As I pondered what to write, Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta and his Jubilee coalition seemed headed for victory. Nothing was confirmed yet, but all indications were, Raila Odinga and his National Super Alliance had lost the contest.
However, electoral competition in much of Africa being what it is since adversarial multi-party politics returned to the continent in the late 1980s, reactions from Odinga’s camp were far from admission that they had been beaten.
On the contrary, the opposition camp was insisting they had won, and that the only reason Kenyatta had more votes according to the figures coming out of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), was vote theft.
This, despite foreign observers having literally endorsed the provisional results when they called them credible, even as the manual verification process was still under way. With that, it seemed safe to assume that NASA’s fate had been sealed.
Acceptance of results
The most important question that remained unanswered, and which had been in the air for well over a year, however, was whether, the final results having been confirmed and announced, the losers would accept defeat gracefully, congratulate the winners, and go home, take stock, and wait for next time.
Back in Kenya, for a long time before the elections, there seemed to be a certain degree of resignation to the possibility of trouble flaring up.
Organisations and individuals whose line of work involves looking out for tell-tale signs of brewing trouble, predicting risk levels and making prevention and mitigation plans, have long been busy talking up the real risk of violence and emphasising how still fragile the whole political environment was since 2007.
Media had joined the fray, sending waves of fear across the entire East African region and beyond. Hardly anyone was questioning the fear-stoking chorus.
In countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan for which Kenya is a veritable lifeline given its importance in providing access to the sea and passage for their imports and experts, what might happen became something of an obsession.
In Uganda, where the government was at some point found to have somewhat neglected to stock up on its fuel reserves, members of the public took to preparing to fill up their cars to make sure that if things blew up and no imports or exports could pass through Kenya, they would not have to park their cars for the duration, courtesy of shortages and extortionate prices.
Just before the poll, which found me in Kampala, I joined the “tanking up” bandwagon, just in case.
The actual voting came and everything seemed to pass off contrary to predictions. One could literally hear the collective sigh of relief at what seemed like a successful averting of the crisis.
Then came NASA’s claims of having been cheated out of victory and several fake images of scenes of violence on social media, some possibly dating from 2007. Had we been too quick to breathe sighs of relief?
As I mulled it all, I went back to my usual preoccupation with the meaning of some of the aspects of politics; more specifically, political competition in these parts of the world.
Just before the poll, I had read about and seen media images of some Kenyans leaving one location for another, prompted by uncertainty about what might happen, and fears of possible violence. Better, they seemed to believe, to go “somewhere nice and peaceful” and wait for “the madness” to pass.
This happens also next door in Uganda where much-desired political competition can trigger such passions as to compel some people to spend hours barricaded in their houses on election day, and the government to deploy the armed forces in ways that are reminiscent of preparing for war.
There is Rwanda where election-day is notable for the conspicuous absence of members of the armed forces from the streets and the general calmness with which members of the public go about voting and, thereafter, the mundane business of getting on with normal life.
While in Uganda and Kenya businesses close and remain closed, in Rwanda it hardly features in anyone’s mind that there may be post-election trouble, and that, therefore, it is prudent to keep one’s business closed, just in case.
Whether in parliament, media, academia, at home, or even in bars and wherever else subjects of this kind feature in conversations, hardly does one hear discussion about what all this might mean, what we should be learning from it, if anything, and how to ensure that all East Africans come to experience political campaigns and elections as events that ought not to be dreaded, but enjoyed and celebrated.
Then there is the issue of election observation. There are two broad goals of election observation. One is for officials of electoral bodies in countries that are still struggling to get things right in their own electoral processes, to go to countries where processes are well-managed, to pick up useful lessons.
The other is for missions whose remit is to validate results and act as arbiters in election-related conflicts, to play referee.
We get too few of the former and too many of the latter because we are too slow to grow up and become exemplars of best practice. Kenya just proved that, yet again.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]