Kenya’s Elections: A Nation Holds its Breath

By Richard Downie

The people of Kenya go to the polls on March 4th in the country’s first general elections since December 2007, when a disputed outcome led to serious violence that brought the country to the brink of anarchy. Voters will select a new president, national assembly, and for the first time choose senators and a set of local representatives in 47 counties. Opinion polls suggest a close-run contest for the presidency between the current prime minister, Raila Odinga, and Uhuru Kenyatta, deputy prime minister and son of the nation’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta. If a clear winner does not emerge in the first round, a run-off will take place on April 11th.

Q1: Why should the United States care about these elections?

A1: These elections are the most important in Kenya since its return to multiparty politics more than two decades ago. Kenya is the anchor state in a region that has suffered persistent instability. It is the economic dynamo of east Africa, an increasingly important security partner of the United States, a hub for development activities in the region, and home to the largest U.S. embassy in Africa. Its Achilles heel has been its contentious politics, which brought the country to its knees in the early weeks of 2008. Approximately 1,100 people were killed and more than half a million others fled their homes when violence between rival ethnic groups and political supporters broke out in the weeks following the controversial announcement that Mwai Kibaki had retained the presidency. The violence did not end until a sustained diplomatic push by the international community produced a power-sharing deal in which President Kibaki agreed to lead a coalition government with the losing candidate, Raila Odinga, as his prime minister. Since then, efforts have been made to change the way that political power is exercised and shared in Kenya. But some of the most important causes of the violence remain unaddressed. The events of the coming weeks could be pivotal in setting the future course of the country. Will Kenya embark decisively on the path to stability and democratic consolidation or tip back into a prolonged bout of uncertainty and violence?

Q2: What’s been done to avoid a repeat of the violence?

A2: Two commissions, formed in 2008, recommended sweeping changes to the way elections in Kenya were run and recommended actions to tackle a set of national challenges including the culture of impunity, accountability, land reform, security sector reform, poverty, and youth unemployment. Progress in achieving this ambitious agenda has been patchy.

The most important success has been the passing of a new constitution, a document which, if fully implemented, will transform the way Kenya is governed. The constitution, strongly endorsed in a referendum in 2010, curtails the authority of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature and the judiciary. In addition, it devolves power from the center to 47 newly created counties, each with their own assembly and governor. Each county will also send a senator to Nairobi to sit in a newly-created upper house. The first representatives of this new system will be chosen at this election.

The most encouraging progress has been in the judiciary, which has been empowered by the appointment of a respected chief justice, Willy Mutunga, and is beginning to assert its independence from the executive. As a result, it has transformed its public image and is now regarded as the most trusted national institution. Less progress has been made in efforts to reform political parties, overhaul campaign financing, tighten ethics rules for election candidates, and improve the performance of the police, all of which have bumped up against entrenched vested interests.

In addition to the new constitution, there are other reasons to be hopeful that peaceful elections will take place. A new electoral commission has been formed, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which enjoys the broad trust of the public despite some slip ups over the procurement of voter registration materials. There has been a commitment to clamp down on hate media and increase the monitoring of mobile phone communications which were used to incite violence in 2007-08. Kenya’s civil society is vibrant, well-organized, and vigilant. Furthermore, the vast majority of Kenyans share a determination that they will never again allow their country to be dragged to the brink of disaster by their politicians.

Q3: What are the risk factors?

A3: It is a matter of grave concern that many of the root causes of the 2008 postelection violence remain unaddressed. Foremost among them is that ethnicity is still the main vehicle for political mobilization and the organizing principle for violent contestation over power, land, and resources. Ideology and policy are depressingly absent from Kenyan politics, although the introduction of televised presidential debates in this campaign has sought to address this. Instead, the incongruous party alliances pieced together by the two main rivals for the presidency, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, are driven by ethnic arithmetic. Odinga, an ethnic Luo, is hoping that the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) he has formed with his running mate, Kalonzo Musyoka, a Kamba, can build a larger ethnic bloc than the so-called Jubilee Coalition assembled by Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto. Kenyatta and Ruto are unlikely partners, representing the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities who fought each other so viciously in early 2008. This time, they are united by common interest. Both men face International Criminal Court charges of committing crimes against humanity for their alleged role in orchestrating the carnage. The ICC case has cast a huge shadow over this election campaign, skewed the debates, and dramatically increased the stakes for the main contenders. The trials of Kenyatta, Ruto, and two other defendants are due to begin in the coming months. A victory for Kenyatta would cause practical headaches given the slow pace of court proceedings at The Hague and the expectation that defendants attend the hearings in person. In addition, the presence in State House of an ICC-indictee would at the very least place the international relations of Kenya on an uncertain footing. The deputy assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, alluded to this in recent comments, stating that voter “choices have consequences.”

Q4: Which parts of the country are particularly at risk of violence?

A4: The new electoral format makes it difficult to forecast the most likely trouble spots. The devolved system of government has created important positions to fight for at the local level, meaning that the counties may become the most contentious arenas for competition and conflict. In some constituencies, politics overlaps with, and aggravates, existing competition. Violence has already been a feature of the current campaign. In the Coast region, nearly 200 people have been killed in politically-tinged violence between agriculturalist and pastoralist groups in Tana River County. The wider region is also facing a security challenge from the Mombasa Republican Council, a separatist movement which is urging its followers to boycott the elections. In Kenya’s remote North Eastern and Eastern regions, inter-clan violence and cross-border attacks by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab have prompted violent counter-responses by Kenyan security forces. Human Rights Watch, an NGO, has gathered evidence that militia groups and criminal gangs, some of them with political links, have threatened voters and attacked rivals in Central and Nyanza regions. In Rift Valley, where some of the worst violence took place in 2008, tensions between Kikuyu and Kalenjin remain high, despite the rapprochement between their national leaders. The slums of Nairobi are another flashpoint area, where poor Luo and Kikuyu youths fought pitched battles in 2008. If Odinga were to lose the election, there would be an elevated risk of instability in the western city of Kisumu, where his core support is based.

There are serious doubts that Kenya’s police can respond to these assorted threats in a professional and even-handed manner. In fact, the police were themselves responsible for much of the postelection violence in 2008. A new inspector general of Police was appointed in December but structural reform of his organization has not followed and there remains a serious shortage of personnel. The IEBC wants two officers assigned to each of Kenya’s 45,000 polling stations during the elections but the total number of police is no more than 70,000.

Q5: How will the voting process work this time?

A5: The objective of the new constitution to share political power in Kenya in a more equitable manner has led to a more complicated voting system. Voters will be presented with six ballot papers at the polling stations. They will choose a president and deputy president; a member of the National Assembly; a senator; a county governor and deputy governor; a county assembly representative; and a county women’s representative.

The format of the election has also changed, with the introduction of a run-off for the two leading contenders if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round and at least 25 percent of the vote in at least 24 counties. All the indications suggest this is the most likely outcome. A poll conducted in mid-February showed Kenyatta/Ruto with 44.8 percent support and Odinga/Kalonzo with 44.4 percent. Surveys also suggest that many voters are unclear about the rules and liable to cry foul if, for example, the winner of the first round were to lose in the run-off. The new voting format is a recipe for potential confusion and frustration. The IEBC will be under immense pressure to ensure that voters are clear about the rules. Critically, it will also be charged with resolving electoral disputes. Lack of faith in the ability of Kenya’s institutions to address complaints about results was a big factor behind the violence in 2008.

Q6: What is the United States doing to help?

A6: The United States will be watching events unfold and urging Kenya’s leaders to act with restraint. At the same time, it is mindful of avoiding actions that could be interpreted as U.S. interference in what is, after all, a Kenyan process. U.S. government involvement is focused on several key areas. They include providing technical assistance to the electoral process, through the provision of both short-term and long-term election monitors. In addition, officials from the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives have been working with communities in conflict-prone areas to help damp down tensions and provide early warnings of potential trouble. Finally, the United States will be using diplomatic channels to caution the key participants against inflammatory actions and comments. Most notably, President Obama has released a video message to the Kenyan people urging them to “reject a path of violence” and “resolve their disputes in the courts, not in the streets.” The overall approach reflects the reality that, as is the case elsewhere in Africa, the United States has limited ability to influence events on its own. It is best able to make a positive impact by working with other international partners, particularly the European Union and African Union. It was this cooperative approach that finally helped end the violence in 2008. This time round, it is hoped that greater vigilance and preparation will ensure more timely interventions that preempt violence rather than respond to it after the fact.

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).


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