As Kenya’s August 9 General Election draws closer, political parties and coalitions have completed nominations of their candidates for a range of elective positions. The parties had a deadline of April 2 to conclude the process and submit the names of successful candidates to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission for approval. Although the nominations appear to have been a little improvement on the 2017 experience, with less violence and chaos, they did little to strengthen Kenya’s democracy.
In most cases the coalition parties behind opposition leader-turned-establishment candidate Raila Odinga did not hold primaries, instead using “direct” nominations, much to the chagrin of those overlooked. The parties behind Odinga’s main rival, Deputy President William Ruto, held more primaries, but here too there were controversies and numerous disgruntled “losers”. As a result, both Ruto and Odinga faced a major challenge: how to prevent losing candidates from defecting and running as independents.
In response, coalition leaders spent the post-nominations period frantically calling those who felt cheated to offer them a range of rewards to stay loyal, including the promise of tenders, appointment to Cabinet or state commissions, nomination to legislative bodies, ambassadorial roles and the good old cash.
It is common knowledge that the nomination of candidates for some state jobs is heavily influenced by coalition realities rather than the ability and qualifications of the individuals. It is disturbing that this trend is also extending to regional institutions.
Party leaders are now using the promise of slots to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) to buy disgruntled leaders. A case in point is Ruto’s promise to give Charles Kanyi (Jaguar) a slot in EALA if he quit the race for Starehe Constituency in favour of Simon Mbugua. It is a powerful demonstration of how this political cycle works that Mbugua had been nominated to the EALA in 2017, after he was persuaded by the Jubilee Party leadership to step down in favour of Yusuf Hassan in the Kamukunji primaries.
Such bargains are the lifeblood of Kenyan electoral politics, but undermine accountability and embed dealmaking — and hence potentially corrupt practices — at the heart of the Kenyan state and regional governance.
EALA is an independent arm of the East African Community that is supposed to advance the interests of the bloc as well as provide oversight. Each EAC partner state sends nine members to the Assembly. Political parties have been blamed for nominating politicians who lose in nominations, or their relatives, to the regional body.
This is not only happening in Kenya. A similar scenario is playing out in Uganda where political parties are also rewarding “rejects” to EALA.
In 2017, the candidates presented for nomination to EALA were mostly members of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) who had lost in the parliamentary elections in 2016. This practice triggered criticism in Uganda, which prompted President Yoweri Museveni to declare that EALA was not an “employment bureau” for political job seekers. Museveni sought to shift blame, saying: “This election is just an election; elections are not employment bureaus that you are here to give jobs to jobless people but people who will support the integration process.”
The problem facing Museveni is that even if he wants to end the practice of using such nominations for patronage, he may not. Facing a growing challenge from the opposition championed by Bobi Wine, and recognising the threat that the NRM may start to fragment during the process to replace him — should he ever stand down — Museveni knows fully well that buying disappointed candidates is critical to his regime’s survival.
More broadly, the practice of playing politics with nominations to legislative organs such as EALA is problematic because it sacrifices regional interests at the expense of the personal desires of politicians, many of whom were overlooked for good reason. As one of Africa’s fastest growing regions in need of a more unified and effective approach to issues such as infrastructure and food security, this is a major shortcoming that needs to be urgently addressed.
There is a pressing need to improve the nomination procedures to EALA so that they become transparent, so that those nominated understand the key issues facing the region and are accountable to its citizens. The process of nomination is supposed to include tough vetting of potential candidates, with a strong set of minimum requirements.
Some of these are already in place in Uganda, where nominees are required to appear before parliament to campaign for their bids, but could be further strengthened to enable a broader range of individuals to be considered.
In countries such as Kenya, these procedures have been considerably watered down, undermining the process, and the credibility of the representatives it produces.
The changes required do not only relate to selection. Once they are in place, it will be essential to ensure continuous performance assessment during their five-year term to assess their commitment and contribution and weed out incompetent representatives.
But even these changes may not be enough if political leaders continue to see positions as an entitlement rather than something to be earned. It is the practice of paying off losing candidates that the ultimate driver of the nominations game — and the quality of domestic administration and regional leadership is unlikely to improve until this is brought under control.
Oscar Ochieng is a communications practitioner, and Darmi Jattani is a public analyst.