Kenya’s election: brave new world or highway to hell? – By Richard Dowden

President Mwai Kibaki leaves with a $200,000 golden handshake, but what kind of political settlement will he leave in his wake?

Everyone is strapped in and the Kenyan election roller coaster has begun. A cacophony of electioneering propaganda is being blasted out through every medium. The political godfathers are flying around the country firing up their supporters, screwing down the vote, constituency by constituency and promising heaven after the March 4th poll. Kenya is poised at the top of a ride that could fling the country violently off the rails and send it to hell – as it did after the 2007 election. Or it could take the country elegantly into a dynamic new era, a transformation that would make it one of the most democratic countries in the world. John Githongo, a civil society activist, says: “the new world is being born but the old order has not yet died”.

Since the last disastrous election a new constitution has come into force which has divided Kenya into 47 new counties. Each will have its own governor and parliament which will decide how its budget is spent. But devolution goes even further than that. The County Governments Act stresses democratic participation at every stage of decision making: mass communication and consultation on development plans, civic education programmes, debates at every level from the village to the country parliament, the right of the public to demand – and get – full information about plans and policies and the right to petition the courts. The overarching ideology is that the people will decide.

The problem is that this idealistic and finely constructed constitution is managed by politicians who are largely tribal godfathers. Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kikuyu leader, is the son of the founding president, Jomo Kenyatta. Raila Odinga, the Prime Minister, is a Luo chief and the son of Oginga Odinga, Jomo Kenyatta’s greatest rival and critic. While the constitution prescribes democracy, transparency, good governance and idealism, this election is all about personal and tribal loyalties. However, no single ethnic-based party can win outright, so via a protracted and bewildering dance the parties have formed coalitions to secure victory. There are also a bewildering number of parties on the ballot papers but almost all are part of alliances representing, or fronts for, the main candidates and parties.

The registration of party candidates at the grass roots this week was all but wrecked in many key areas by chaos and violence; most of it organised and paid for both within and between some of the leading parties. Under the law, if the process is flawed, the party headquarters decides who the candidate will be. This ensures that the party bosses keep control of the lists and locally popular candidates are kept out.

Politics in Kenya is exceedingly lucrative – with allowances, MPs are paid a third more than their British counterparts. The President gets 10 percent more than his opposite number in the US. They recently tried to award themselves a hugely increased retirement package but it was vetoed by the retiring President, Mwai Kibaki, although he did sign into law his own $200,000 golden handshake. So getting nominated at a local level (the first rung on the ladder to wealth and power) is very important. All you need is cash, the backing of a godfather and the right ethnic credentials. Issues and policies are hardly mentioned. Winning a parliamentary seat in Kenya is also like winning the lottery.

But already The People are finding their voice. When Mr Odinga tried to nominate his sister and brother to the list of candidates in his own county, local people had other ideas and cast their votes overwhelming for others. Ms Odinga was forced to retire. Elsewhere however, good candidates were outmanoeuvred by cunning or cheating candidates backed by the bosses.

So far it looks as if, at a local level, ordinary people were trying to flex their muscles, but judging by the names that ended up on the lists at national level, the same old faces and parties still dominate. Odinga led the national presidential polling last week with 46 percent of the vote and Kenyatta had 40. That means the presidential vote may go to a run off which is more difficult to predict because Odinga has more enemies than Kenyatta who has only recently become involved in frontline politics. But there is an even stronger and widespread feeling that the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, having had the first and third presidencies of the country, have too much political and economic power. This could damage Kenyatta. The winner will be the one who has the deepest pockets to build the biggest coalition out of the remaining 14 percent.

There is also another exceedingly dangerous factor supercharging this election. Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, the political Big Man of the Kalenjin ethnic group, face charges at the International Criminal Court. The hearing will take place just before the second round of the presidential poll. Will the violence of 2007 polls, which left more than a thousand people dead and the nation deeply divided, be repeated this time? A vote in which one candidate has nothing to lose could turn into civil war. Barricades and street battles were widespread at the nomination stage last week.

The accepted wisdom is that during the murderous ethnic cleansing and street battles of 2008 Kenya looked over the precipice. The godfathers decided to call off their dogs of war or Kenya would be wrecked. International negotiators led by Kofi Annan, flew in and pieced together a deal – part of which was a carefully balanced list of those to be investigated by the ICC. It allowed a coalition government to be formed with the rival parties but cited leading figures from both sides.

There is an assumption in Kenya that the ICC will negotiate a deal which allows charges against elected politicians to be deferred or the court hearings changed to suit the electoral timetable. Once they realise that this is not the case and the Court will proceed at its own pace, those indicted may feel they have nothing to lose and their best bet is to get elected by any stratagem available, in the hope that Kenyans and other African leaders  will support them in office and defy the Court or get the hearings held within the continent.

In any other African country except possibly South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt, they would probably be proved wrong, but Kenya is also of strategic importance for western economic, security and political interests in the region, consequently its indicted politicians might have a chance. Again and again over the last 50 years Kenyan politicians have been able to defy Western diplomatic pressure knowing Washington and London needs Kenya more than Kenya needs them. Now that China is an ally and very big trading partner and many fellow African rulers are uneasy about the Court, they may reckon their hand is even stronger today.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. For more of Richard’s blogs click here.

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7 thoughts on “Kenya’s election: brave new world or highway to hell? – By Richard Dowden

  1. Dear Richard,

    I trust You are well?

    This Election is a High Beta High Impact Event as You correctly note. We get it right and the Economy will have Lift-Off. The Oil and Gas is a Hotbed of Excitement and I remain of the View that The Last Great c21st Energy Prize resides here on the Eastern Seaboard of Africa and runs from Mozambique through Somalia and all points in between. The Stock Market has been on a Roll since it entered a Bull Market on the 7th of May 2012 and was the 8th best out of 104 I track in 2012. The Mobile, Mobile Money and Internet Revolution continue to gain Traction.
    Therefore, the Brave New World is popping its head over the Radar but as you correctly point out it could easily tank if we see a Repeat of 2007/2008.

    I remain concerned that a Too Close to Call Outcome or one so close that the ‘Losing’ Candidate [or his Constituency] refuses to accept is an Outsize Risk. What is interesting is that the 14% you speak of is a Key Constituency now. The ‘Swing’ is an important Tipping agent in a tight Race. This is surely a new Development and probably tapers some of the more Extreme Politicking aimed at stoking up and consolidating the Base, on both sides.

    Regarding the ICC; If the ICC now stands down or plays with its Timeline, does that counterintuitively admittedly, make the Case that it is a Political Player after all?

    Aly-Khan Satchu

    Some Additional Resources here

    The @IpsosSynovateKe Presidential race too close to call – an inevitable runoff?

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  5. Does Africa [Kenya] require A New Electoral System? by Monte McMurchy

    An electoral system is [merely] an administrative logistical process designed to ensure that an expressive choice by an entity is both registered and designated to a specific individual or organization without bias or any other form of administrative intimidatory malfeasance.
    The continent of Africa does not require ‘a new electoral system’ in that the fundamental civic electoral ontology of probity and trust is no different than that element of trust with the requisite administrative conduct which is required in other electoral jurisdictions whether in North America or Europe.
    The civic electoral administrative system ought not be suborned to a particular geographic or ethnic region. An electoral system to be effective must be deemed ‘trust worthy’ and be held to strict public administrative disclosure ensuring that the expressive choice has been expressed in the manner indicated by the elector.
    African electoral systems do require localized ‘tweaking’ to ensure that the local African electors are capable of registering their intent without fear or favour. Such tweaking may include pictographs for those people unable to read or write. Logistical extensions in terms of time may be built into the African indigenous electoral process recognizing that transportation of the electoral materials do require time has local infrastructure may require additional time. Media and related public policy concerns must be addressed to ensure that the localized conditions are appropriately represented and addressed ensuring value neutral respect of the civic electoral administrative process.
    This in no manner indicates that the essential electoral process is different or requires fundamental intrinsic modification as the essence of the process is no different. Choice registered–choice counted–choice expressed without any external bias or corrupt manner of practice designated to confer an unwarranted advantage to another political entity.
    In regions of political administrative fragility, greater concern must be addressed to the electoral system fundamentals ensuring that the fundamental civic electoral integrity is not compromised which ought to be an essential consideration for all electoral systems in the world.

  6. “When Mr Odinga tried to nominate his sister and brother to the list of candidates in his own county, local people had other ideas and cast their votes overwhelming for others.” so, which County are we talking about? Odinga is in Nairobi County, has always been since he entered competitive electoral politics. Ruth, a solid candidate in her own right, was running in Kisumu County. Oburu was running in Siaya County. So, RAO tried to nominate his sister and brother in which County again?

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