Reflecting on the vicious five-year bush-war that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in Uganda, the academic Prof Mahmood Mamdani wrote a long essay titled ‘‘And fire does not always beget ash’’.
Although Prof Mamdani’s essay was a treatise of the struggle for self-actualisation in Uganda, parallels can be found in other parts of East Africa. When Rwanda burned to near annihilation in 1994, few could imagine a new beautiful and forward-looking nation rising from the ashes of the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Similarly, when Kenya took those first shaky steps to multiparty democracy in 1992, through to the tragic violence that followed the disputed 2007 presidential election results, the fear of a post-election violence always hung over the country. But Kenyans proved everyone wrong in this year’s August 9 polls.
Firmly in the grip of an uncompromising dictatorship, Kenya in December 1992, staged its first multiparty elections after independence. The then Daniel arap Moi regime refined Niccolo Machiavelli’s rulebook on how to retain power and added a chapter on how to manipulate an election so that the minority rules the majority.
Even as he eventually faced a fragmented majority, Moi would weaponise violence in that and subsequent elections until he had no choice but to surrender power when his chosen successor lost. Albeit willy-nilly, the eventual smooth transfer of power this week, demonstrates Kenya’s advances and sets an important standard for the region.
Save for Tanzania, which now has the longest tradition of peaceful transfer of power, and recent East African Community entrant, the Democratic Republic of Congo, it will be a while before the idea of a predictable change of government becomes universal across the region.
The reason almost everyone looking in from outside expected Kenya to burn or go down the path of infamy again, was because they were looking at it through the prism of recent history. The country was being judged by its past and the rhetoric of its politicians, even when the ordinary citizens were sending a different message.
A key takeaway from this year’s Kenyan election is that in a free and fair process, incumbency should not confer undue advantage on one of the contesting parties. This was the second time a sitting government was losing an election in Kenya, which is actually a good head start. It also demonstrated the power of political messaging and the choices that an informed electorate is capable of.
Kenyans were open in their resolve that whichever way the toss of the coin landed, no one was going to engage in violence on behalf of politicians. Far from being a minus, the low voter turnout simply demonstrated that there was little emotional investment by the voters in this election. On their part, perhaps conscious of the burgeoning international jurisdiction, the politicians were unusually restrained in their messaging.
The sum total was that in the space of the few weeks between voting day and the Supreme Court’s verdict, Kenya’s electoral system moved full circle from trial to triumph.
Under much psychological pressure and drama, the Independent Boundaries and Elections Commission acquitted itself well, surviving an internal rift and the independent arbitration of the courts. The question then is, how much of this can rub off on the rest of the region?