Before Kenya’s August 8 general election, opposition candidate Raila Odinga promised to be a transitional, one-term president. Uhuru Kenyatta, meanwhile, was gunning for a second and final term. Both candidates’ political legacies were at stake.
But the nullification of the presidential election has thrown Kenya into uncharted territory. It’s been made even more unpredictable by Odinga’s withdrawal from the repeat election slated for October 26.
Odinga withdrew because, he claimed, the election commission refused to meet nine demands he made as preconditions for a credible fresh election after the August 8 poll was invalidated by the Supreme Court.
The political uncertainty is having a negative impact on the country’s economy, as well as its political stability.
The hard-line positions adopted by both sides have created a deep rift between the supporters of Kenyatta’s Jubilee party and Odinga’s National Super Alliance. To make matters worse, the police have repeatedly used excessive force to contain National Super Alliance protesters who have clashed with Jubilee supporters during demonstrations.
These protests could very easily escalate into tribal violence given the ethnically divisive nature of Kenyan politics.
Election commission to blame
Kenya’s current political crisis can be attributed to the ineptness of the electoral commission. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission mishandled the August 8 election. After the Supreme Court invalidated the poll, infighting among commissioners dented the commission’s image even further. The court found the commission committed grave irregularities and illegalities during the August election.
The commission has also aligned itself with the Jubilee Party. For its part, the party has often shielded the electoral body from criticism. For example it blamed the Supreme Court for invalidating the election. All this entrenches the notion that the commission is not exercising an independent mandate.
The commission has focused too much on short term political stability. It hasn’t considered the impact of another bungled election on Kenya’s long term democratic gains. It was given 60 days by the Supreme Court and the country’s Constitution to hold a second poll, and rushed into this process without any introspection.
And divisions between the commissioners are widening. One of them, Roselyn Akombe, has resigned and says the commission’s partisan nature makes it impossible for the body to hold a credible poll. Wafula Chebukati, the commission’s chairman, responded to Akombe’s resignation by saying he can’t guarantee that his team can hold a credible election.
All this suggests that the commission could make the same mistakes it did leading up to August 8 and that the second poll will also be a sham. This would drag Kenya further into political turmoil and lead to more economic strain on the country.
Unlike its opposition, the ruling Jubilee party is keen to participate in the October 26 election. It even used its majority in both houses of Parliament to push through amendments to the election laws.
These amendments dilute the electoral commission chairman’s power and also give priority to manual voting over electronic processes. Confusion over manual processes played a large role in pushing Kenya into post-election violence during the contested 2007 polls.
Jubilee has not consulted widely on these amendments, and has been widely condemned for pushing through changes to election law so close to the second poll. The changes all appear to be knee-jerk reactions to the Supreme Court’s ruling, and a push to ensure Kenyatta bags a second term.
Meanwhile, Odinga and his party have maintained that elections will not be conducted on October 26. To add fuel to the political fire, the coalition he leads has escalated its weekly demonstrations to daily countrywide protests.
The next stage of this battle is likely to play out in the Supreme Court. The National Super Alliance still has the option to return to court to either stop the October 26 poll or challenge its outcome.
But the solution to Kenya’s ongoing constitutional crisis is not legal. It is political. The country is deeply divided along ethnic and political lines. If the electoral commission goes ahead with an election that doesn’t include Odinga, the process is likely to be deemed illegitimate.
It’s obvious that the electoral commission has been captured by partisan politics. It is operating in a hostile political environment and there is enormous division in its ranks.
In the worst case scenario, Kenya could degenerate into the kind of ethnicised election violence last seen in 2007. The feeling of disenfranchisement among some ethnic communities, who have felt marginalised by successive regimes since independence, has once again emerged in public discourse.
Assessing statements made by the electoral commission in recent days it’s clear that it’s unable to hold a credible election. On the other hand another legal battle would only drag the country into further political uncertainty.
What’s clear therefore is that a political settlement is needed to reconstitute the electoral body before holding a fresh election. This might involve forming a caretaker government to give the electoral commission time to effect the necessary reforms.
The leader of Kenya’s opposition coalition, Raila Odinga, has withdrawn from the repeat presidential election ordered by the country’s Supreme Court. Only two candidates were scheduled to compete in the upcoming poll, the other being the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
A day after Odinga’s withdrawal, the Kenyan High Court ruled in favour of including another presidential candidate in the ballot, meaning that the election is now likely to go ahead. The new candidate, Ekuru Aukot, was an interested party in the Supreme Court case that invalidated the August 8th election.
Odinga’s pullout came in protest at the perceived inability of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to carry out a free and fair election.
In the recent petition to the Supreme Court, his National Super Alliance (NASA) accused the electoral commission of having failed in its duties to conduct an election, and demonstrated clear evidence of irregularities such as missing and forged electoral forms.
The Supreme Court found in favour of the opposition coalition, and so fresh elections were scheduled within 60 days. While there is consistency to Odinga’s distrust of the electoral commission, his position holds no legal consistency. The opposition made a petition to the Supreme Court and should therefore abide by its ruling. The court found that the electoral commission failed to conduct the election appropriately, but that there were no grounds for saying Kenyatta’s coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, had been the ones to rig it.
Odinga’s opposition coalition petitioned the courts and got the result they wanted. They should therefore have stood by the ruling and continued to follow constitutional channels. By withdrawing Odinga is terminating the country’s democratic processes. If the need for IEBC reform was enough reason to delay the election further, a case could have been brought to the Supreme Court on this basis.
The IEBC is a commission created by the Constitution, meaning its duty to conduct free and fair elections is a democratic fundamental. As such, political opposition to its operations has a clear legal remedy. Instead, Odinga’s abandonment of the process has handed legal credibility to his rivals.
Kenya is in uncharted territory. The group that sought free and fair elections through lawful means – the opposition coalition – has now abandoned trust in the constitutional commission set up to bring about the poll.
In making the decision Odinga has also signed a death sentence on his political career stretching back 40 years.
A history of hard fought battles
Odinga has had a lot of practice over very many years in navigating the difficult path between acting according to the rules of the system and opposing manipulation of those rules.
In 2002 he joined a broader inter-ethnic coalition to force leadership away from the Kenya African National Union (KANU). In power since independence in 1963, KANU had consistently thwarted the emergence of free and fair elections in Kenya in the 1990s under President Daniel arap Moi.
But those who initially spearheaded the inter-ethnic alliance also seemed to abuse the system to their advantage in the 2007 elections. Odinga led popular protests against the swearing-in of President Mwai Kibaki in complaint of this. The standoff plunged the country into one of its worst periods of political violence, with over 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands internally displaced.
In 2013 Odinga took the disputed election results to the courts. But the Supreme Court allowed Kenyatta’s election to stand.
Many therefore felt that Odinga had finally got the democracy he’d fought for when the Supreme Court invalidated the 2017 results and ordered fresh elections. But that conclusion appears to have been premature. Odinga’s exit from the democratic process means opposition supporters’ faith in the system is at the point of collapse.
Odinga has been consistent in his criticisms of the electoral commission. And he has acted in a principled way. He should be praised for both.
Indeed, the failure of the electoral commission dates back as far as the constitutional referendum in 2010. A British court found that electoral commissioners accepted bribes from a UK firm to win the contract for printing ballot papers. In the 2017 elections, the accusation was that the local tallies did not match the central tallies being received electronically in Nairobi. The physical forms that would have reconciled the differences were then said to have been lost.
Despite the catastrophic failure to conduct this year’s election appropriately, the electoral commission chairperson refused to stand down, reducing public credibility in the institution to nil.
Complete new election?
The NASA coalition has tried to substantiate its position. Technically-speaking, they say, their withdrawal means no election can take place, and so a complete new election should be organised. So rather than Kenyatta being handed victory on a plate, a longer time for fresh elections would be given, with all allowed to compete as if it were a very first round. That would provide a breather of at least 90 days, with additional time for parties to nominate new leaders.
But such a legal argument is fanciful. It is based on a misreading of article 138 (8) (b) of Kenya’s Constitution which says that a complete new election must be organised if one of the candidates dies during the campaign period. The NASA coalition are arguing that their withdrawal from the elections is an abandonment that is forced by the failure of the electoral commission, and therefore tantamount to the death of a leader during the campaign period.
If they believe this is a solid legal argument, they can again petition the courts to invalidate the preparations for the fresh elections. But the legal argument is weak, and I doubt they will try this route.
The twist that NASA did not expect was the High Court ruling that a minor candidate is allowed to take the place of Odinga. That will mean an election that gives greater validity to Kenyatta’s inevitable victory – an enormous blow to Odinga’s strategy.
The High Court decision to include Ekuru Aukot is based on the fact that he was part of the original case that disputed the 2017 election results. But the court has made a grave error of legal judgment: Aukot was an ‘interested party’ to that case, not one of the ‘petitioners’. This is, in legal terms, a big difference. If he was a successful petitioner in the Supreme Court case, and therefore a valid candidate now, the fresh elections should have involved him from the start and been contested by three candidates.
One cannot simply add candidates as one goes to make the election look competitive.
In any case, the inclusion of Aukot will be of no consequence to the result. In the disputed 8 August polls he received a mere 0.18% of the vote, making him the 5th placed candidate. That compares against a supposed 54.17% for Kenyatta.
The electoral commission will, however turbulently, take forward the court judgments and hold an election between Kenyatta and Aukot. The polls will certainly mean Kenyatta is declared President of Kenya for his second term in a row.
This is the fault of Odinga who has taken the decision to exit lawful processes prematurely. The road to competitive free and fair elections in Kenya extends ever longer into the horizon.
After a Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Kenya’s August 8 presidential election, the country now finds itself in a moral predicament between political stability and electoral credibility.
On one hand, the ruling that ordered a fresh presidential election was a win for the democratic process the world over. The court found that Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission was in violation of constitutional procedure. It also found that the commission had violated election law and in so doing impugned the credibility of the election.
On the other hand, the court’s decision has ushered the country into a period of political instability. Where it would have closed the chapter on the 2017 election cycle, it is now gearing up for a repeat poll slated for October 26.
Kenyans now find themselves in a tight spot made even more uncomfortable by demands being made by Raila Odinga and his National Super Alliance. The opposition is insisting that certain conditions, including reconstituting the election commission and reprinting key election documents, must be met before the October 26 election can be held.
The opposition’s hard stance could result in a delayed election. This could also happen if OT-Morpho, the French biometrics firm which supplied the electoral commission with its electronic voting system fails to have a new system ready in time. It’s indicated that it won’t. If indeed the key issue with the last election was that the voting system was not “simple and verifiable” as demanded by law, then any delays could be interpreted as being in the interests of a free, fair, credible and transparent election.
But for those who argue that no electoral process can be perfect, and that the August 8th poll was merely dogged by minor and inadvertent errors, then it begs the question: what is more important, electoral credibility or political stability?
The Supreme Court prioritised electoral credibility by invalidating the presidential election result on grounds that the election commission had committed illegalities and irregularities.
In doing so, it broke ranks with foreign election observer missions which had concluded that the presidential election was credible. By and large the Supreme Court ruling was a win for Kenyans and the rule of law. The court took the opportunity to audit the electoral process for transparency and to define the parameters of a credible election.
But its ruling raised questions of its own. For instance, the court ruled that the electoral commission didn’t strictly adhere to election procedure as set out in law. It also held that there had been tampering with the commission’s electronic voter management system. But it mandated the same commission to carry out a fresh election within 60 days.
Because the court gave no direction on the reconstitution of the commission, the petitioner Odinga and the respondent President Uhuru Kenyatta are now at an impasse over who should remain at the commission.
Those who disagree with the Supreme Court ruling see the court’s decision as a subversion of the will of the Kenyan people. For them, the ruling was a destabilising force which didnt’ reflect the people’s decision.
Giving credence to this argument is the fact that Kenya is viewed as the economic hub of East Africa. If the country does not return to normalcy as quickly as possible there will be a ripple effects, including economic, across the region.
On top of this, Kenya finds itself in a precarious situation because the executive is at odds with the judiciary. Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party has the majority in both houses of Parliament. It is therefore within its capacity to limit the independence of the judiciary should it continue to feel aggrieved by the Supreme Court decision. This could happen through a parliamentary referendum as per Article 256 of the Constitution and would involve members of parliament deciding to amend the constitution without a popular vote.
But by far the most pressing threat to Kenya’s continued political stability is the possibility that the Supreme Court may have created a situation in which Kenya could remain in election mode ad infinitum. Nothing stops a new petition from being filed should one of the candidates contest the next poll results.
If we look at Kenya’s neighbour Rwanda we see an example of a head of state that’s arguably prioritised a semblance of political stability over election credibility. Paul Kagame was recently reelected for the third time. Some argue that his rule has benefited Rwandans because the country has shown better socio-economic outcomes than most African countries.
But there tensions simmer and in the absence of electoral credibility, Rwanda’s political stability may be skin deep.
Rethinking Kenya’s election system
The Kenya case raises questions about elections in Africa and whether they are a force for political stability or instability. I would posit that Kenya has made great strides to improve electoral credibility since its catastrophic 2007 election.
In conclusion, election credibility and political stability aren’t mutually exclusive.
There should be a positive correlation between democracy and the improved well being of a state and its people. But in a country like Kenya with 40-plus tribes, the more populous tribes will always take advantage of their voting might, while the less populous ones struggle to compete. The system just does not work in their favour. It would seem therefore that they are locked out – not by choice but by circumstance.
So, does a majoritarian, “winner-takes-all” system suit an ethnically diverse society like Kenya’s?
Perhaps, not. I’m persuaded that there needs to be a re-imagination of electoral democratic practices in Africa. Kenya should take recent events as an opportunity to clean up its institutions and electoral system. If it doesn’t, future polls will continue to offer up a point of diversion between electoral credibility and a tenuous political stability.
Kenya faces an extended period of political and economic uncertainty after the Supreme Court tossed out the results of last month’s presidential election in a stunning decision that’s unprecedented in Africa.
The judges ordered a new vote to be held within 60 days, opening an intense campaign at risk of being marred by violence. The news sparked celebrations in the capital, Nairobi, and in Kisumu, stronghold of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga, who said the ruling marked “a historic day” for the people of Kenya. President Uhuru Kenyatta, winner of the annulled vote, said he disagreed with the decision but would respect it.
With its decision that the electoral commission failed to conduct a fair vote, the six-judge court demonstrated its enduring independence from the government of the day. It came at a time when demands for political change are spreading across Africa. Opposition parties won power in the past five years in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, Ghana, Gambia and Senegal. The ruling also clouds the outlook for the country’s slowing economy.
“The historic Supreme Court ruling pours uncertainty on the Kenyan economy,” said Emma Gordon, an analyst at Bath, England-based Verisk Maplecroft. “Investors will be concerned about the financial implications and the high risk of violence. With the possibility of the new election going to a second round and the result being contested again, political uncertainty could easily last the rest of the year.”
The ruling Chief Justice David Maraga read out Friday to a packed Nairobi courtroom was a damning rebuke to the electoral commission, which repeatedly denied opposition claims that hackers rigged the vote results on its computer systems. The decision helps entrench the rule of law in Kenya, one of the key pillars of the country’s long-term development plan, said Jibran Qureishi, East Africa economist at Stanbic Holdings Ltd.
“This is an extraordinary ruling,” Qureishi said in a research note. “It affirms our narrative regarding institutional strength and maturity.”
The outcome of the new vote is too close to call, with the same officials who ran the last one probably remaining in charge of the rerun, said Phillip O. Nying’uro, chairman of the department of political science at the University of Nairobi.
“It is going to be very tricky; we may end up with the same outcomes,” he said.
IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati said the commission is awaiting the court’s written judgment before making any decisions about what action it will take. Odinga called for six electoral commission officials to face criminal prosecution.
“Clear evidence shows that the commission was taken over by criminals who ran the general elections using the technology system and inserted a computer-generated leadership,” he told reporters on Friday.
Kenya, the world’s largest shipper of black tea and a regional hub for companies including Google Inc. and Coca Cola Co., faces an increased chance of violence, said John Ashbourne, Africa economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London.
“The ruling leaves the authorities with little time to improve or reform the scandal-plagued election commission, which may throw doubt on the result,” he said. “Opposition supporters –- whose distrust in the voting system appears to have been validated –- may see another win for president Kenyatta as proof that the authorities are conspiring against them.”
Kenyatta rejected the opposition’s demands that electoral officials vacate office and asked the body to announce a date for fresh elections, his office said in an emailed statement Saturday. The current commission will supervise the new vote, Kenyatta said.
Clashes between security forces and Odinga supporters claimed 24 lives after the result was declared on Aug. 11, according to the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights. The opposition put the death toll at more than 100 people, while police confirmed 10 deaths in Nairobi and didn’t release tolls from other areas. The deaths evoked memories of two months of ethnic conflict after a disputed 2007 vote that left more than 1,100 people dead.
Kenyan shares tumbled and the currency dropped after the court ruling, reflecting perceptions that prolonged elections mean more uncertainty, said Razia Khan, chief Africa economist at Standard Chartered Plc in London. The benchmark stock index closed down 3.7 percent, while the shilling weakened 0.1 percent against the dollar. Safaricom Ltd., the country’s largest company, dropped as much as 10 percent, the biggest decline in a year.
East Africa’s largest economy is in the throes of its worst drought in three decades that’s curbed output of corn, a staple, and driven up consumer prices. Gross domestic product expanded at the slowest pace since 2014 in the first quarter as farming output shrank. The government expects growth to slow to 5.5 percent this year, from 5.8 percent in 2016.
“A re-run of the election will contribute to more uncertainty and prolong any return to business-as-usual,” Khan said. “The continuation of sub-par economic performance, and its implications for fiscal revenue, is of course a negative for bonds.”
Odinga, a former prime minister, waged unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1997, 2007 and 2013. The Supreme Court threw out his allegations of rigging in the 2013 vote that propelled Kenyatta to power, a ruling Odinga has previously described as a “travesty of justice.”
The threat of controversy and unrest looms over Kenya’s elections, which will be held on 8 August. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta is ahead by a whisker in the most recent opinion poll. His main challenger, Raila Odinga, has repeatedly alleged that Kenyatta plans to rig the elections.
Kenya has an unhappy history of violence, and of alleged election rigging, and the recent gruesome murder of a key official at the electoral commission has heightened anxiety. Some fear that – whatever the electoral laws say – no holds are barred in Kenyan politics.
That history of electoral problems is interwoven with a dynastic political drama that goes back more than 50 years. Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga were political allies turned enemies in the 1960s; now their sons continue the rivalry.
Kenya’s most powerful politicians are a small group, many of whom know one another socially, and many of whom have served in government together over the years. Raila Odinga’s running mate was in office for years under the old ruling party. So too was Musalia Mudavadi, one of Odinga’s close allies in the opposition coalition, whose father was also a senior politician.
Kenya’s politics can sometimes look like long-running squabbles amongst a gang of cronies, and newspaper cartoonists like to portray the Kenyan voter – routinely personified as an oppressed but doughty woman, Wanjiku – as the victim of these scheming rivals.
All the more so because these dynasties are linked to ethnic rivalry. The muted background narrative of Kenyan politics is that access to the presidency has made some communities rich while others stay poor, and politicians stand accused of fostering that narrative, stirring up tribalism to win office and pitching ordinary Kenyans into violent confrontations.
Politicians are blamed, too, for the widespread use of gifts, and cash handouts, in elections – buying votes for a few shillings and a bottle of fizzy drink, and then going on to abuse their elected office to enrich themselves through corruption.
Kenya’s elections then, appear as the ruthless game of leaders who pursue power at the expense of their people, not on their behalf. But talk to any candidate at a level below the presidency – for Kenya’s elections involve six separate ballots, for multiple positions in national and county government – and a slightly different picture appears.
The moral economy of elections
Candidates constantly complain of the demands of voters.
Need to meet women voters in a particular village? It can be arranged, but often requires ‘facilitation’ to be provided – money to organise soft drinks, and hire chairs. And once you have spoken, you cannot leave your audience empty-handed. Each person must get at least a token gift, even if it is only fifty shillings (about half a dollar).
Need to reach a wider group of influential people? Easy – speak at the funeral of some well-known local elder. But if you are to do that, you must make a donation to the grieving family. Or perhaps you are anxious about the youth vote? Here is a youth group, willing and ready to hear your message. But they might also expect that you will help them set up as motorcycle taxi riders.
And then there are the personal requests: the voter who cannot afford school fees for their children; the constituent who needs help with mounting hospital bills.
A commentator even recently suggested that the demand for “something small” was so high that the 2017 elections had made the 50-shilling note an “endangered species”. Faced with these multiple demands, candidates find little support from the party whose colours they wear. They spend their savings, or sell their assets. They borrow from family and friends. Some lose everything, impoverishing themselves and their families – and still lose the election.
Those who do win election take up office with multiple debts. The temptation to use office corruptly to repay those debts, and build up funds for the next campaign, is a strong one.
Yet many voters don’t consider their demands wrong; after all, they say, those elected often enrich themselves and ignore their constituents. Voters’ demands are a moral test.
The overall message of elections in Kenya is a simple one: government exists to bring development, and those elected are delegates, sent by their constituents to secure at least a fair portion of development - which may take any material form from youth training centres to tarred roads to a cabinet seat for a local. Voters need to be sure both that their representatives can deliver, and will respond to local demands. As a result, the campaign becomes a prolonged test of politicians’ virtue – will they meet constituents’ expectations?
Ethnicity plays into this. Bureaucratic accountability does not always work in Kenya: people don’t necessarily follow the rules. So having someone on the inside – a cousin, an in-law, a friend of a friend – is always useful. So too with politics: voters want representatives on whom they feel have some moral claim. That need not be ethnic – but it may often coincide with ethnicity.
And, of course, voters want to feel that their representative, in turn, has similar claims on people further up in the hierarchy of power. Ordinary people do not need to be ‘tribalists’ to vote on ethnic lines; they just need to doubt the impartiality of the system.
Once they do, they will begin to think that development may be denied them unless ‘their man’ wins office. Which is not to say that Kenya’s politicians are not culpable, for their behaviour has encouraged ethnic politics, and lavish electoral spending. Nor is it to excuse the high-stakes games around the presidential election that currently threaten to generate political unrest.
But this moral economy of elections does help to explain why Kenyan voters turn out in large numbers to cast their ballots. Kenya’s electoral politics are not just an elite game of thrones; they are driven by the demands and concerns of ordinary people, trying to navigate their way to the uncertain promised land of development.
After accepting his nomination as the presidential candidate of the main opposition coalition recently, Raila Odinga likened himself to Joshua, the biblical figure who led the Jews to the Promised Land.
Odinga was appealing to people disaffected with the performance of the Jubilee government. But he was also appealing to the religious sensibilities of the Kenyan electorate where Christianity has a strong presence.
Religion is omnipresent in Kenya. The line between religion and politics is often thin. This is well illustrated by the fact that gospel music serves as an important vehicle for political mobilisation. Most of the National Super Alliance’s campaign rallies feature a rendering of the popular gospel song “Mambo yabadilika” (things are a-changing).
Odinga, as well as President Uhuru Kenyatta who is seeking re-election under the Jubilee Party in the August 8 polls, have sought to endear themselves to the main religious communities. Kenyatta even had members of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, the National Muslim Leaders Forum and the Jamia Mosque visit State House where they pledged their support for his re-election bid. Religion and politics are entwined, each to some extent complicit in the providential authority of the other.
Odinga and Kenyatta aren’t alone. In their quest for the votes of the religious constituencies, all political aspirants have sought to present themselves as people of faith.
But other equally important dynamics shape political relationships in Kenya. Religious symbols operate cheek by jowl with what political scientist Jean Francis Bayart has referred to as the “politics of the belly”. A third factor makes for an even headier mix – ethnic affiliations. Combined, these three factors distort democracy, and the way in which elections are run in the country.
Eating campaign money
On a recent visit to western Kenya during the party primaries I was struck by how voters’ actively sought cash handouts from politicians. And there is no shortage of candidates ready to offer money to the electorate as an inducement to vote for them. A young man who gave me a ride on his motor cycle taxi spoke with pride about his busy schedule these days – “eating campaign money” by night and working by day.
Elderly men and women were seated along village lanes looking out for election candidates who might offer them “something small.” They were open to offers from whichever politician turned up. The amounts they got ranged from around 100 shillings ($1) to 1,000 shillings ($10), often not enough even to feed a family for a day. But the money counts for a lot in the context of extreme poverty.
I also attended an election campaign rally in which a candidate presented what seemed to be a well thought out blueprint for the development of his local ward. At the conclusion of the presentation, one person in the audience broke the silence with a bold demand for more tangible results:
That is enough speech-making, can you now talk to us?
“Talking to us” was easily understood to mean that it was time to give cash gifts to seal the bond.
Demands like this are not unusual during election campaigns in Kenya. They have been a regular feature of elections as long as anyone can remember. One can only imagine what this year’s campaign will be like on the back of a severe drought that has deepened inflation and led to economic hardships.
Building a democratic culture in the context of extreme hardships is a big challenge. As in many African countries undergoing democratic transitions amid conditions of high poverty, economic circumstances hinder or dissuade people from participation in the political process.
Politics of the belly
So what’s the relationship between religion and handouts? They interact and influence each other in myriad ways. Politicians distribute goods for the bellies of their clients in return for political loyalty. In this context democracy as a competitive process in which citizens freely elect their leaders is thrown out of the window.
The Kenyan Muslim leaders’ assurances of support for Kenyatta needs to understood against this background. The leaders – hint, hint – expressed gratitude to the president for
appointing the highest number of Cabinet secretaries and Principal Secretaries from the (Muslim) community.
A common pattern of religious accommodation in post-colonial East African states has been documented. Reflecting trends in Kenya, various religious groups have worked with governments and parties, irrespective of their political philosophies and ideologies.
It is also important to locate religion and politics in Africa within the broader context of ethnicity which has been sustained, and even strengthened, through the political distribution of goods and wealth.
The logic here is not based on universal ideas of human rights and citizenship but rather on networks of tribal patronage and clientilism. Politicians offer their ethnic clients certain material and symbolic gestures such as invocation of tribe, money, jobs in exchange for political support. It is an insecure means of organising support, admittedly, and one that is constantly at risk of corrupt indulgence in order to fund private benefit.
Thus Bayart’s politics-of-the-belly casts a long shadow on the deployment of culture in African states. It demonstrates that religion has followed patterns established by the politics of ethnicity in which merit and common good does not matter.
The current campaign confirms these various forms of symbolic and symbiotic relationships within Kenyan politics. Religious services and rhetoric, money tokens and ethnicity are an integral part of the political system. They will likely again be the main influence in the coming election.
Kenya’s political elite has historically been formed in mission schools, mostly within their ethnic groups and subject to ethnic expectations. Thus it’s an elite formed by – and crippled by – ethnic pride. Religious actors have not escaped a similar elite formation. Thus Kenya’s children of God are rarely Kenyans at large.