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Kenyan Elections: Recognisable Trends or New Future Paths?

 5 min read / 

On 27th December 2007, Kenya held its presidential elections. The incumbent Mwai Kibaki from the Party of National Unity (PNU) ran against the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), led by Raila Odinga. Throughout the fiercely contested campaign, Odinga held a marginal yet diminishing lead. Exit polls suggested that Odinga would emerge victorious, estimating that he held a 6% margin over his opponent. Surprisingly, however, the opposite result emerged. Kibaki retained the presidency, taking 46.4% of the vote to Odinga’s 44.1%.

Questioning the Result

Immediately, the legitimacy of the results was questioned. Odinga refused to accept that votes had been counted fairly. Political tensions filtered down to the local level, where political support was divided between Kenya’s two largest ethnic groups. The Luo tribe were zealous Odinga supporters, whilst Kibaki had enjoyed widespread support from the Kikuyu tribe.

Violence erupted between these two groups and around 1,400 people died as a result. Further investigation by the USA revealed that the election results had probably been tampered with, as the exit poll revealed Kibaki should only have taken 40% of the vote. With a supposed margin of error of just 1.3%, the probability that Kibaki could have achieved 46.4% of the vote seemed almost impossible.

Events the Kenyan elections of March 2013 followed a similar, albeit less violent, path. Odinga’s new opponent – Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto’s Jubilee Alliance coalition – gained over 50% of the vote, whilst Odinga’s Coalition for Reform and Democracy achieved just 43%. In familiar style, Odinga contested the result, but to no avail.

History Repeats Itself

Ten years on from the infamous events of 2007, and Kenya has just experienced some remarkably similar events. With elections held on 8th August 2017, Odinga and Kenyatta were once again the forerunners for the presidency. Results emerged against Odinga once again, as Kenyatta gained 54% of the public vote. In recognisable fashion Odinga spoke out, criticising the result’s legitimacy. Unlike 2013, however, the Supreme Court was receptive to Odinga’s pleas and annulled the election results on 1st September 2017. They ordered new elections to be held within 60 days.

Odinga based his criticism on various issues, all centred around the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and how its vote-counting method had been interfered with. Evidence had started mounting from well before the vote took place. On 27th July 2017, Christopher Msando – head of the digitalised voting system – was found dead just outside Nairobi. It was clear he had been murdered, as signs of torture were clear across his back and hands. With the main authority on the voting system out of the picture, suspicions arose regarding the ruling party’s plot to rig the election outcome.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA) claimed that the IEBC’s result included 7 million votes where forms were either missing, illegible or unsigned. Considering that the winning margin was just 1.5 million votes, this could have hugely impacted the outcome. Clearly unsatisfied with efforts to progress towards a second, fairer election, Odinga withdrew from the running on 10th October, urging his followers to boycott the second round of voting due to sustained unfair IEBC practice.

Subsequent events seemed to back up Odinga’s complaints. For example, on the 18th October 2017, the IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati claimed that the IEBC commissioners were partisan-minded and expressed concern over the legitimacy of the second round of voting. IEBC commissioner Roselyn Akombe, who fled to the US just days before the voting re-run, declared that the IEBC was under political siege. The supposedly-democratic situation deteriorated further after Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu avoided appearing at the Supreme Court to hear pleas to delay the second round of voting further after her bodyguard was attacked in Nairobi.

A Growing Social Divide

Such contest and apparent corruption in Kenya’s national politics is having very obvious consequences amongst the country’s population on the local level. Divides between Odinga’s Luo tribe and Kenyatta’s Kikuyu following have broadened since the original election. Protests have materialised, fuelled by Odinga’s call for national resistance, in which around 40 people are thought to have been killed already.

Even before the elections, Luo tribe strongholds in Western Kenya – in cities such as Kisumu – had long been unhappy with their government. With clear ethnic divisions across the country, many of Odinga’s supporters have felt they have been marginalised for the last half-century. Such ingrained social divides, coupled with the recent political tensions, unfortunately, mean that the election result will not become legitimate, no matter what happens over the next few months.

If Kenyatta succeeds in retaining power in the long term, a significant proportion of the country’s population will continue to feel estranged from their political system, unable to take control in the face of high-level corruption. Speaking in the US, Odinga expressed concern over the risk of national disintegration, citing poor economic policy and youth unemployment. He described how Kenyans “feel they don’t have a stake in their country”, and expressed sympathy for those wishing to secede.

Towards a Secession

Actions towards a secession have now become far more real. A bill has been submitted to the IEBC, calling for a secession to form the People’s Republic of Kenya. An accompanying online petition has already gained thousands of signatures in support of the split. It would appear that a new momentum among the masses has emerged against Kenyatta, which certainly makes the idea of a future secession referendum plausible.

By no means, however, would progress towards secession automatically equate to positive social consequences across the country. One only has to consider some forthcoming historical examples – South Sudan, Eritrea and Bangladesh – to gain some sense of how secessions can be long, violent, and counterproductive.

With the Kenyan economy already in a precarious state, the country may not be able to endure such a process. Many clearly feel, however, that there simply is no other option. The Luo tribe and other oppressed ethnic groups certainly do not want to wait patiently for their chance in the next general election.

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