Anxiety over Kenya’s hotly contested election

Saturday February 23 2013

Raila Odinga (right) and Uhuru Kenyatta campaigning in different parts of the country. Photos/FILE

Raila Odinga (right) and Uhuru Kenyatta campaigning in different parts of the country. Photos/FILE 

By JAINDI KISERO The EastAfrican

A second round in the presidential race in the March 4 General Election could be inevitable, going by the results of recent opinion polls, which have consistently failed to give any candidate an outright win of more than 50 per cent of the vote as required by Kenya’s new Constitution.

The latest opinion poll by Ipsos Synovate, on Friday, rates Uhuru Kenyatta’s popularity at 44.8 per cent, higher than that of his rival Raila Odinga’s 44.4 per cent, in the race for the presidency.

The results put Mr Kenyatta in the lead for the first time against his rival Mr Odinga. Musalia Mudavadi was rated at 5.2 per cent, Peter Kenneth 1.6 per cent, Martha Karua 0.8 per cent, Abduba Dida 0.2 per cent and Prof James ole Kiyiapi at 0.1 per cent.

Should the country go into a run-off, the region will have to live with another month of frenzied campaigns as the two candidates go for each other. Political analysts say with the six other candidates out of the way, the stakes will be higher and the campaigns more split along ethnic lines.

In the context of the country’s highly polarised politics, the press conference by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga on Wednesday in which he revealed threats to his life, was like shouting fire in a crowded cinema hall.

In the wake of the widely publicised press conference, where the chief justice accused top officials in the outgoing administration of President Mwai Kibaki of intimidating the judiciary — and revealed that the proscribed vigilante group Mungiki had issued threats against his life and that of fellow judges — political temperatures have gone several notches higher, raising fresh concerns as to whether the polls may — just like in 2007 — trigger widespread violence.

The opportunity had been created for the major political parties to trade accusations and score propaganda points against each other.

More significantly, the episode served to expose new fault lines within the government, pointing to growing schisms between the judiciary and other arms of government.

The timing of the move by the CJ, coming bang in the middle of loud albeit unproven claims by presidential candidate Raila Odinga that Head of Public Service Francis Kimemia had directed grassroots civil servants to vote for his opponent, quickly brought to the fore the issue of the neutrality of the civil service as the country approaches the elections.

More division

“There are early indications that Kenyans will head to the polls more divided along ethnic and regional lines compared with the previous election, primarily because of the ICC process, ” said Mwangi S. Kimenyi, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institute, an American think tank.

Mr Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto are among the four Kenyans facing crimes against humanity charges at the ICC over the 2007-8 post-election violence.

In the absence of any formal assurances by Nairobi, Kenya’s neighbours are hoping for the best as the country gets closer to the March 4 polls.

Uganda government officials said beyond verbal assurances, there had been no official commitment that Kenya would ensure commerce in the neighbouring countries would not be disrupted by possible post-election violence.

“Although it is obviously not enough, there have been verbal assurances by Kenyan leaders that they will do everything to ensure there is no post-election violence so we are hoping for the best, ” said James Mugume, Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary.

Charles Kayondo, the chairman of the Kampala City Traders Association, Kacita, said to hedge against the risk of post-election violence, the agency had advised its members to shift shipments to Dar es Salaam or take out insurance policies that cover political risk.

In 2008, the election crisis in Kenya had threatened to plunge the landlocked neighbours into macroeconomic instability, spurred by shortages of essential consumer products and crippling inflation.

“There is actually a lot of wait-and-see as the election nears and if there is a run-off, this may just be extended,” said Sammy Onyango, chief executive officer of consulting firm Deloitte East Africa.

Uganda and Rwanda’s oil distribution channels faced paralysis due to the fact that the major oil depots supplying products to the country are located in Nakuru, Kisumu and Eldoret — which were among the main flashpoints of the post-election violence that engulfed the country.

The Kenya Pipeline oil depot in Kisumu moves 60 per cent of all petroleum supplies reaching Uganda through Busia, with Eldoret depot accounting for the remainder.

Even more serious for the country’s landlocked neighbours, the violence that engulfed Kenya denied them access to Mombasa, the major sea port serving East Africa and the Great Lakes Region.

The operations of the Kenya-Uganda railway were also affected after rioters in Nairobi’s Kibera slums uprooted rail tracks in response to perceptions that President Yoweri Museveni supported President Mwai Kibaki.

On paper, the landlocked neighbours have the option of doing business through the so-called Southern Corridor that links Uganda to the Dar es Salaam port through Rwanda and Burundi.

But long distances, underdeveloped infrastructure, and the inefficiencies of the Dar port vis a vis Mombasa, have combined to prevent this corridor from emerging as a long-term solution.

If Kenya explodes, it will badly affect the security environment in the region. Because of its strategic location, its relatively developed infrastructure, and a larger middle class, Kenya has the ability to serve either as the locomotive of development or an agent of destabilisation on the region.

“If Kenya goes to a run-off, it may create some instability. We are hoping for a first round win. It was quite disturbing to hear what Justice Mutunga was talking about but we should prepare for some disturbances in some areas, so we are cautiously optimistic,” said James Dry, MD of Dry Associates, a Nairobi-based fund manager.

Whether the elections will precipitate violence this time around remains to be seen. On paper, the Election and Boundaries Commission is much better prepared than was the case in 2007.

As opposed to the situation in the past when polling stations were managed by staff hired on a temporary basis, this time around they will be under management of full time employees who can be held to account.

As a matter of fact, constituency election co-ordinators were hired and posted many months before.

Thus, for the first time since Independence, the election body will be approaching the process with its own staff.

But perhaps most important, the IEBC has a completely new register, having applied a completely new system of capturing and storing data.

IEBC officials tout the fact that voters will be identified electronically, making it impossible for elections officials to engage in ballot stuffing.

The elections body has also introduced new technology to deal with another area that has been a source of tension before — namely, tallying of votes.

This time around, provisional results will be transmitted electronically from the polling station to the constituency, county and national tallying centres.

The results will be displayed on big screens mounted in some 338 tallying centres. Presidential results will be tallied at the National Tallying Centre, those of the governor, senator and woman representative will be tallied at the county level while winning Members of Parliament and county assembly ward representatives will be declared at the constituency tallying centre.

The electronic results transmission application runs on a mobile phone and can be sent through GSM or satellite networks.

These will, however, be provisional results and confirmed results will be announced by respective returning officers ones the statutory electoral forms, co-signed by party agents, have been delivered and verified.

Both provisional and confirmed results will be available online.

Clearly, whether the elections will be peaceful or not will depend on the IEBC.

Indeed, Kenya is gambling on new technology to deliver a clean election. In the context of a high-stakes election where the main candidates are said to be running neck-to-neck, any small hitch in the technology will be enough to precipitate widespread violence.

“Elections are just a part of the national calendar but unfortunately in this country we get overexcited about it. From a business perspective, it creates a lack of focus and becomes a distraction, so the faster we get around it the better” said Munir Ahmed, managing director at Kenya’s National Bank.

“Overall, business and economic activity has reduced and the first half of 2013 will see lower growth. Investments are being held. If we go into a run-off, investments will continue to be slow,” he said.

Additional reporting by Gaaki Kigambo, Michael Wakabi and David Mugwe.