Many Kenyans will go to the polls on 4 March with a sense of trepidation. Three of the four elections since 1992 have been accompanied by significant violence; 2002 being the exception. On each occasion politicians used local grievances over land and inequality to label supporters of rival candidates as ethnic “outsiders”. Militias were then used to force those same voters from their homes. Thousands of people were killed in violence around the 1992, 1997 and 2007 elections and tens of thousands more fled. Some of these supposed “outsiders” never returned to places where their families had lived for decades; many Kenyans endure rather than celebrate elections.
Those of a nervous disposition would have hoped that this would be a straightforward election. That is (clearly) not the case as the final result is too close to call. With President Mwai Kibaki retiring after two terms in office, Prime Minister Raila Odinga is the front-runner. But his lead in the opinion polls is narrow and he will almost certainly not win the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off in to be held in a few weeks’ time.
Odinga’s main rival is Uhuru Kenyatta, who, if successful, faces the prospect of governing the country while mounting his defence at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. He and his running mate, William Ruto, are accused of orchestrating the violence that followed the 2007 election. Rather than standing aside, both decided to exercise their right – confirmed recently by the Kenyan courts – to contest the election, apparently in order to gain a position of greater strength vis-í -vis the ICC. They promise they can run the country and mount their defences in court through the use of technology.
In 2007 the rest of the world barely noticed the election until violence broke out during the suspiciously prolonged counting process. This time, however, Kenya has held foreign attention for months before voters go to the polls. The question that nags both foreign and local observers is a simple one: has enough been done over the past five years to avoid a repeat of the violence that lasted for two months from late December 2007 and claimed the lives of nearly 1200 people?
Much has been achieved, most notably independent inquiries into the management of the election and the subsequent violence, a new constitution and an on-going reform of the judiciary. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that these reforms are not enough to guarantee a peaceful election. A collective psychosis has therefore gripped many, but by no means all, local and foreign commentators.
Threatening isolation and fearing further instability should Kenyatta win, a whole array of figures, from President Obama and Kofi Annan down to the local diplomatic corps, have felt the need to advise Kenyans on how to vote – most likely to no or ill effect. Uganda – whose businesses are still waiting for compensation for goods destroyed during the 2007-8 violence – has made contingency plans in case of disruption to vital imports being transported along the routes that connect it to the Indian Ocean. Foreign investment slowed in 2012 due to fears of insecurity. Local businesses have been buying dollars in case the Kenyan shilling collapses if violence follows the election.
So why does this election seem to matter so much? There is a flippant and, on one level, accurate response to this question; it doesn’t. For those of a cynical persuasion, one elite politician with a dubious record in government and a limited commitment to solving the problems of their poorest constituents will replace another, regardless of the result. The candidates hardly have major differences of opinion over policy and anyone who thinks that a victory for Odinga will solve Kenya’s problems with the ICC is in for a shock. It will take a lot to budge Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who have access to enormous wealth and political leverage, if they refuse to go to The Hague, whether Kenyatta is president or not. The ICC will be a constitutional and judicial leviathan, dominating the political landscape, for years to come.
But that does not really answer the question. The election does matter. To insist otherwise is to patronise an electorate that will turn out in great numbers and display euphoria and dismay in equal measure once the final result is announced. The significance of the election can also be gauged from the international attention that this vote has garnered. Viewed from abroad, Kenya has not seemed so significant since the end of the Cold War. Its role in the Africa Union’s peace-building mission to Somalia has placed it on the front-line of global counter-terror operations and its economy is seen as the mainstay of a surging regional bloc encompassing North-Eastern and Eastern Africa.
There is another common and simple answer to the question of why the election matters; it’s ethnicity, stupid. It is true that voting will, with some exceptions, follow predictable ethnic patterns, but ethnicity makes sense as a strategy for voters and leaders alike.
The voters know that there are not unlimited jobs. They also understand that land, at least in arable parts of the country, is under pressure for all sorts of reasons and that the state only has a finite amount of money for investment in development projects. Clubbing together to protect what one holds while trying to work collectively to gain more wealth and influence is hardly irrational. There may be better strategies for such collective action but ethnicity is what history has bequeathed Kenyans and ethnicity is what they have to work with.
For their part, the politicians are normally wealthy men and women seeking the votes of poor constituents. Ethnicity provides a mechanism by which politicians can cross sometimes vast chasms of wealth and class to win the votes of individuals with whom they otherwise share little in common. Kenya’s problem is that those in power have encouraged the divisions between groups to be violent and some of their supporters have followed suit; it is difficult to reverse back down that path.
For better or for worse, ethnicity is the way in which class, inequality and history are debated in Kenya. Beneath the labels of Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo, Luhya or Maasai are very different versions of the past and ideas about current and future policies. One can subject almost any of the great debates in Kenyan politics to such an analysis, but in the interests of brevity take, for instance, devolution.
The subject of fierce debate in the years surrounding independence and in the early 1990s, devolution is a matter of great current significance too. As well as choosing their member of parliament and the next president, voters will be electing representatives to fill newly empowered county administrations, new county governors and senators to represent the interests of their county in central government.
Many Kikuyu are sceptical about the value of devolution. To some critics, this is nothing more than Kikuyu ethnic chauvinism. Two of three presidents, Jomo Kenyatta (1963-78) and the outgoing Mwai Kibaki (2002-13) have been Kikuyu and so the community has been painted as unwilling to tolerate any devolution of significant powers from central to local government. To be fair, neither president did much to dispel such criticism. But with Kikuyu – to say nothing of the other major ethnic groups – spread across the country, many feel with good reason that central government is a better guarantor of their property rights and personal security than local authorities controlled by communities who see Kikuyu as an economic and political threat. To many members of other, more economically marginal communities, such as Mijikenda at the Coast or Somali in the North East, an excessively centralised form of government is blamed for the uneven distribution of economic growth, improvements in living standards and investment in infrastructure.
The ICC and devolution are just two of the enormous issues that confront voters. Others include strategies for continued economic growth, land reform, police reform, the on-going military intervention in Somalia; incidents of terrorism at home; a Coastal separatist movement; and the management of recently discovered oil and gas reserves. The next government will (obviously) have tremendous influence over all these matters. Throw in regional integration and significant fiscal pressure and these are, truly, elections of great significance.
The time available for the next government to attend to any of these issues will, however, be dictated in large part by the conduct of the elections. Much that is on the agenda will have to be sacrificed if, as with the past five years, time is lost mourning the dead and undergoing prolonged processes of transitional justice without any transition actually taking place.
Those hoping for dramatic change at this election or in the years to come will be disappointed. Like most of the rest of Africa, Kenya had its Arab Spring – with all its attendant euphoria and disappointments – twenty years ago when the rest of the world was looking elsewhere. Rather than revolution, a more modest hope for the future is simply for the next election to seem not to matter quite so much. It doesn’t have to be like this every time, does it?
Daniel Branch is Associate Professor of African History at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2012 and Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization (Cambridge UP, 2009).