Even with electoral skulduggery, Kenya elections are region’s star

Saturday August 06 2022
Jubilee Primaries

Kenyans queue to vote at Moi Primary School in Nairobi during party primaries in April 2017. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Kenya goes to the polls this week, keeping up East Africa's election-rich run.

In 2020 both Burundi and Tanzania had general elections. In 2021 it was Uganda's turn. In 2023, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo will go to the polls. In 2024 it will be Rwanda's turn, and in 2025 Tanzania's.

There are some good things about having this spread.

Given the violence that tends to mar most of the region's elections, foreigners and East African citizens nervous about election chaos will always have a safe place to run to next door, which is not holding a vote.

Additionally, it allows East Africans who like to compare their countries to focus on one election at a time and praise or jeer it. In 2021 Kenyans had a feast as Uganda's election was marked by state violence, arrests, and torment of the opposition. Ugandans, especially ruling party supporters, are most definitely waiting to take revenge.

But many of them, mostly opposition supporters, are also already holding up President Uhuru Kenyatta's farewell. They laud the fact that Kenyan prisons are not full of opposition supporters nor have candidates been beaten, or blocked from freely campaigning, to mock the more perilous political conditions at home, and draw contrasts with President Yoweri Museveni's record-breaking nearly 37-year rule.


The significance of Kenya's vote is larger, though. Kenya's elections have been corruption-riddled, cynical, marred with irregularities, and in the past have been riven by ethnic animosity and violence. What sets them apart from nearly all the rest of the East African elections is that even with all those drawbacks, they have tremendous redemptive and pedagogic value.

The playing ground in Kenya elections is fairly even. And the outcomes tell us a lot about what happens when a minimum level ground is achieved in Africa. Presidential candidates face little to no state-repressive obstacles in their quest for the top job. Secondly, there is never a far-out early favourite in Kenyan elections, and the sitting president starts out with the least incumbency advantage of any East African country.

Even with electoral skulduggery, the final result is usually close. The biggest margin of the country's democratic era was in 2002, when Mwai Kibaki beat Uhuru Kenyatta, winning 63 percent of the vote.

In the disastrous 2007 election, he beat out Raila Odinga by just over 200,000 votes, the closest race in Kenya's history. In 2013 President Kenyatta beat Raila with 50.07 percent of the vote, just a nose over the 50 percent needed to win. In 2017 he won by 54.3 percent of the votes, ahead of Raila Odinga with 44.7 percent. The Supreme Court threw out the result.

This country cobbles together the most complex election coalitions, which often quickly die off after victory — or defeat. And it has had parliamentary and presidential power changing to different parties and coalitions at the vote than the rest of East Africa combined.

This does not necessarily make Kenya an East African democracy model. But when it comes to teaching how to negotiate, make deals, and divvy power through the vote in an ethnically and culturally diverse nation, it's a Grand Master.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3