In a move that has exposed Kenya’s fragile democracy, the government recently shut down the country’s three biggest TV stations.
This unprecedented, unlawful and panicked response was supposed to ensure that there was no live coverage of the mock swearing in of the National Super Alliance (NASA) opposition leader Raila Odinga as the ‘People’s President’.
The government outlawed the January 30 event and threatened to charge Odinga with treason.
NASA has refused to recognise Uhuru Kenyatta as Kenya’s legitimate president even though he won the repeat presidential election last October. The repeat election was held after the Supreme Court annulled the first poll in August. NASA insists it won the August election and boycotted the repeat poll.
Not since former President Daniel Arap Moi’s tyrannical rule in the 1980s through the 1990s has a government been so brazen in its disregard for the rule of law and as antagonistic to a free press. In fact, recent events are the culmination of a sustained vindictive campaign by Kenyatta against the media in Kenya.
Evolution of repression
In the 1980s Moi’s government routinely jailed journalists and banned publications. With his exit from power this despotic streak abated. But media repression took new forms.
The government began to exert influence through selective advertising, suspect allocation of broadcast frequencies and the co-option of media owners and journalists.
Instances of raw intimidation were extremely rare. One such isolated incident occurred in 2005 when former President Mwai Kibaki’s wife stormed a media house, slapped a TV cameraman, and confiscated note books and tape recorders. She was protesting the perceived negative coverage of the first family.
Kenya boasts a relatively robust media with over 60 TV stations, more than 130 radio stations and several newspaper titles. But, the industry is dominated by three big players; namely the Nation Media Group, Standard Group and Royal Media Services. Successive governments have thus courted the support of these three groups which own NTV, KTN and Citizen, respectively - the three TV stations that were recently shut down by Kenyatta.
Rolling back the gains
Kenyatta’s clampdown on the media in Kenya was not entirely unexpected. Since first becoming president in 2013, his consolidation of political power has been ruthless. He has established a political system in which there is no clear distinction between the Jubilee Party and the state.
The police have been militarised, and alternative centres of political power both within the government and in the opposition are being dismantled.
Like his father Jomo in the 1970s and Moi in the 1980s, Kenyatta is slowly embodying the image of a dictator through a combination of co-opting Kenya’s wealthy economic and political class, and brute force.
Having won the 2013 elections in a controversial victory made possible through the support of a number of smaller political parties, Kenyatta later insisted on their dissolution and the formation of one umbrella party - Jubilee. He then became party leader.
Where he previously had to navigate the interests of various parties to implement his agenda, he can now make unilateral decisions with minimum opposition.
Kenyatta’s media strategy
To further consolidate his power Kenyatta has invested massively in Mediamax, his family’s media company which owns several radio stations, a television station and a national newspaper.
He has also attempted to co-opt sections of the mainstream media. Soon after his inauguration in 2013, he invited some of the country’s top editors and journalists to State House for a “breakfast meeting”. This, he said, was to open a new chapter in “press-state” relations.
But, some sections of the press refused to play ball, and the public turned against what was gradually becoming a pliant media. Soon after that the honeymoon ended and the media clampdown began in earnest. Just one year after becoming president, editors and media managers started getting routine summons to State House.
Kenyatta even had the gumption to warn journalists on World Freedom Day in 2014 that they did not have absolute freedom on what to publish or broadcast. Since then the clampdown has been relentless.
While it claimed this was to curb runaway spending it was clear the decision was aimed at starving the mainstream media of advertising revenue. This move came not long after Denis Galava, a top Kenyan journalist and editor at the Nation Media Group, was sacked for writing a scathing editorial about the President.
More recently the deputy president’s spokesperson threatened a journalist with sacking following a news report that claimed the president and his deputy had disagreed over cabinet appointments.
Meanwhile, just days before Odinga’s “swearing in”, Linus Kaikai, chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild, claimed that a number of editors and media managers were summoned to State House and given a dressing down by the president, threatening to revoke the licences of those who broadcast the event live.
Kaikai and fellow Nation journalists Larry Madowo and Ken Mujungu have since been threatened with arrest. They had to go to court to obtain anticipatory bail to bar police from arresting them.
Free press vital
There are ominous signs that Kenyatta is on a mission to silence the press as he consolidates his power. The government’s decision to disobey the court order directing it to end the media shutdown shows disdain for the law, and press freedom.
Although the mainstream media hasn’t done itself any favours by cosying up to him, it has largely played a vital role in sustaining political accountability.
With both houses of Parliament dominated by the ruling Jubilee Party, a weakened civil society, and opposition leaders without the institutional capacity to meaningfully confront the government, Kenya’s mainstream media remains a bulwark against the country’s descent to authoritarianism.
Kenya’s mainstream media must thus reclaim its place and defend the many liberties currently at stake under Kenyatta’s government.
In his last address at Uhuru Park on the eve of Kenya’s October 26 election re-run, Raila Odinga announced the creation of what he called a National Resistance Movement. In a later interview with CNN, he clarified that the movement was a new wing of the opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance (NASA) which he led into the presidential elections in early August.
He said the resistance movement would complement the other arms of the opposition coalition and would pursue a peaceful, non-violent struggle. It’s main objective would be to advance electoral justice in Kenya and across Africa as well.
His latest public address was expected to provide a radical way forward. But it fell short of expectations among his supporters who expected a more radical announcement. In addition to the resistance movement, Odinga also created a “People’s Parliament” to protect election integrity, constitutionalism, democracy and the rule of law.
Odinga’s immediate aim remains to force a credible election in the next 90 days. To achieve this the opposition alliance is seeking a total overhaul of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
These moves come at a time when opposition leaders feel that the international community, led by the US and European Union, are either reluctant to push for reforms. Many believe that they are conspiring with the Jubliee regime to protect their own business, security, and diplomatic interests in the region.
The developments spearheaded by Odinga are, in my opinion, good for Kenya’s democracy. By constituting a People’s Assembly, NASA is seeking to put citizens at the centre of the struggle for electoral reforms, constitutionalism, and the expansion of democratisation.
The Jubilee administration, buoyed by an overwhelming majority in both houses of parliament, appears to be trying to roll back Kenya’s democratic gains. The fact that the party is also in control of the executive makes matters worse.
This is exemplified by its forceful passage of the controversial bill to amend the electoral process in the middle of the election cycle. Parliamentarians pressed ahead with the bill despite being cautioned against doing so by a wide section of Kenyan society and the international community. Some parts of the bill seem well-intentioned. But others, such as the provisions that prioritise manual voting mechanisms over the current electronic system, don’t augur well for the country.
The Jubilee regime has also embarked on a crackdown of civil society organisations deemed to be sympathetic to the opposition coalition. These include the Kenya Human Rights commission and Africog, a governance and public ethics non-governmental organisation.
In addition, members of the party are openly calling for a “benevolent dictatorship” in Kenya. This call was first made by the Jubilee Party vice-chairman David Murathe.
Benevolent dictatorships – which operate on the basis that certain democratic rights need to be ceded for economic gain – are cited as the reason for the economic rise of countries such as China and Singapore. But the same may not necessarily be true for Kenya. Under the one party dictatorships of former presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi Kenya’s economy was stunted. In Africa the countries that have made economic progress such as Botswana, Namibia, and Mauritius are some of the most democratic.
Odinga has three options to make sure Kenya’s democracy is strengthened, and not weakened.
The first is to file another petition to the Supreme Court. He can bring the case in his own capacity or sponsor like-minded civil society organisations to petition the court. The petition would challenge the credibility of the repeat electoral process and the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s presidency.
The other option is to sustain a civil disobedience campaign. This would involve peaceful protests and other forms of opposition such as an economic boycott of goods and service providers associated with Kenyatta’s regime.
The opposition could also call for street protests. The danger with this is that they could turn violent. Since the August 8th election demonstrators have repeatedly clashed with police. And in certain parts of the country NASA and Jubilee supporters have clashed in confrontations that could escalate into ethnic violence.
A final and extreme option would be for the regions that support the alliance to secede. The secession debate, which was triggered by NASA technical advisor David Ndii, has excited the opposition’s support base. Odinga himself, though cautious, seems to be sympathetic if what he calls “electoral authoritarianism” persists.
In reality NASA should be pushing for Kenya’s devolved system of governance to be strengthened with a view to redrawing boundaries and creating a federal system. This approach is likely to be well received in alliance strongholds, particularly in regions where communities have felt marginalised and disenfranchised by successive Kenyan governments.
Where does this all leave Odinga? Regardless of his future political trajectory, he has left a positive mark on Kenya’s political landscape. He has been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy, good governance, and upholding the rule of law. The Supreme Court has vindicated him. This is in addition to his campaign for Kenyans to boycott the repeat election that resulted in low voter turnout, leaving Kenyatta reeling with legitimacy question.
Odinga’s struggle for electoral integrity as a key cornerstone for democracy and rule of law should be supported by progressive forces across the continent. Retrogressive regimes have an uncanny way of entrenching themselves. Hence Odinga, and his alliance’s push should be contextualised in the wider struggle towards a functioning democracy for Africa.
I remember walking through the rubble of burnt out buildings some months after Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence. Houses owned by ethnic Kikuyu were razed to the ground in the city of Kisumu. A large night club was also raided and then set on fire.
A friend and guide who was showing me around refused to follow me into the ruins. She herself had feared for her life in the chaos that followed that election. Though she was ethnic Luhya, youths had encircled her house in the dead of night, believing her to be Kikuyu and threatening to torch her house. She hid with her son the entire night and eventually the youths went away.
Stopping by a demolished wall I read in paint, “No Raila, No Peace”. This was a reference to Raila Odinga, who disputed the election of Mwai Kibaki as president in December 2007. He is now leader of the opposition coalition National Super Alliance (NASA).
Kenya has just conducted a rerun of the 8 August 2017 presidential elections that were invalidated by the Supreme Court following copious evidence of irregularities. In line with the Constitution, the rerun had to take place within 60 days. And so on 26 October Kenyans went to the polls once more, though not everyone.
Odinga was on the ballot even though he had declared that he would play no part. In the run up to the repeat election, Odinga demanded the electoral commission make reforms that he believed necessary to avoid the previous mistakes. NASA provided a list of “irreducible minimums” that had to be implemented before free and fair elections could be guaranteed.
Declaring that these reforms had not been made, Odinga announced that he would not stand for election. He also called on his supporters to boycott the vote and hold rallies in protest of the electoral commission in the preceding weeks. Turning up the temperature even higher, a day before the repeat election he announced that NASA was no longer a political coalition but a “resistance movement”.
On 26 October, his supporters honoured his call to boycott the vote. This led to a drop in turnout that affected not only his traditional heartlands but the country’s north east and coastal areas as well. This is a contrast to Kenya’s record of extremely high political participation.
Odinga’s call was for peaceful non-participation. But confrontation did mar election day. MPs and other politicians in Odinga’s Nyanza region had, in the run-up to election day, been threatening retaliation against the security forces. Their supporters in four counties created enough disturbance that polling had to be delayed and postponed. Youth gangs were out in force roaming numerous tallying centres to harass both election officials and voters.
More alarmingly still, police brutality was also evident on election day. Over 20 people suffered gun shot injuries in Kisumu alone. Reports indicated that many of those attacked over the course of the campaign period were confronted by the police in slum areas, stoking suspicions that these were extrajudicial killings utterly unnecessary for establishing law and order.
A broken election
What has become a broken election was doomed at the start by the almost impossible time frame given by the Supreme Court. After ruling that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had made fatal mistakes in the conduct of the 8 August election, it took another 21 days to provide the details of exactly what those mistakes were.
With the 60 day countdown looming, the ground shifted again when the High Court ruled that the election was open to additional candidates, not just the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga.
The back and forth between the courts did not end there. On October 25 the Supreme Court was called upon to decide whether the new polls were being lawfully held. The grounds for this opposition-backed petition was that the IEBC had failed to facilitate fresh nominations.
Only two judges were available to hear the petition; five are required to form a quorum. So the petition was postponed, further destroying the election’s credibility in the eyes of those opposed to Kenyatta.
The institutions steering this election – the IEBC, the courts and parliament – have evidently broken down. They have become the shattered remains through which an iron fist is descending on the country to reestablish political stability by any means necessary.
Shortly beforehand, IEBC Commissioner Roselyn Akombe fled to New York, stating ominously that her fear over the safety of election staff in the field,
was met with more extremist responses from most Commissioners, who are keen to have an election even if it is at the cost of the lives of our staff and voters.
Odinga is partly to blame for the ease with which this iron fist is descending. He started his opposition through the courts but then failed to follow through, switching to mass action instead. He declared he would not contest the election but then failed to submit the relevant form to the IEBC – so there was no legal requirement to have the ballot papers changed.
That was a strategic blunder that inadvertently framed Kenyatta as the one campaigning for Kenyans to have a chance to vote. It’s a strategic blunder that will likely end Odinga’s political career. It also means he cannot subsequently claim in the Supreme Court that the election should not have gone ahead.
NASA’s decision to declare the coalition a “resistance movement” signifies that it believes the IEBC and Kenya’s core political institutions are fully undermined. What they fail to see is that this has a direct effect of splitting the opposition in two.
While the presidential election required a rerun, all other elected positions continue in place. There are MPs, governors and senators of the NASA coalition who will not leave their positions to join a less formalised resistance movement, though they will show their support for Odinga in rhetoric. This breaks the opposition into insiders and outsiders, rendering it even weaker than previously feared.
Kenya's election commission has postponed plans to hold delayed elections in some western constituencies where voting has not taken place. Protests and security concerns for staff are the main reasons for the delay.
Wafula Chebukati, head of the election commission, has postponed plans to restage the presidential election in areas hit by polling-day protests. They would be delayed "to a further date," he said on Friday.
"The commission has deliberated on the various incidents happening in some parts of the country and has postponed the elections scheduled to take place tomorrow, Saturday, to a further date to be announced in the coming days," Chebukati said.
In the western port city of Kisumu on Lake Victoria, police clashes with demonstrators turned deadly on Thursday afternoon. Protesters blocked streets, started fires and threw stones at security officers, who used tear gas and then fired into the crowds. Four people were killed and at least 50 others injured. Kisumu Governor Anyang' Nyong'o said that his government would not cooperate with the resumption of the vote on Saturday while the region was in "mourning."
Only 6.55 million Kenyans went to the polls for the country's re-run vote, Chebukati said on Friday, meaning turnout was a dismal 34.5 percent. Turnout for the August ballot that was annulled by the Supreme Court had been 80 percent.
The low turnout was likely due to a boycott of the vote by most of the country's 19 million registered voters, including opposition candidate Raila Odinga, who called it "a sham election." The deeply divisive election on Thursday was marred by protests and violence that left at least four people dead and dozens more wounded.
The first election in August 8 ended with a victory for incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta with 54 percent of the vote. Violence broke out after the opposition accused Kenyatta of vote tampering, leaving 37 people dead in a country still divided by ethnic loyalties.
However, a few weeks later, on August 28, Kenya's Supreme Court listened to arguments presented by Odinga on alleged irregularities and allowed an audit of the vote. The results of the audit led to the court voiding the election. Although he was instrumental in having the vote annulled, Odinga announced on October 10 that he was boycotting the second election, citing fraud within the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which is run by Chebukati.
Elections in Kenya have often been tense affairs, with many avoiding the polls for fear of violence. Widespread unrest after the country's 2007 election led to months of bloodshed that cost some 1,300 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands.
es/ks (AFP, Reuters)
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.
Kenyans began voting Tuesday in general elections headlined by a too-close-to-call battle between incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and his rival Raila Odinga, sparking fears of violence in east Africa's richest economy.
Long lines of voters snaked outside of polling stations around the country, many of them camping out from before midnight, under heavy security. Voting got underway shortly after 6am and all eyes are on an electronic voter identification and tallying system whose success is seen as crucial to a smooth.
In Nairobi's largest slum Kibera, an opposition stronghold, angry shouts rang out due to a 15 minute delay, but calm swiftly returned as polling stations opened. "I voted Raila, because he will be so much better to us. But if he does not win, it's ok. It's a democracy after all. Really, there's no need for violence," said Tom Mboya, 43, who works in construction.
Tensions soared in the last days of the campaign with the murder of a top election official and opposition claims that one of its vote tallying centres was raided by police, heightening a feverish atmosphere of conspiracy and suspicion.
The polls are seen as a litmus test of Kenya's progress since a disputed 2007 election sparked violence which left more than 1,100 dead and 600,000 displaced. Odinga, 72, flagbearer of the NASA coalition, is taking his fourth and likely final stab at the presidency.
He claims elections in 2007 and 2013 were stolen from him and right up until the eve of the vote, insisted that Kenyatta's Jubilee Party planned to rig Tuesday's presidential election. Elections in 2013 were marred by the widespread failure of the electronic system, forcing officials to revert to manual counting of the vote. However Odinga took his grievances to the courts instead of the streets, where he lost.
"It seems almost inevitable that whoever loses will question the result. The question is not whether or not they will accept the result but what they will do when they don't accept it," said Nic Cheeseman, professor of African politics at Birmingham University in England.
In a bid to ease tensions Kenyatta addressed the nation Monday night, urging citizens to vote "in peace". Former US president Barack Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, led a chorus of international calls on the eve of the vote for a peaceful election.
"I urge Kenyan leaders to reject violence and incitement; respect the will of the people," Obama said in a statement. At Moi Avenue Primary School, the largest polling station in the city, voter Calvin Otieno, 27, joined the queue shortly after midnight. "Everyone has a right to vote and we should all be ready to accept the results. There is no need to fight because of elections. We are all Kenyans irrespective of tribe. If we fight, will any of the candidates come to bring us food in our houses?" he said.
In Kenyatta's home town Gatundu, north of Nairobi, a voter who identified herself only as Gathoni arrived early to "vote for my favourite president", who will himself cast his ballot at the polling station later in the morning.
There are more than 19 million registered voters in the nation of 48 million. Half are aged under 35. More than 150,000 security forces — including wildlife, prison and forestry officers — have been deployed for the vote, which ends at 5pm (1400 GMT).
Kenyans will vote in six different elections, choosing governors, lawmakers, senators, county officials and women's representatives in local races also rife with tension. However all eyes are on what is set to be the last showdown of a dynastic rivalry that has lasted more than half a century since the presidential candidates' fathers Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Odinga went from allies in the struggle for independence to bitter rivals.
The men belong to two of the country's main ethnic groups, Kenyatta from the Kikuyu, the largest, and Odinga from the Luo. Both have secured formidable alliances with other influential communities in a country where voting takes place largely along tribal lines.
Kenyatta, 55, is seeking re-election after a first term in which he oversaw a massive infrastructure drive and steady economic growth of more than five percent. However he is also criticised for soaring food prices — with prices jumping 20 percent year-on-year in May — and massive corruption scandals on his watch.
Credit: NATION MEDIA GROUP
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.
Kenya’s general election will be contested by a large number of hopefuls, but in reality it’s a two-horse race between Raila Odinga of the National Super Alliance and Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party.
Unsurprisingly in a country in which the executive continues to wield a dominant influence, coverage of the campaign has focused on the personalities and records of Odinga and Kenyatta.
What does their candidacy tell us about Kenyan politics in 2017?
The first and most obvious lesson from the 2017 election campaign is that dynastic politics is alive and well in Kenya. Despite all of the contestation, efforts and plotting of rival leaders hoping to push their own ambitions, 2017 will be fought between a Kenyatta and an Odinga, just like the elections of 2013 and the Little General Election of 1966.
The second is that ethnicity only gets you so far. In 2013, Odinga outperformed rival presidential candidate Musalia Mudavadi within his own Luhya community. This was possible because while Odinga was seen to be a credible opposition leader, Mudavadi’s dalliance with Kenyatta – with whom he formed an extremely short-lived alliance – raised concerns that he was a State House puppet. Kenyatta’s recent rehabilitation as the dominant leader among the Kikuyu community following his electoral humiliation in 2002 also demonstrates this point well.
So who are the two leading contenders?
Odinga, the opposition stalwart
Raila Odinga is the son of Oginga Odinga, a prominent independence leader and Kenya’s first vice president who never realised his dream of occupying State House. Like his father, Raila has campaigned tirelessly against considerable odds, and has so far been unsuccessful. He narrowly lost elections in 2007 – when many believe he was rigged out – and in 2013.
Odinga’s great ability is to be able to mobilise well beyond his own Luo community, and to sustain his political party – the Orange Democratic Movement for a decade. Given that most Kenyan parties collapse within a few years, this is some achievement.
The breadth of Odinga’s support base is also impressive. In 2013 he performed well among Luhya voters in Western Kenya, Kamba voters in Eastern Kenya and also at the Coast.
Odinga’s capacity to mobilise support across ethnic lines has two sources. On the one hand, he receives some votes “second hand” as a result of the efforts of his allies from other regions and ethnic groups to direct rally their communities to his cause.
On the other hand, he’s built a strong reputation for representing historically economically and politically marginalised communities. Indeed, while he has never secured the presidency, he has contributed to political reform. Most notably, Odinga played an important role in bringing about constitutional reform in 2010 that introduced devolution and hence a degree of self-government for the groups in his coalition.
Kenyatta, born to power
In contrast to Odinga, Uhuru was born into power as the son of the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and secured the presidency in the 2013 general election having previously failed to do so in 2002.
Kenyatta’s supporters like to say that he was born in State House, and hence born to power, although this is not actually true. But it is true that he has spent his life close to the machinery of government, and his family’s political influence and wealth give him a clear advantage in the elections. His gift is to be able to look and sound presidential when he has an important speech to make, despite his playboy lifestyle.
Although it’s tempting to see Kenyatta’s rise to power as inevitable, this is not the case. In 2002, he failed to mobilise support among his own community because he had been selected by the outgoing Kalenjin President Daniel arap Moi to be his successor. He was then widely seen to be a proxy for Moi’s interests. At that point, his political career appeared to be over.
It was not until Kenyatta developed a reputation for defending Kikuyu interests by allegedly funding and organising militias in the violence that engulfed the 2007 elections that he emerged as the dominant figure within the Central Province. It is for this alleged role that he faced charges (that were subsequently dropped) of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. This, and his electoral alliance with his co-accused – the influential Kalenjin leader William Ruto – were critical factors in his victory in 2013.
The 2017 race
During the campaign Kenyatta and Odinga have been a study in contrasts.
While Odinga stresses his intention to shake things up, Kenyatta presents himself as a safe pair of hands who will protect the status quo.
While Odinga plays up his image as the representative of the excluded, promising to deepen devolution and invest in poorer areas, Kenyatta emphasises building a national infrastructure and maintaining economic growth, arguing that the gains of the rich will trickle down to benefit all Kenyans in time.
These images are further entrenched by the criticisms that each leader makes of the other. Jubilee caricatures Odinga as an unprincipled thug who cannot be trusted with the fine art of government. For its part, the National Super Alliance charges that Kenyatta is out of touch and only interested in serving the interests of the wealthy within his own community.
Some complain that these differences are more rhetorical than real, one thing is clear. In fact Kenyans have a real choice to make at the ballot box.
The greater resources available to Kenyatta, along with the more professional team around him, mean that the opposition faces an uphill battle. Moreover, government interference with the media – which is regularly intimidated – means that while election reportage is vibrant some of the stories that would most hurt the government don’t make it on to the front pages.
It’s therefore not surprising that, at the time of writing, Kenyatta enjoys a small but significant lead in the polls. A series of surveys conducted by different companies using different samples have put him on around 48% of the vote, with Odinga on around 43%. These polls suggest that about 8% of Kenyans remain undecided. This suggests that Raila can still win, but to do so he will have to capture the vast majority of “floating voters” in the last month of campaigning.
However, if undecided voters divide equally between the two main candidates, Kenyatta looks set to end up on something like 52% – surpassing the 50%+1 threshold for a first round win – with Odinga on 47%.
Given this, the record of no sitting Kenyan president ever having lost an election may survive for a while yet, despite the momentum behind the opposition. Although the country has made real democratic strides with its new constitution, the advantages of incumbency remain formidable.
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.