Kenya’s election this August will be watched closely by the rest of the region, both as a stress-test of the country’s democratic credentials, and for its potential spillover effects.
Many will be looking to see whether the election mirrors the one in 2007, which was marred by post-election violence, or in 2013, in which Kenya settled for an imperfect peace over a perfect process.
Some watching will be purely driven by self-interest. Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, eastern DR Congo and South Sudan all depend on the Northern Corridor to Mombasa port for their trade, and will be hoping there will not be a repeat of 2007/8 when marauding mobs torched trucks and uprooted sections of the railway line.
The economic ties run both ways. Kenya is the biggest investor in Uganda, for instance, and Uganda is a key source of grain as well as tourists.
Kenya’s race against Tanzania to become the preferred transport link to the Indian Ocean for railway lines and oil pipelines, among other infrastructure links, will be strengthened by its ability to hold a peaceful election.
There are political reasons for regional interest too. First, as regional integration grows so do personal ties between some of the political actors. For instance, opposition leader Raila Odinga is known to enjoy warm ties with President Joseph Magufuli of Tanzania, while President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto are close to President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.
Any breakdown of security during the election is likely to test these ties, as well as the environment for co-operation, as Tom Juma from Moi University and Kisii University noted in a November 2015 study of the 2007 election.
To this, add the factionalism in South Sudan — where Kenya has been publicly accused of picking sides — and Burundi, where officials quietly accuse Nairobi of siding with Kigali in its contest with Rwanda, and one can see why regional actors will be paying close attention to the August election.
Beyond the self-interest, the election will offer at least two important lessons. The first is Kenya’s own internal democracy — whether the progress seen between the last two elections is evidence of deepening democracy.
In a study of the 2013 election published in the Journal of East African Studies, Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis highlighted four factors that prevented a return to violence — rivals becoming allies, a pervasive peace narrative, democratic reforms, and decentralisation that gave national losers some electoral wins at the county level.
“Ultimately, although the elections passed off largely peacefully, they did not confirm a process of democratic consolidation or herald the end of inter-ethnic tension and mistrust,” the authors argued.
The reality in 2017 has changed in some aspects. For instance, the “siege mentality” stoked by the International Criminal Court charges against President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto is unlikely to be a factor this time round.
Similarly, while civil disobedience was almost anathema in 2013, it has been a hallmark of political mobilisation over the appointment of a new team in charge of organising the elections, and has swiftly been followed by industrial action by teachers and medical workers seeking better pay.
A key test will be the integrity of the electoral systems, particularly voter registration, vote counting, tallying and transmission. An opinion poll in May 2013 found that only 56 per cent of respondents believed the election that year had been free and fair (with lower figures in Opposition strongholds).
This relatively low level of confidence in the polls was nevertheless helped by Mr Odinga’s acceptance of the Supreme Court ruling on the presidential election petition, even if he continued to cry foul.
There have been early reports of problems, including the use of IDs for multiple registration, which could become a flashpoint if there are problems with the voting and tallying infrastructure on election day, especially if the election ends up being as close as it was in 2013.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of how the process is conducted and the outcome, Kenya’s election offers a chance to examine the East African Community’s democratic credentials. They do not make for pretty reading.
South Sudan, the newest member of the EAC, has been embroiled in civil war since December 2013, is nearly bankrupt, and on the verge of becoming a failed state.
Similarly, Burundi has been in the grip of a political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza insisted on running for another term of office at the end of his two terms in 2015.
Rwanda changed its Constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to stand again, while President Museveni faces questions about legitimacy after yet another contested and controversial election.
Tanzania has its challenges with corruption, and Zanzibar politics remains restive, but it has still been the most stable country in the region and has, since the departure of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, seen the peaceful handover of power from one elected leader to another three times.
Been there, done that
Kenya has been there, done that, from the violence of 1992 to that of 2007/8, but it also had a peaceful transition in 2002, a peaceful election in 2013, and a fairly progressive Constitution promulgated in 2010.
This year’s election is thus a watershed moment for the region. Bungle it like 2007 and Tanzania will remain the outlier in a region held back by political instability and dirty competition.
Get it right, even relatively speaking as in 2013, and the region’s two biggest economies will have set a precedent for the peaceful contestation of power, setting a standard for the smaller inland EAC member states.
In a region that includes countries like Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and DR Congo, those who wish for democracy will be hoping that Kenya learnt everything it needed to know regarding elections from 2007, and forgot nothing from 2013.
The very political future of the region, and regional co-operation, depends on it.