Kenya’s elections are just fine: The problem is with its politics

Thursday August 17 2017

President Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner of presidential polls with 54.27 per cent of votes, beating his rival Raila Odinga who scored 44.74 percent, the IEBC on August 11, 2017.  PHOTO | JOHN MUCHUCHA | AFP

President Uhuru Kenyatta after being declared the winner of presidential polls with 54.27 per cent of votes, beating his rival Raila Odinga who scored 44.74 percent, the IEBC on August 11, 2017. PHOTO | JOHN MUCHUCHA | AFP 

More by this Author

Another Kenyan election came went, and we had another round of bitterness and rejection of the results. Raila Odinga’s Nasa coalition says their candidate was robbed of victory.

Several foreign election observers and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) say President Uhuru Kenyatta won fair and square.

Having closely watched three elections in Kenya now, it seems the time is right to ask another question; barring the exceptional circumstances of 2002, is it possible to have an election, however fair, that is credible enough with all Kenyans? Unlikely.

The reason is that Kenya seems to have entered a phase where even if it held the most transparent vote in the world, the political outcome will be bad for considerable parts of the country.

Security chiefs

I was doing some research on Central Bank governors and security chiefs since independence.

Barring two or three cases, nearly all of them have been from the Rift Valley-Central Kenya strip.

That, to a great part, has to be tied to the fact that since independence, Kenya’s presidents – Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Uhuru Kenyatta – have all come from that belt.

I compared that to the situation in Uganda, whose politics is quite messy, too.

My own community is a small electorally insignificant one. If you are a presidential candidate, you can afford to not even stop there to campaign – and indeed, presidential candidates only make whistle stops at best. Despite that historically, presidents in Kampala have appointed people from there to very juicy jobs, including police, prisons, and other chieftainships.

Accident of history

That doesn’t seem to be possible in Kenya. In Uganda’s case, this is possible, first, as an accident of history.

The counter to British colonial Protestantism was French and Italian-led Catholicism, the same formations around which the Second World War were to be fought be, not tribe.

Secondly, because Uganda had several autonomous kingdoms, apart from their own differences with the colonial administration, there was an early development of a conservative versus republican cleavage defined by defence or opposition to monarchical and court privileges. This divide, again, transcended tribe and region.

Finally, when President Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986, his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) became a state party.

In other words, unlike Kenya where parties are really distinct from government, in Uganda they are one.

The NRM brought the same grassroots and cell structure it used as a rebel movement to government.

Multiparty politics

To compete against it, when Uganda returned to multiparty politics in 2005, the most successful opposition parties had to mimic its structures.

These principles were later enshrined in a political party law that requires a party to have a footprint in two-thirds of the country.

None of these things were a result of deliberate design. The Kenya constitution of 2010, progressive as it is, was overdesigned. 

While aiming to limit presidential power and to end the curse of marginalisation through devolution, from the latest election we can see that it reinforced the power of regional political forces in electoral alliances.

Almost all analyses of President Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party’s fortunes in this election put it down to their ability to eat into Nasa “strongholds”.

From Japan, Mexico, the United States, to Nigeria, we have seen that once you have “strongholds” that are impervious to the merits of the side, and will vote their own if they are a bad option, it’s a recipe for dangerous politics.

Ethnic alliance

Look at it this way. The freest election in the world will not win the presidency for someone from the Kenyan coastal region. But the right kind of regional and ethnic alliance will.

The problem is that if your community is not big, it is largely useless to an alliance so it will get the last invitation to join, if at all.

With the rolling system on which Kenyan election alliances are structured Deputy President William Ruto supports Uhuru Kenyatta, then Uhuru supports him after his turn; Kalonzo Musyoka backs Raila Odinga, then Raila backs him next time round – these blocs could be locked in for a long time to come.

When an alliance wins, in government it will water the roots of the ethnic architecture that brought it power, deepening the sense of exclusion of those outside it.

Here is something blasphemous. The only way Kenya’s smaller groups can ever hope to smell power is through stealing an election.

 -The author is publisher of and [email protected]