'Handshake' has silenced genuine political and electoral grievances

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga shake hands as a sign of reconciliation. (File, Standard)
Although it seems like the other day, it is already a year since Kenya’s last polls in 2017. The passage of a year justifies a reflection on recent electoral experiences and some thoughts on what the future might hold.

The 2013 elections were important as these were the first under a new Constitution that promised higher standards of electoral probity than had previously been experienced, and also because of the freshness of the violence that followed the previous elections.

However, the country emerged from 2013 with a clear sense that the management of the elections had largely failed to meet those standards. As a result, there was expectation that some kind of reforms at the IEBC, ahead of the next elections in 2017, would be inevitable. After 2013, the resistance to demands for electoral reforms was largely seen as an attempt to minimise the scope of possible reforms, rather than to prevent them.

After a traumatic year, in which the country faced an unprecedented two presidential elections, there is much less clarity about what needs to be done in response to challenges that were experienced during the elections last year. While, by summoning the courage to annul the presidential election, the Supreme Court achieved a massive atonement against its underwhelming performance in 2013, its action did not lead to greater political respect for the court, but has instead exposed the Judiciary to political denigration.

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Further, no consequences were visited on the IEBC as a result of the annulled election, even though the invalidation was essentially a censure of the elections body. Instead, in a position similar to that of the political establishment, the IEBC asserted that the annulment was unjustified. While the fact of annulment created expectations of better performance in the fresh election, it became evident that the second election was of a poorer quality than the one that the Supreme Court had annulled.

Thus the 2017 elections created a full range of experiences for the country, starting with a poorly-run first election, a high pass mark for the Supreme Court in a test of courage over the contested first election, a re-assertion of control by the political establishment through its intimidation of the Judiciary and the subsequent violence against the population.

Through these experiences, the establishment signaled to the IEBC to ignore the Supreme Court and to citizens that legalities were optional niceties.

After the 2017 elections, the next course of action for the segment of the country disaffected about the elections crystallized in an increasingly-enthusiastic support for the short-lived movement towards civic resistance, which the opposition instituted.

The high point of the resistance was the swearing in of Raila Odinga as the “People’s President.” In all this, a pervasive feeling had emerged that people without a shared view on how to elect their leaders cannot live together. Out of the 2017 election, an understanding consolidated that since the country had been unable to hold elections that satisfied all sections of the population, the time had come to discuss separation.

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The handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, a result of the political grievances generated by the 2017 elections, disrupted those grievances. The handshake has dissipated the grievances, making it difficult for their sustained acknowledgement and undermining the possibility of mechanisms that would address them. Also, the frailties of the relevant public institutions remain unaddressed. For example, not content with the rock bottom position that its performance in the 2017 elections consigned it to, the IEBC has begun to drill, through infighting among commissioners and the dismissal of key staff members. It is difficult to say what should happen next. To the extent that the handshake has disrupted the political grievances from the last elections without offering solutions, it has done a disservice to the country and has let a crisis go to waste.

Unlike after the 2013 elections, when “electoral reforms” were conceived in technical terms that targeted the IEBC and the Supreme Court, for example, it is now clear that a change of personnel, even though necessary, is unlikely to solve the problems of elections in Kenya. What is needed is dialogue, as between opposing groups, since that is what contested elections have reduced citizens to. Under the framework of such dialogue, there would be opportunity for venting about the grievances, and an attempted to renew commitments to a shared set of values which repeat failure has displaced.

Unfortunately, the handshake arrangements do not acknowledge the urgency or the foundational character of electoral grievances. Also, a discussion of electoral grievances is likely to jeopardise the newfound amity between the promoters of the handshake. It is, therefore, also likely that within the handshake, any discussion of electoral grievances will be tolerated rather than welcome.

Given this reality, and on the occasion of the first anniversary since the elections last year, citizen groups must urgently start organizing for electoral reforms because nobody else will.

- The writer is Executive Director KHRC. [email protected]

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