Election Watch: Kenya’s 2017 general elections

Kenya’s last two general elections have been marred by violence and allegations of election fraud. This year, ensuring a transparent election will be key to maintaining political stability and remaining attractive to international investors. 

Photo © Stephen Butler / Shutterstock.com

On the campaign trail

On 8 August, Kenyans will cast their votes in local, county, legislative and presidential elections. As one of the largest and fastest-growing economies in east Africa, the stakes in this year’s elections are high. President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta is again the candidate of the ruling Jubilee Party, with his current deputy, William Samoei arap Ruto, as his running mate.

This year’s general elections will be a tight race between the incumbent president and the long-time opposition leader

Whether or not the election goes to a second-round run-off, the election campaign looks set to, once again, be a battle between Kenyatta and his long-time opponent, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and leader of the new opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance (Nasa), which was formed in January. Odinga has for the third consecutive election emerged as the main contender most likely to be able to challenge Kenyatta at the polls.

The two previous general elections – in 2007 and 2013 – were marred by violence and irregularities, which have divided Kenya ever since. So far, if the party primaries which began on 13 April are anything to go by, this year’s election campaign has been a mess. First, several primary elections across the country have been postponed, either due to technical issues relating to voting materials, such as voters’ registry and ballot papers, or fighting, or violent protests provoked by such errors.

The ODM delayed its primaries in the capital Nairobi on 25 April after youths, who allegedly suspected that fraud was being committed at the warehouse where the party stored its ballots, stormed the facilities three days earlier. Equally, the Jubilee Party re-ran 21 of its 47 county primaries due to delays and a higher-than-expected turnout, which led to a shortage of ballots.

Relatedly, many candidates who lost the primary elections in their respective constituencies have legally challenged the results, which many within Kenya’s civil society and political opposition claim were rigged. By 1 May, the Law Society of Kenya, the country’s premier bar association, confirmed that it had dismissed 70 of the 107 cases it had heard so far, out of a total 508 appeals received.

Furthermore, the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties (ORPP) in Nairobi was overwhelmed at the beginning of May as hundreds of candidates who had failed to obtain their party’s nomination flocked to the ORPP to register as independent candidates. This came as a deadline on 8 May was approaching. On 5 May, the ORPP had cleared as many as 2,700 out of a total 4,000 independent candidates, the largest number of independent candidates in the country’s history.

A history of violence

Given the violence that has surrounded the two previous general elections, the International Monetary Fund reduced its growth forecasts for Kenya in November last year from 6 per cent to 5.3 per cent for 2017, citing the forthcoming general elections as a potential cause of ‘political instability’. The importance of a free and fair election in Kenya is almost quintessential for the country to remain politically stable.

That matters not only for Kenya, but for the wider east Africa as the country serves as a regional business hub, and landlocked neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda and Uganda, depend on Kenya’s multi-sector infrastructure for their international trade. A brief look at the previous two general elections, and a wave of violent protests last year, is critical to understand why a free and fair election is essential this year.

Kenya descended into intense fighting after the conclusion of the 2007 general elections, in which Odinga was challenging the then-president, Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki won by a slim margin with 46 per cent of the votes at a time when Kenyan candidates only needed a simple majority. The conflict took a tribalistic turn, since Kibaki enjoyed strong support from the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group, while Odinga was supported by the Luo ethnic group as well as other minority groups. This virtually split Kenya between its eastern and central, pre-dominantly Kikuyu areas, and its western counties, which favoured Odinga.

Approximately 1,000 people lost their lives in post-electoral fighting, with another 600,000 displaced. Both Kenyatta and Ruto were accused by myriad actors of playing central roles in orchestrating the violence that followed, and the International Criminal Court, based in the Dutch administrative capital The Hague, charged them in 2010 with crimes against humanity committed during the several months of post-electoral violence.

The ICC dropped the charges against Kenyatta in December 2014, and against Ruto in April 2015, due to a lack of evidence and testimonials. However, the cases divided Kenya’s political spectrum between those who see the ICC as a neo-colonialist entity of the West seeking to exert influence over African countries, and those who consider it legitimate. Unsurprisingly, the splits broadly follow the same divisions, including along ethnic lines, created in the 2007 post-electoral unrest between Kalenjin, Kikuyu and Luo communities.

The importance of a free and fair election in Kenya is almost quintessential for the country to remain politically stable

The 2013 general elections were the first under a new constitution that was promulgated in 2010, which devolved powers to the counties, and created a bicameral legislature as well as a two-round election if none of the candidates gets an absolute majority. This was also the first time the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was organising the polls. Odinga was again the opposition frontrunner and was this time beaten by Kenyatta by fewer than 8,100 votes.

Although the post-electoral period remained much more peaceful than in the previous poll, Odinga and several others accused the IEBC of electoral fraud due to many technical irregularities and appealed the results at the Supreme Court. The court ruled that the results were valid, but recognised that there had been some technical faults.

The dispute was to become the precursor to a series of violent and disruptive weekly protests that occurred throughout May last year, when Odinga and the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord), which he was leading, called on the management of the IEBC to resign before this year’s general election. Several marches were violently dispersed by security forces who used tear gas and water cannon; on 23 May 2016, police shot one protester dead and injured five more in the western town of Kisumu, an opposition stronghold.

The chairman and several commissioners of the IEBC resigned in October 2016, and Cord and the Jubilee Party shared the responsibility for recruiting the next electoral board. A new board was announced in January this year. However, the pressure remains high on Kenya’s electoral bodies.

Technicalities that matter

The commotion around this year’s poll continues to be focused around Kenya’s institutional capacity to organise free and fair elections. A key concern has revolved around the country’s voter registry, which has grown by 37 per cent since 2013, equivalent to approximately 19.6 million people, or half the Kenyan population. Detractors claim that the voter roll includes ineligible voters, such as minors, as well as duplicates and the names of dead people.

This is why Kenyan authorities engaged Netherlands-headquartered international auditing firm KPMG at the end of March to audit the modalities surrounding voter registration and review the registered electors on the voter roll. The final results were due to be presented to the IEBC on 10 May.

While it was not clear whether KPMG had submitted its audit at the time of writing, the IEBC on 10 May began a parallel exercise of biometric voter registration that will continue countrywide until 9 June. After the deadline, the IEBC will be in charge of updating the voter registry.

Flashpoints for hate speech

Another concern is the risk of candidates encouraging ethnic violence through hate speech. This was a key mobiliser in the violence that followed the 2007 elections, although it has been a constant feature of political discourse since the return to multiparty democracy in 1992. Political leaders have used the grievances of their local communities to further their own objectives, often utilising youth gangs to intimidate political opponents and their supporters. This has served to intensify mutual suspicions between ethnic groups such as the Luo, Kalenjin and Kikuyu.

Last year, eight members of parliament belonging to the ruling Jubilee Party were arrested after allegedly calling for the assassination of Odinga. Moreover, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), an organisation that was set up in 2008 to oversee the implementation of a ‘peace agreement’ that followed the 2007 elections, has warned that inter-communal violence was likely in at least 19 counties across Kenya; these include Baringo, Bungoma, Uasin Gishu, Homa Bay, Isiolo, Kericho, Kiambu, Kisii, Kisumu, Lamu, Migori, Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, West Pokot, and Turkana.

Primarily, the violence in these regions has occurred between communities fighting over land where gubernatorial or senatorial seats have been or are likely to be tightly contested, and where economic activities overlap, as in the counties of Laikipia, Baringo, and Nakuru, where cattle herders have fought with farmers or game reservists.

Since 2013, Kenyans have voted for their county governments with their elected assemblies and executives, as well as their next national government. The aim of the constitutional changes was to reduce the likelihood of violence erupting due to the high stakes attached to the presidential role.

However, political competition has, instead, intensified at the county level. These entities hold significant powers over healthcare facilities, the awarding of some public tenders for infrastructure works and land allocation. The counties also hold the power to legislate in some policy areas, including in agriculture, healthcare, trade, and transport. In addition, at stake for those who become elected is a minimum USD40,000 per year, which compares to the average Kenyan income of about USD1,300 annually. This is why county elections also matter a great deal to businesses operating, or wanting to start working, in Kenya.

Central battlegrounds this year will likely centre around the large urban areas of Mombasa and Nairobi, and their surroundings. In Nairobi, where over half of Kenya’s gross domestic product is created, the incumbent governor, Dr Evans Kidero, is representing the ODM against Mbuvi Gidion Kioko Mike Sonko, the senator for Nairobi, who is running for the Jubilee Party.

In Mombasa, the largest port in east Africa, the incumbent governor, Ali Hassan Joho, was almost barred from this year’s poll following allegations that he had forged his secondary education certificate to get in to university. A university degree is a new requirement in this year’s election for candidates running for parliament or a county assembly. Should the election results be close, there is a strong chance that fighting could occur between supporters of both candidates…

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