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.