Domestic and international observers are hoping that Kenya’s 2017 election will not be an encore presentation of 2007; however, there are worrying signs that many of the risks which played a role in the 2007 crisis have not been addressed ten years on. Indeed, alongside new scandals, lingering tensions are being stoked as political discourse becomes increasingly hostile.
The unlearned lessons of 2007
As Kenyans prepare to vote in the August 8th general election, many are reminded of the wave of violence that ensued a decade prior following the 2007 election. The resulting carnage left some 1,200 dead and 600,000 displaced, as political and ethnic tensions merged to create a deadly conflagration which still haunts the country.
The post-election violence in 2007 was exacerbated by the interplay between political loyalties and ethnic identity, as the ethnicity of the competing presidential candidates reignited longstanding feuds. Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was sworn in less than an hour after the results were announced, results which were disputed by his rival Raila Odinga. Opponents of Kibaki saw this as an attempt by Kenya’s Kikuyu people (Kibaki is Kikuyu) to remain in control.
Odinga’s call for mass action in protest of the election results provided a convenient excuse for the country to deteriorate into communal violence, with the rival Kalenjin attacking the Kikuyu over longstanding land disputes. This series of attacks and reprisals by both groups profoundly shook the country as well as the investor confidence: Kenya’s GDP growth plummeted from 7.1% in 2007 to 1.7% in 2008.
Eventually a power sharing agreement was finalized, with Odinga occupying the resurrected position of Prime Minister from 2008 to 2013. During the 2013 election Odinga lost to current president Uhuru Kenyatta who barely won a majority with 50.51% (Odinga garnered 43.7% ). Odinga later appealed the results in the Supreme Court, to no avail.
The threat facing the 2017 election is that Odinga is running for president yet again, and given his past is likely to contest the results. If Odinga is denied the presidency for the third time his frustration may lead him to once again call his supporters to action. Tensions are further stoked by the fact that Kenyatta is, like Kibaki, Kikuyu. Moreover, while not Kalenjin himself, Odinga belongs to the Luo people, another rival of the Kikuyu. Being denied the presidency three times in the row by Kikuyu candidates would stoke existing conspiracy theories regarding the group’s hold on power.
A return to ethnic politicking
The spectre of violence is again raising its head in Kenya, with politicians being accused of stoking tensions, especially at the county level in order to rally support. The fragile political alliance between Kenyatta (Kikuyu) and deputy president William Ruto (Kalenjin) – who backed Odinga in 2007 and Kenyatta in 2013 – established in 2013 has merely papered over simmering tensions. Cooperation at the executive level does not translate into peaceable relations at the community level.
For instance, leaflets which appeared in Nakuru in April encouraged Kalenjins to cleanse the area of Kikuyu should Kikuyu candidate Kinuthia Mbugua win the ruling party’s (Jubilee) nomination to run in August. The Kikuyu and Kalenjin are involved in a decades long land dispute stemming from colonial land management and displacement policies.
Speaking on the simmering legacy of 2007, Maurice Amollo, head of the Kenyan Election Violence Prevention Programme notes that “the land issue which is always [at the heart of] the structural violence in Kenya, has not been dealt with at all.”
Tensions are also mounting between Masaai pastoralists and the Yaaku people, as one of the worst droughts in three decades forces the Masaai and their herds into the forest home of the Yaaku: some 20 people have been killed in clashes in Laikipia county since February. This is further compounded by tensions between white landowners and the Maasai, a conflict that local politicians are encouraging in order to garner support. Local candidates are inciting anger against white landowners in the run-up to the election and threatening to requisition lands from whites if elected. White Kenyans comprise 10,000 of the county’s population of 400,000 yet own half of the land.
In response, the government has banned political parties from sending bulk SMS messages and premium rate content in local vernaculars, limiting official communication to English and Kiswahili. The aim here is to prevent ethno-linguistic targeted campaigning and hate speech, as well as the growing risks from fake news. Moreover, the new rules also mandate political parties provide service providers with authorization letters for their messages and wait up to four days while mass messages are vetted prior to distribution.
The same drought is also spreading discontent among the wider populace as critics of the government tie food shortages to corruption and mismanagement. With inflation up 11.7% in May – the highest in five years – the drought comes at the worst time for the Kenyatta government. Polling on June 8th showed Kenyatta as the favourite with 51% of the vote versus Odinga’s 39%. As of June 30th the gap has closed to 48% for Kenyatta and 43% for Odinga, with 8% of Kenyans still undecided. The question remains whether Kenyatta (or indeed Odinga) can break the 50 percent plus one threshold to win the election in the first round.
Both candidates marred by legacy of 2007
The problem facing voters is that both contenders face lingering questions about their roles during the crisis in 2007. Supporters of either side can point to the other and highlight their culpability in the violence, thus sowing mutual distrust as well as downplaying the misdeeds of their preferred candidate.
A lawsuit is being launched to protest the government’s failure to block Odinga from contesting the 2017 election. The lawsuit is also investigating the legitimacy of his academic credentials. The man who filed the suit, Charles Mwangi, has requested police protection, citing the risks to his life. The problem for Mwangi is that the trial not only angers Odinga and his supporters, but it also puts the government under pressure by calling for the removal of key public figures, specifically; Kenya’s Attorney General Githui Muigai, anti-graft commission chairman Eluid Wabukala, electoral commission chairman Wafula Chebukati, and Inspector General Joseph Boinnet.
Mwangi claims that all four “are solely responsible for Mr. Odinga’s candidature and should be suspended from office,” and accuses Boinnet and Muigai of purposely failing to form a special unit to investigate and prosecute Odinga for his actions in 2007. By trying to haul Odinga to trial, Mwangi also raises the issue of Kenyatta (deputy president in 2007) and Ruto’s past actions. Both were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their roles in the violence, yet by using their respective Kikuyu and Kalenjin support bases garnered support from both sides to defy the ICC: the case was dropped in 2014. Nevertheless, the ICC has stated that it may reopen the case if a more favourable regime emerges in Kenya – an ominous message.
Kenya’s political class tearing itself apart
Additional recent lawsuits highlight the wider crisis within Kenya’s political class, as the institutions of power become increasingly de-legitimized in the eyes of the electorate. Firstly, Cheboite Kigan, a journalist at The Nation, is threatening to sue Senator Gideon Moi for using his image in campaign material without his permission. As if this was not enough, “every time I attempt to meet [Moi] to discuss the matter, his personal assistant […] blocks me and threatens to beat me up.” Furthermore Moi’s assistant is also sending Kigan threatening SMS messages.
This throws a wrench into the election campaign of one of the few sitting senators even bothering to contest their seats. In total, 34 of the 67 elected or nominated senators will not defend their seats in the upcoming election. Some senators are retiring in frustration while others are seeking lower paid MP, governorship and even county assembly posts instead. Introduced in 2013 in line with the changes in the 2010 constitution, the Senate has been locked in a rivalry with the National Assembly, which even tabled a motion to abolish the upper house in March 2017. Senate Speaker Ekwe Ethuru has angrily pointed out that all 30 bills that the Senate sent to the National Assembly since its inception were ignored, rendering the upper house utterly impotent.
Recent litigation also involves politicians at the gubernatorial level, with Mombasa govenor Hassan Joho suing MP Hezron Awiti for putting up election billboards without the permission of the county government. While other areas have not seen this problem, Mombasa appears to be a special place for the incumbent who has plastered Kenya’s second largest city and key economic hub with billboards.
At the same time, Joho has asked advertising firms not to put up those of his competitors. Awiti is set to challenge Joho’s accusations, and the entire affair has drawn the ire of Coast Region coordinator Nelson Marwa. Marwa has encouraged local candidates to flout Joho’s pronouncements, daring the county administration to try and take them down. Marwa has also mocked Joho for trying to play god, stating that “billboards will not vote for you.”
The electoral race in Mombasa is also being marred by allegations that the regional courts are on Joho’s payroll, intimidating opposition candidates and ruling in the government’s favour. In response, Marwa has threatened to take a special unit and invade the county court and shut it down.
To add to this litany of troubles, the ruling Jubilee government is coming under fire for the creation of eight new sub-counties just 39 days before the election. This has been criticized as gerrymandering by Kenyatta’s opponents, and a move to bribe young voters with jobs: available slots in the Kenya’s military and other government forces are usually allocated along sub-country lines across the country.
Electoral commission failing job as last bastion of legitimacy
With all this political turmoil, one would hope that Kenya could at least turn to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) for a modicum of competent administration and impartiality. Sadly, the IEBC has been embroiled in its own series of recent scandals, as the commission’s credibility is quickly eroding in the eyes of voters.
According to Kenyan electoral guidelines, the IEBC is supposed to publish the list of candidates in the Kenya Gazette prior to the printing of ballots. This is to allow for any party switching, error correction and other alterations. This vetting process is crucial for the authentication of candidates. Despite this stipulation, it appears that the IEBC has already sent the lists to the printers before publication. IEBC CEO Ezra Chiloba has played down this move stating that the regulations do not refer to the explicit candidate list, but rather the party nomination lists. This directly contradicts commissioner Roselyne Akambe who has stated that candidates are only cleared to run once their information has been vetted and published.
This has sparked accusations of poll rigging, and “poses [a] serious challenge to the commission if the list is disputed.” If the list of candidates is already under dispute, then that only makes eventual disputation of the results all the more likely. Political analyst Elias Mokua warns that “this is a big risk. IEBC is creating unnecessary mistrust. […] The outcome will be challenged.”
Adding to this unnecessary mistrust is the revelation that IEBC’s voter information database remains full of errors, even after the government promised to clean up the system following a KPMG audit found at least one million dead registered voters. Voters texting random or invalid ID / passport numbers (such as ID Nr. 0) to the voter registration helpline are nevertheless receiving ‘valid’ results. “Someone is registered with ID number zero but with my ID number it tells me ‘no records found’. IEBC what are you playing?” complains voter Tony Watima.
These revelations have severely tarnished the IEBC’s reputation, in turn throwing further doubt over the upcoming election. Widespread doubts as to how free the August election will be only further compound prevailing dismal polling results concerning Kenyan opinions about their democracy. A survey from December 2016, showed that nearly 50% of Kenyans do not think their country is very democratic, an additional 43% did not know what democracy is.
Furthermore, only 35% expressed confidence in the nation’s politicians, with all major political organs fairing poorly in the eyes of Kenyans regarding their contribution in upholding democracy. At 28%, opposition parties were cited as the biggest contributors to democracy, with Odinga himself being chosen by 14% of respondents. This was double the number who cited Kenyatta as the biggest contributor.
With both candidates implicated in the 2007 crisis, renewed appeals along ethnic lines, political infighting at all levels, IEBC incompetence and public pessimism, the stage is set for another contested and potentially deadly election. The presence of severe drought and its attendant economic impact adds more fuel to the proverbial fire. Kenya’s National Security Council has already expressed worries about the over 500,000 illegal weapons circulating in the country, and warns that politicians are forming militias to protect themselves and intimidate opponents.
The stage is set, the familiar actors assembled; que the encore.
Originally published by Global Risk Insights
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times, Huffington Post and Qrius. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.