Eleven months to Kenya’s General Election, the rhetoric is ratcheting up with a familiar ring to it. As alliances are formed and mutate, observers are watching for signs if the country has matured to make a clean a break with its history of violent elections.
As much as the 2022 elections might turn out better than previous ones, it still makes sense from a business perspective to prepare for the worst. Not so confident about prospects, many investors are hedging their bets, holding critical investment decisions or moving some of their chips into safer havens. Kenya’s freight industry is likely to feel the pinch as importers from neighbouring countries, conscious of the losses from the 2007 post-election violence, reroute consignments to bypass Kenya.
Yet by regional or even continental standards, Kenya is one of those democracies that are admired for the regularity of their elections and progressive separation of powers. The country boasts an assertive judiciary that in 2017, annulled the presidential election and more recently threw out a bid by the Executive to change the constitutional order. Those are beacons of hope that political actors should build on rather than stifle. Nairobi also remains the region’s economic hub so the stakes in Kenya’s political stability transcend national borders.
Yet, somehow, the journey to more civilised, predictable and peaceful political competition, remains elusive, perhaps because key decisions remain in the hands of a generation that has little stake in the future.
Since the return of multiparty politics to Kenya in 1992, elections have always been a do-or-die affair, causing massive destruction to property and loss of life. The brief pause in 2002 notwithstanding, that has been the pattern from 1992 through 2007 to the 2017 presidential election that was repeated after the Supreme Court annulled the result.
Despite a recent shift that is tending towards political alliances across ethnic lines, the core of Kenyan politics remains unchanged. The emerging formations lack sufficient depth or diversity and still mirror powerful tribal interests. The dynamics of the coming polls are further complicated by the emergence of disinformation and hate speech as a tool in the competitors arsenal. With the improved velocity of information, this can easily fan and blow tensions between communities out of proportion. The recent attempt to realign politics along class interests is also potentially polarising because it has been framed as the “haves” vs the “have nots.”
It is not too late to save the boat. The political discourse needs to change from territorial politics to what Kenya needs to do to sustain democracy, spur economic growth while spreading the benefits of that growth to those who feel marginalised.
Kenya made history when President Uhuru Kenyatta alongside his deputy, in 2014, became the first seating head of state to appear for trial before the International Criminal Court on charges of involvement in post-election violence. Although the subsequent collapse of the case came as a collective relief to many, that episode should be a reminder that political actors bear responsibility for their actions and are now subject to a universal jurisdiction. Hopefully that threat, however remote, will act as a restraining influence on the major players in next year’s elections.