The rule of law makes disputes over election results less scary

Monday August 15 2022

Kenyan Supreme Court judges, from left to right: Justice Njoki Ndung’u, Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, Chief Justice David Maraga, Prof Jackton Ojwang and Justice Isaac Lenaola. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

As Kenya's August 9 approached, there were two very contradictory scenes at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA).

If you arrived on a late evening or early morning flight, you were likely to run into a stuffy arrivals immigration hall with more than 1,000 people — mostly foreign tourists — waiting hours to clear.

Outside, the queue of cars waiting to drop off people, many of them fearing likely violence during the election, was long too. Sections of the middle class usually flee African elections, fearing for the safety of their families — especially daughters and wives.

In the past, the once-illustrious Ugandan town of Jinja was taken over by Kenyan-Asian families, election refugees, waiting for the possible election uncertainties back home to blow over before returning.

This time, newspapers in Uganda reported more Kenyans entering the country to hedge against risks from the August 9 poll. There is nothing new there.

What is new here is the large numbers of foreigners visiting, unbothered by the prospect of ramping mobs angry that their candidate had been robbed at the ballot box.


Indeed, two days to the vote, seven-time Formula One champion Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton arrived in Kenya with his entourage from Namibia. Among other things, they were due to visit to take in the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

It all tells of an emerging trend in other African countries. Partly due to the internet and social media, international knowledge of Africa and how its risks are evaluated have actually improved.

In much the same way few would have been deterred from visiting Los Angeles, California, in December 2020 because a pro-Donald Trump mob attacked the Capitol in an American version of a coup, the same distinction is increasingly being made about parts of Africa.

It also seems that the Covid-19 pandemic has altered how an increasing number of people in the north look at risk in the south.

A few restless "natives" burning tyres and clobbering each other with clubs over elections cannot be as scary as the virus.

However, for Kenya, the defining moment seems to have come in 2017. On September 1, 2017, the Kenya Supreme Court made history, overturning the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta. It was the first time a court nullified a presidential election in Africa.

The next day we had a dinner date at a popular Italian restaurant with former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, cartoonists Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado) and Paul Kelemba (Maddo), and other troublemakers.

We didn't book a table, reasoning that with many people staying away at home, afraid that the court ruling might spark violence, there would be many open tables.

I arrived first, and the place was chock-a-block with noisy, happy folks, mostly foreigners — the type that's supposed to fear politics-related violence. We waited for nearly 45 minutes to get a table.

It seemed then that the nullification of the presidential election had the opposite effect on them.

Rather than fear, it had suggested to them that, at some level, Kenya was a country of the rule of law. It made them feel safer.

President Kenyatta denounced the judges as "crooks". It turns out they were someone else's angels.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". [email protected]