words. They include such things as body language, facial expressions, hand gestures, voice pitch, tone, intonation, hoarseness in the voice, loss of voice, breathing, mood among others.

These things can make us read you like an open book. The next time Mr. Hassan goes out to give a press conference, he would do well to think about these things. Paralinguistic features gave Mr. Hassan away as a visibly angry and edgy official. Even less controlled was Commissioner Thomas Letangule, who was with him.

On this particular occasion the IEBC officials were explaining to the Press why the IEBC rejected Cord’s signatures that are seeking for a referendum on the Constitution of Kenya. A million signatures are required. Cord could only garner slightly over 800,000, according to IEBC. Could IEBC have mischievously served Cord a cold dish out of bad blood?

Cord leaders accuse IEBC of foul play. They say that IEBC is the Jubilee Government’s confederate in trying to frustrate their referendum effort. Accordingly, Cord has promised to use “legal, extra legal and extra judicial methods” to meet their goal. I take special note of “extra legal” and “extra judicial.”

An “extra legal” action is an action that is not regulated by the law. In the same manner, an “extra judicial” action is an action that is not legally authorized. Cord leaders are therefore saying that they will now throw the laws to the dogs. They will use all means possible to get what they want, regardless that the methods are lawful or not.

This is where we have reached. The IEBC is telling Cord, “We are angry with you. You have questioned our integrity. We will not serve you.” For its part, Cord is saying, “Fair and square. We will now not even bother with you or with the courts. We will do it our own way. We don’t care what the laws say. We have lost faith in you and in the legal system generally.”

People’s perceptions about your integrity are part of what the philosopher Aristotle calls your personal ethos. They include things like your reputation, moral authority and trustworthiness. Each of us is responsible for cultivating this ethos. Even before you rise to address people, they are already inwardly and quietly saying something to themselves about you. It may be a good thing, or a bad thing. It all depends on the reputation you have cultivated. It could be, “It is always a delight to listen to this lady.” But it could also be, “What does this thief want to tell us this time? Look at the thief!”

We cannot blame people for what they think about us. The trouble begins the moment they tell us their thoughts. An institution like the IEBC’s reputation and that of its officials is unfortunately not a matter limited to their ethos. It is a matter of grave public concern. Expect disaster when a major interested party loses faith in the IEBC.

The world wakes up everyday to appalling allegations that undermine the ethos of IEBC officials. Theirs seems to be a long and sad tale of abuse of office. They have been cited in more scandals than I care to catalogue. They just have to come clean. Public outbursts of anger will not restore their wounded image.

Yet it is not just about wounded images. Perceptions on dynamics between IEBC and Jubilee could sink Kenya. It is instructive that Jubilee politicians treat the commission like a spoilt lapdog. Each time IEBC is called to probity, the first line of defence is invariably from Jubilee. This entrenches the perception that the commission could be a Jubilee instrument. Both Jubilee and IEBC have a duty to remove this dangerous perception ahead of next year’s elections. Pronouncements such as we have heard from Mr. Hassan do not help at all. They only move Kenya closer to the threshold.

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