Why Kenyan elections attract global attention, stink of chaos


A man jumps from a bus after police fired teargas canisters to disperse protestors after Raila Odinga's swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi, January 30, 2018. [Reuters]

In 2017 I took a short sabbatical leave from Australia to the University of Auckland in New Zealand. I stayed for a month and one evening I saw in the news that New Zealand had a new prime minister. Jacinda Ardern had led the Labour Party to victory. Coincidentally, this is the year Kenya went into one of the most chaotic elections in Kenyan history. I was shocked to learn that in this small but wealthy country, the presidential election is done and announced so casually and that campaigns are done with lots of ease.

For a whole month, I never noticed, for instance, any signs of active campaigns in the streets of Auckland or anything to show that the country was in the mood of elections. But in Kenya, we shout and make too much noise in the streets and we ensure the whole world knows what we are doing. In this article I show why Kenya matters to the world during elections time. 

Kenya’s position as one of Africa’s major democracies, its importance as a commercial hub in Eastern Africa and its closely contested races – particularly the presidency – explain the huge interest its elections attract. In fact, since the end of President Daniel Moi's rule in 2002, Kenyan elections have become most competitive, closely contested and often most polarised in Africa if not globally. That is why international research and academic institutions around the world are already in Nairobi monitoring and collecting data on campaigns for next year's General Election. 

The huge involvement and interests of the international community in Kenyan affairs and particularly in elections is one reason Kenyan polls have become a global event. Since independence, local economic and political dynamics have largely been influenced by Britain and later USA. To be sure, these countries have powers to advise external bilateral actors, with regards to their economic support towards free and fair elections and general democratisation. The zenith of donor involvement usually coincides with Kenya's general elections, held every five years.

It has been said elections in Kenya are a matter of life and death, and not necessarily because the media uses language that metaphorically paints politics as a form of war but majority citizens are trapped up and are emotionally tied to parties in a form similar to a form of religion. According to Lonsdale, Kenyans "drink, eat and breathe politics". Like an epidemic, the country is already in an outbreak of an ‘elections fever’. More significantly, it pays more to be in an elective politics in Kenya. Our legislators have been ranked the second-highest paid lawmakers in the world, beating their counterparts from the developed economies of US, Britain and Japan. 

Ethnic factor in electoral politics is much stronger in Kenya than elsewhere in Africa. Even if many observers are of the view that this has shifted to class-based politics, ethnic factor is still ranked first in the determination of electoral outcomes. In Kenya, voters use ethnicity as the means to get a significant share of the ‘national cake', particularly once they elect politicians who happen to be part of their ethnic group. They say in Kenya if you are not eating you are being eaten. Therefore, political ethnicity still largely determines whoever becomes president in Kenya.

Our media is all over. We certainly have the most efficient and vibrant media. Indeed Kenyan media has come of age. Fuelled by digital globalisation, it has ably performed the double task of keeping the public well informed of the political events as they unfolded and at the same time condemning wrongs by the political elite. TV and FM stations have presented a platform for debate, where political activists and the civil society engaged each other in discussing key issues on the political agenda. Kenyan politics has as such captured the global imagination.

Having stated reasons why Kenya elections attracts much attention, I conclude by identifying a few factors that point to very uncertain polls in 2022. Most of them are current and others unresolved past mistakes.

One, the careless termination of the Kenyan ICC cases without convictions has bred impunity among Kenyan politicians who say hakuna mahali mtatupeleka…and are now daring to engage even in more election violence. 

Secondly, there has never been proper post-conflict transitional justice and reconciliation efforts. The TJRC report was heavily politicised and ultimately abandoned. Despite the apparent lull, it just takes a political actor to package real and perceived tribal grievances as ‘historical injustices’ and so on to trigger a conflict.

Third, both Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila are problematic. Both men are overly ambitious and were at the centre of the 2007 political impasse. Ruto is bitter and wounded after falling out with the president he helped get elected. He believes that he has the following of a majority of Kenyans and that he has the moral authority to be the next president. On the other hand, Raila believes the last two elections were unfairly snatched from him and that 2022 is the right moment of redress. Their hardline positions are fodder for another round of post-election violence.

Taken together, these political dynamics highlight that Kenya once again faces the prospect of violence in the run-up to, during or after the 2022 elections.

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