On March 4th Kenya will hold its first general election since the 2007/8 post election violence which left over 1,000 dead and 300,000 displaced. That election was between the incumbent Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, the now prime minister. Violence erupted after Odinga accused Kibaki of rigging the tightly-contested election. Odinga is a Luo and Kibaki a Kikuyu. There has never been a Luo president. Tribal tension between the two communities erupted and the bloodshed was only ended after intense mediation from the African Union and the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The negotiations resulted in a power-sharing deal, an investigation into the causes of the violence which produced the Waki and the Kriegler reports and a new constitution.
Since then Kenya has taken steps forward. In 2010 it held a peaceful referendum to vote in the new constitution. The constitution devolves power (to some extent) from the presidency vesting it instead in the judiciary, legislature and local governments. It also lays the ground for reforms of the judiciary, the police, campaign finance and the media as well as making provisions for female politicians and underrepresented communities. The new configuration of power laid out by the constitution will have enormous implications for both the election and the next presidency.
The current situation:
The election is shaping up to be another very close call. The two main contenders are Raila Odinga, the previous contender and Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu. A poll from the credible IPSOS Public Affairs body, conducted on the January 25th, reported that Odinga’s CORD alliance currently has 46% of the vote whereas Kenyatta’s Jubilee alliance is close behind with 40%. The new constitution states that a candidate must get 50% of the vote to win and must have a 25% majority in 24 counties (just over half of the 47). As it stands neither candidate is likely to fulfill these criteria. This raises the possibility of a hotly contested second round vote between Odinga and Kenyatta. Gabrielle Lynch, a lecturer at Warwick and a specialist in Kenyan politics, comments that the situation is unpredictable. She states that although violence is in no way inevitable, the close nature of the contest leaves scope for dispute. Amid an atmosphere of suspicion, any indication of electoral malpractice could stoke tension and lead to violence.
The International Criminal Court Trial:
All commentators agree that the trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague is the single most important factor shaping the elections. Four politicians have been charged with crimes against humanity for stoking election violence in 2007/8. The two most prominent are Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. In the last election the two men were on opposite sides of the fence with Ruto, a Kalenjin standing by the Luo Odinga, reflecting a traditional allegiance between the two tribes. But in December the election took an unexpected twist when Ruto and Kenyatta announced that they had buried their differences and had formed an alliance. Ruto is running to be prime minister alongside Kenyatta.
The move was widely hailed as a cynical political ploy to maximise both candidates’ chances of election. The ICC trial has raised the stakes. Both Ruto and Kenyatta have a lot to lose; both know that winning the election would improve their chances in the international court. Both men have agreed to comply with the trial which is unlikely to be resolved within this parliamentary term. This presents the international community with the problematic possibility of dealing with a democratically-elected President who is complying with all international regulations, who has the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty and yet who is charged with crimes against humanity.
In aligning the Kalenjin and Kikuyu, the Jubilee Alliance has changed electoral dynamics. If it is accepted by mutually distrustful communities then it could diffuse tension particularly in the Rift Valley, the site of the worst of the violence in 2008.
The ICC trial has on the one hand reminded Kenyan politicians that the world is watching their actions, and impunity no longer exists. On the other, it has brought a great deal of uncertainty to the election, regarding whether an indictee can and should run and whether they will be able to discharge their presidential duties if on trial whilst acting in power.
The Electoral Commission:
The Kriegler report which investigated the causes of the 2008 violence identified the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) as a fundamentally flawed body whose poor management of the election was a big contributor to the violence. Accused of election rigging and lack of transparency, the ECK was dissolved.
In 2011 The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was formed with commissioners vetted and approved by parliament in transparent hearings. The election hinges on the faith of the public in the IEBC’s ability to deliver credible elections. Nic Cheeseman, a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford and a specialist in processes of democratization, emphasizes the difficulty of the IEBC’s task. Although he says there is a genuine will in the Commission to deliver a safe and fair election, the delayed start of voter registration has placed enormous pressure on the electoral timeline. Cheeseman upholds that the IEBC currently enjoys a high level of public confidence. This is due in part to its use of bio-metric technology for the registration process; voters perceive technology to lessen the chance of human tampering and therefore to be more trustworthy. New mechanisms such as texting in results to an automated system further reduce the chance of tampering and enhance the Commission’s credibility.
However, as well as timetable issues, Cheeseman highlights the problem of voter education. A high number of voters are said to expect the elections to be conducted electronically. But this is not the case; only the registration was to be done electronically. As has been mentioned, technology increases voter confidence. Should voters be disappointed on election day, this may stoke suspicion against the IEBC.
Justin Willis, a lecturer at Durham and a specialist on the Kenyan coastal area, plays down the potency of the Mombasa Republic Commission (MRC) calling them an incoherent organisation. The MRC is a separatist organisation that has been calling for the secession of the coastal region since 2008. It played a pivotal role in the Mombasa riots last year and has called for a boycott of the election. However, this seems to have largely been ignored; registration numbers for the coast have been strong. Willis identifies the coast as a potential votebag for both sides as polls show there are a large number of undecided voters. The coastal contest will be fierce and unpredictable with mobilization along ethnic lines. Long standing tensions over land in the district led to violence in the Tana river area in September 2012 and will be a key issue in the election. Politicians allegedly use local land grievances to whip up support and exploit ethnic divisions. Willis predicts localized outbreaks of violence especially around Mombasa which could escalate. Any confusion on election day and any rumours of malpractice could stoke popular suspicion. The coastal people want to have a political stake in their future, and if this isn’t granted through the electoral process, violence could become their outlet.
In 2007/8 the media were unprepared; election results were delayed, adding to the tension. Media outlets were accused of taking sides and providing platforms for hate speech. Both the Waki and the Kriegler reports contained recommendations for improved media regulation. Joshua Arap Sang, a DJ at Kass FM, is one of the four standing accused at the ICC trial for his role in inciting violence.
In this election both Gabrielle Lynch and Nic Cheeseman agree that the media has a crucial role to play. Amidst high levels of public mistrust, the media have a duty to fully report all events but to do so in a responsible objective way. Gabrielle Lynch also emphasizes the importance of social media which facilitates the spreading of inflammatory and unfounded rumours.
Memories of previous violence act as a strong force for peace; great efforts have been made in Kenya to guard against a repeat of 2007/8. However, the situation remains uncertain, with a close presidential race and high levels of popular unease. The new constitution, the electoral commission and the media will play a key role in ensuring fair and peaceful elections. Depending on the outcome, the election results could have significant long-term repercussions for Kenya’s international position.
- ‘Kenya Ahead of the Elections’ event at Chatham House 31st January:
Dr Nic Cheeseman, Hugh Price Fellow in African Politics, University of Oxford,
Associate Professor Gabrielle Lynch, Department of Politics and International Studies, Warwick University, Professor Justin Willis, Department of History, Durham University
- Crisis Group report ‘Kenya’s Election 2013’ 17th January 2013