Kenya's 2017 election and its aftermath

August 16, 2017
After a fraught election, Kenya is teetering on the brink of a crisis which threatens to escalate. How could this happen? Is there any hope for reconciliation? An analysis by Elena Gadjanova of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen

Kenyans went to the polls on August 8 in one of the most hotly contested elections in the country’s history. The incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee party faced Raila Odinga of the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) for the second time in what was Raila’s fourth and last campaign for the presidency. The stakes of the race were very high because of the ‘winner takes all’ nature of Kenyan politics, historical score-settling between the leading presidential contenders, and looming battles over future succession. The election was also closely watched because for the first time, the effects of Kenya’s new devolved constitution were expected to be felt in its politics.

At the time of writing, the electoral commission has declared Uhuru Kenyatta as the winner with 54% of the vote. The opposition refuses to recognize the result, alleges widespread irregularities, and claims Raila was robbed of victory. Most international observer missions and a coalition of Kenyan NGOs have declared the election largely free and fair and the opposition has so far produced little evidence to back their claims. Nevertheless, protests have broken out in NASA strongholds, including in the capital Nairobi and in Western Kenya. A number of protesters have been killed in clashes with security agencies and Raila has called on his supporters to boycott work on Monday, 14 August, in response to these deaths. Positions are becoming more entrenched by the day and there is a real danger of escalation. How did it come to this point? What are the prospects for reconciliation?

Closely fought electoral campaigns are always polarizing, and particularly so in diverse societies with deep ethnic divisions. At the heart of Kenya’s current dangerous impasse is a combination of elections becoming more competitive, a ‘winner-takes-all’ view of politics, and institutions unable to guarantee the transparency and legitimacy of the electoral process.       

Six months ago, most observers were predicting an easy victory for Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice president and running mate, William Ruto. But over the course of the campaign, opinion polls showed the race narrowing and by early August it was too close to call. Both sides went all in: this was the most expensive electoral campaign in the country to date. It featured a rigorous schedule for the presidential contenders (Kenyatta and Ruto held 200 rallies in June alone), foreign consultants advising both sides, beefed up logistics and operations including brand new helicopters and sound equipment, and an all-out media campaign including sophisticated and coordinated social media outreach efforts. At the eve of the election, both the incumbent and the opposition were assuring supporters of victory.

Such assurances are important because most Kenyans view political power as closely linked to all kinds of opportunity – from infrastructure and development, to education, jobs, and housing. As a popular local saying goes, whoever captures the presidency is the one whose “turn it is to eat” for the next five years, while the rest are left out in the cold. Devolution was intended to alleviate this perception, but most political operatives I spoke to in Kenya in June still viewed presidential power as the ultimate prize. The problem is, there haven’t been that many turns in taking power, despite several decades of multi-party competition. The country is home to over 40 ethnic groups, yet three of its four presidents have been Kikuyu (including Uhuru Kenyatta), the other one a Kalenjin.

To make matters worse, most elections to date have not been free and fair. The 2007 election when Raila Odinga (an ethnic Luo) faced another Kikuyu incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was marred with extensive vote rigging. Most observers agree that Raila won, yet Kibaki was sworn in, sparking widespread protests and violence leaving over 1000 dead and more than 600’000 displaced. In 2013, when Raila faced Uhuru Kenyatta for the first time, there were problems with the electronic system put in place to protect the vote. This, together with inflated vote totals in incumbent strongholds led observers to seriously question Uhuru’s narrow first-round victory. Raila contested the result in the Supreme Court, but the Court upheld Uhuru’s victory.

It is against this background that we can better understand why the opposition has refused to accept the 2017 election result or seek recourse through existing institutions. There is no trust in the ability of institutions to guarantee the integrity of the electoral process. Whether this is based on reality this time around matters little in the face of overwhelming perception borne out of past experience. The brutal murder of a leading election official in charge of overseeing key electronic databases a week before the vote only fed this perception. Perhaps most worrying of all, a large part of the population now believes that change cannot be accomplished through the ballot box. This leaves very few other options, none of which good. Restoring faith in Kenya’s institutions will be a difficult process, but is the only way forward and must be attempted for the sake of long-term stability.   

Elena Gadjanova


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