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.
A few hours after Kenya’s polling stations closed on Tuesday August 8th, the country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission began transmitting live results.
But even before it had a chance to complete the tallying process, the opposition candidate Raila Odinga and his National Super Alliance (NASA) disputed the credibility and fairness of the process, claiming that they had garnered 8.04 million votes against Uhuru Kenyatta’s 7.7 million.
These results differed widely from the official electoral figures which on Friday placed Kenyatta in the lead with 8.1 million votes, and Odinga in second place with 6.7 million.
History seems to be on the side of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission: international observers – of which there were 400 at various stations on polling day – have by and large come out to say that the process was credible. If we take the practice of democracy as playing the game and abiding by the rules, then for Kenya the game is far from over.
In the end, the final judgement could be made by the country’s courts. The rules governing elections in Kenya are set down in the constitution which states that a candidate will be declared president if he or she has received more than half of all the votes cast in the election, and that at least 25% of the votes cast in each of more than half of the counties.
If indeed there is an election petition, both sides are heavily invested in the outcome. For Odinga it is do or die. He has unsuccessfully contested for the top seat three times. However, despite this being his last shot, he has maintained that legal recourse is not an option.
The future of his running mate Kalonzo Musyoka is also uncertain – results show that some of the candidates vying for gubernatorial seats on his Wiper party ticket were unsuccessful, thereby lowering his political party’s future value proposition.
For Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto the marriage of convenience is under pressure to continue for another five years to pave the way for Ruto’s succession.
Things that stood out
Despite the fears of post-election violence there was a lot of goodwill for this election to be a success. Campaigns for a “tribeless Kenya” and various activities that promoted peaceful elections were a part of the pre-poll fabric.
While there were multiple reports predicting violence, there was relative calm after voters had gone to the polls. And for the most part Kenyans have so far affirmed that no blood needs to be shed.
But there has been violence. Kenyans in low-income areas been caught up in deadly clashes with the police.
These incidents have been localised to opposition areas and the majority of Kenyans seem eager to return to normalcy. This resolve is being tested by the opposition alliance which announced on Sunday that it was preparing a post-election strategy. Many fear that this could heighten tensions further. The election, and its aftermath, provide an opportunity for Kenya to reflect on how the electoral process went and how, in the future, it can deal with complaints and inconsistencies better.
But there have been many positive reports on the election process. These, combined with what observers say was largely a free and fair election, have increased international confidence in Kenya’s election processes.
What was memorable
What will the 2017 election be remembered for?
The road to Canaan: The 2017 election was an incumbent election with polls consistently showing an incumbent win for Kenyatta. Nevertheless, the opposition colourfully portrayed their campaign as the Road to Canaan, with Joshua (their flag bearer Odinga) leading them to the Promised Land full of milk and honey. The biblical story of Joshua is of a military commander who takes the mantle from Moses. His mission is to take the Israelite tribes to the land of Canaan after 40 years of wandering. The story of Canaan is one of hope and the message resonated with many Kenyans.
The year of the independent candidate: Legislation that put a definitive end to party hopping after the party nomination process gave rise to the “big two” National Super Alliance and Jubilee Party coalitions.
In my opinion this legislation changed Kenya’s political landscape because smaller parties were swallowed up by the big coalitions. Many who tried to secure nominations from the Jubilee Party and National Super Alliance failed. They were therefore left no option but to stand as independent candidates if they wanted to keep alive their dreams of running for office.
But the election results have shown that the independent movement failed to get off the ground. By and large Kenyans favoured candidates from one of the big two coalitions. Only two counties – Isiolo and Laikipia – went against this trend, electing independent candidates as their next governors.
More women elected: In terms of gender representation, there’s a lot to be encouraged by, not least the fact that the first women governors were elected. The council of governors had previously been a male preserve. The number of women in elected seats also rose from 16 in 2013 to 22 in this election.
Leaders who work: The election results also showed the reduction in appetite for leaders who don’t deliver. This was clear from the number of incumbents who were unsuccessful in their bids to return to their posts.
In the end, election days come and go. The next phase is all that matters now. The intense electoral competition and the choices people made show that there is enough room for all Kenyans to participate – whether they belong to a big party or not – and to do so in a meaningful way.
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
There are eight candidates for the presidency in Kenya’s 2017 election. Of these, two are the main contenders; Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta and Raila Amolo Odinga. This is a replica of the 2013 polls where the two presidential candidates were the dominant opponents.
The running mate configuration has not changed either, with both retaining their previous partners. William Ruto for Kenyatta and Kalonzo Musyoka for Odinga. The only thing that has changed is their party identities.
Kenyatta’s 2013 Jubilee coalition is now the Jubilee Party, comprising most of the constituent parties that had been part of the coalition. The 2013 Jubilee formation was an alliance between parties loyal to the president, and his deputy William Ruto.
For its part Odinga’s camp underwent a coalition overhaul, morphing from the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy to the National Super Alliance. The coalition brings together several parties, both old and new, led by the Orange Democratic Movement, Odinga’s longtime party.
Latest polls have indicated that the two candidates are neck-and-neck. Both have factors working for and against them.
A few things are in Kenyatta’s favour. At 55 years of age, he is a young president who represents generational change. Kenyatta also comes from one of the wealthiest families in Kenya. Forbes Magazine ranks him as the 26th richest person in Africa, with an estimated fortune of $500m. This means that he’s been able to contribute financially to a vibrant campaign.
As the incumbent some would also argue that he has had access to state resources and agencies to facilitate his re-election. Incumbency has also allowed him to drive his campaign on the steam of his development record and flagship projects in infrastructure, the energy sector and public service delivery.
In terms of voting blocs, Kenyatta has the support of Kenya’s two most populous ethnic groupings: the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru (GEMA) and the Kalenjin. The registered voters in the GEMA grouping are approximately 5,588,389, in the Kalenjin are 2,324,559.
Combined, that’s 7,912,948 votes, which is equivalent to 40% of the electorate. That’s a formidable start when you consider that presidential strongholds have historically recorded a higher voter turnout during elections.
The Jubilee presidency is seen as a two-man show. This has contributed to the perception that Jubilee is not ethnically representative.
Odinga has many things going for him. High up on the list are his charisma and strong political mobilisation skills. Historically, Odinga has always been a formidable opposition politician; not being an incumbent has enabled him to galvanise effectively.
Odinga enjoys wider ethnic support compared to President Kenyatta, comprising among others the Kamba, Luhya, Luo and Maasai tribes. These communities comprise over a third of the voting population. But the disadvantage is their historically lower record of voter turnout.
At 72 years of age, Odinga represents the older generation of Kenyan leaders who joined politics in the 1970s and 80s. And this being his fourth attempt at the presidency, there’s lethargy among some of his supporters.
He’s viewed by some as power hungry and untrustworthy, especially because of his alleged association with Kenya’s 1982 coup. His calls for mass action after the contentious 2007 election, during a period that saw the displacement and death of thousands of Kenyans, also contributed to this perception.
The main political formations
There are two main formations in the 2017 election - the Jubilee Party and the National Super Alliance.
The Jubilee Party, formed in September 2016, followed a merger between The National Alliance and the United Republican Party representing two ethnic communities - the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. The Jubilee Party also has the support of other political parties including the Kenya African National Union, NARC Kenya, the Labour Party and the Democratic Party amongst others.
The National Super Alliance is a coalition of political parties formed in April 2017. Its leading lights are Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, the Wiper Democratic Movement led by Kalonzo Musyoka, the Amani National Congress led by Musalia Mudavadi, Ford Kenya led by Moses Wetangula and Isaac Ruto’s Chama Cha Mashinani. The coalition brings together the Luo, Kamba and Luhya ethnic groups, and a section of the Kalenjin community.
In this election cycle party manifestos have become increasingly important. This explains the Jubilee administration’s scramble to complete promises outlined in its 2013 document.
The Jubilee Party has made even more promises in its recently launched manifesto. Three that have caught the public attention include the creation of 1.3 million jobs a year, free public secondary education and the expansion of Kenya’s food production capacity.
The National Super Alliance’s promises are more political. They include a constitutional amendment to provide for a hybrid executive system to foster national cohesion. Two other notable promises are to lower the cost of rent by enforcing the Rent Restriction Act and to implement free secondary education.
Strengths and weaknesses
The strengths of the Jubilee Party lie mainly in its incumbency and its development track record over the last four-and-a-half years. But the party has been weakened by divisions within its ranks. These were amplified during the campaign as disagreements broke out over the leadership of campaign teams. The ruling party is also handicapped to the extent that it’s not as ethnically diverse as its competitor.
The National Super Alliance’s main strength lies in its ethnic diversity. Its five principals represent different ethnic communities.
The super alliance also creatively captures the zeitgeist of a section of the electorate, with some of its campaign slogans such as vindu vichenjanga (‘things are a-changing’ in the Luhya dialect) making their way into popular use. It is riding on the euphoric wave that usually accompanies the hope of regime change.
One of its weaknesses, however, includes a perceived predilection to violence because the opposition has previously resorted to mass action. In 2016 for example, it organised a series of protests to mobilise for the removal of key members of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries commission, the body responsible for organising the general election.
Another weakness is its close association with allegedly corrupt financiers.
There is a perception that historically, the presidency has been the preserve of two ethnic groups – the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. This feeling of disenfranchisement has become a key campaign issue.
There are however, some non-tribal issues that have taken the foreground. These include corruption, economic and social stability, lower cost of living and improved security.
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.