Once bitten twice shy, East Africa is watching the runup to Kenya’s August polls with a justified degree of trepidation. Even though there have been atleast two elections since then, elections in Kenya will for the foreseeable future, be looked at through the prism of the violent aftermath of the 2007 polls.
As they spar, the protagonists in Kenya need to reassure the region that the present tempo of the elections, which have been peaceful up to this point; will end that way.
It is already bad enough that watching the campaign heat, shippers along the northern corridor have caught the jitters, redirecting traffic to Dar es salaam. For final consumers in hinterland Uganda, South Sudan and the DRC, that comes at an extra cost.
The stakes are even higher for East Africa because this year’s election comes against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Kenya is also an important buffer between the East African hinterland and the violent extremism that has bogged down Somalia for the past three decades.
Were post-election violence to break out in Kenya this time round, it could give a foothold to the usual suspects, with unpredictable immediate and long-term consequences.
The burden on ordinary people and business would also likely be more pronounced because global resources are already stretched.
It is unlikely that much attention will be spared for a small conflagration in a continent where political violence is largely perceived as the norm rather than the exception.
Yet with hindsight, the concerns about the August polls are not any different from previous elections. Rather than allow themselves to get sucked into the usual rhetoric about hustlers and dynasties the protagonists appear to be blind to the reality that Kenya is now part of a larger polity with legitimate interests in how Nairobi manages its business.
So far, beyond the usual appeals to the domestic audience, none of the candidates has articulated a coherent regional vision. None of them appears to be conscious of the fact that Nairobi’s growth opportunities now transcend Kenya’s geographical borders as has been amply illustrated by the actions of key private sector players such as Equity Bank and Safaricom.
Bad memories die hard. It will not be lost on the regional business community that Kenya has never made good on its promise to compensate the business community or losses incurred during the mayhem of the 2007 post-election violence.
Until their mindsets shift from the long-gone era of a hegemonic Kenya to one of shared prosperity, the actors in the current election are not going to inspire much confidence.
Kenya’s current leadership position should not be taken for granted. Beyond colonial legacy, Kenya’s position was cemented during the early 1980’s as international organisations, fleeing uncertainty in the Middle East, relocated their headquarters from Cairo, to Nairobi as a safe haven.
A similar shift is not off the horizon and can happen again. That is unless, the political actors take cognisance of this fact and send out messages that reassure the investor community and regional stakeholders.