On August 9, Kenyans will cast their ballots with the spectre of violence from a previous election — however unlikely — casting a pall over one of the most competitive polls in its national history. A deputy president who, for a decade, has waited for his shot at the big office, is fending off a challenge from a veteran for whom Tuesday’s poll might be the proverbial last bullet in the chamber.
A fretful public was spooked this week by a memo by the United States mission to Kenya, warning staffers to avoid Kisumu and its surroundings on election day. If ordinary Kenyans had avoided voicing their fears, this allusion to the possibility of violence jarred already tense nerves.
The cautionary memo might have been a routine dispensation of statutory responsibility by the United States to its citizens, but it spoke to more or less the general sentiments of lesser vocal members of the public, spanning the business and social realms.
Kenya owes the region and Africa a peaceful election for obvious reasons. Even with the modest levels of economic integration, neighbours cannot simply shrug off the consequences of an electoral meltdown in Kenya. Sitting at the bridgehead of the Northern Corridor, it is a key supply hub and the most important transit route into and out of the East African hinterland.
Seen as a single unit by often ill-informed but all-important Western audiences, the global perceptions of Africa are often shaped by events in a single country. That is the lesson from how the West has in the past reacted to events such as an outbreak of Ebola.
Fears around the Kenyan election are already taking their toll. Compounding the portfolio outflows triggered by the Ukraine crisis, nervous offshore investors are already hedging against risk by taking their assets to safer havens. That has robbed the region of vital inflows of hard currency, exerting extra pressure on the exchange rate.
Yet, we should perhaps be more positive. It’s a decade and a half since 2007, when post-election violence wreaked the country. Kenya has made strides in its democratic evolution, and it is actually looked at as a mature democracy by regional standards.
What is often lost on many commentators is that there have actually been three elections in Kenya since the contentious 2007 polls that morphed into the unprecedented post-election violence.
The subsequent trials at the Hague that saw a sitting president compelled to appear as a defendant and the nullification of the presidential election result in 2017 all set important precedents that have shaped the character of political competition in Kenya.
The nullification of the presidential election result rejuvenated the masses’ faith in the judiciary as the right place for arbitration of electoral disputes. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect that everyone has learnt their lesson from history.
As they say, a day is a long time in politics. A lot could change in the coming days. The 72 hours to D-day will be crucial in shaping the public thinking about the polls.
It is encouraging that leaders have so far been responsible, avoiding casting serious aspersions on the process. They should maintain that posture.