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Will Raila Odinga's fourth bid deliver the crown?

By Christine Mungai | May 2nd 2017
NASA presidential candidate Raila Odinga. (Photo: Boniface Okendo, Standard)

The announcement of Raila Odinga as flagbearer for the Opposition coalition surprised no one, and the next few days will be awash with commentary and analysis of his chances of unseating President Uhuru Kenyatta in the August poll.

Most of the analysis will centre on the ethnic arithmetic that frames electoral politics in Kenya today.

But taking a broader view, it will be Raila's fourth shot at the presidency. Historical trends in Africa show his chances of being fourth-time lucky, especially against an incumbent president, are moderate to slim – they largely depend on a build-up of tangible, external pressures that tip public sentiment over the edge.

In the first place, incumbents don't lose elections often in Africa. Data from the African Development Bank (AfDB) and Africapedia examining presidential election results from 1960 to 2016 shows that incumbents or ruling party candidates in Africa win with no contestation 60 per cent of the time.

In a quarter (25 per cent) of presidential election results, there is some contestation that ends up in either a political standoff or coalition government.

It is only about 15 per cent of the time that incumbents have lost and accepted defeat without putting up a fight.

The working paper from AfDB finds that since 1960, incumbent regimes tend to win elections they organise with a 72 per cent probability – this includes elections they have won outright, and coalition arrangements for which they have ended up being the de facto "senior" partner such as in Kenya's 2008-13 Grand Coalition Government led by Mwai Kibaki.

In the event that an incumbent loses, the analysis shows that they tend to reject the results – 79 per cent of incumbent losses in Africa have been contested by the ruling regime.

Challengers, on the other hand, tend not to contest election results when a sitting President is declared winner.

They only put up a challenge 13 per cent of the time, for good reason – no court in Africa has ever overturned a presidential election result in favour of an opposition candidate.

Court decisions always favour the incumbent candidate, the presumptive winner, or the candidate fronted by the ruling party.

In fact, just one judicial ruling has ever overturned presidential election results; that was in Cote d'Ivoire in 2010, pitting incumbent Laurent Gbagbo against challenger Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara had been declared winner of the election, but Gbagbo contested it in court.

Not surprisingly, the court's ruling was in favour of the incumbent Gbagbo, even if Ouattara had clearly won.

A number of opposition candidates in Africa might be described as Raila's "kindred spirits", having made numerous attempts at the presidency.


In Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade was fouth-time lucky in 2000, after being the figurehead of the Senegalese opposition movement for nearly two decades. Like Raila, Wade as opposition leader managed to push through several substantial victories for democracy in Senegal, including the creation of an independent electoral commission and legislation that opened the door to multi-party politics and consolidated media freedom.

Senegal's presidential election in 2000 was a contest between Wade and incumbent Abdou Diouf, who had been in power for 19 years as the handpicked successor of Senegal's founding father Leopold Sedar Senghor.

Although Diouf won in the first round of the vote, he lost to Wade in the second round, and surprised everyone by quietly conceding defeat.

Still, Wade's legacy was tarnished by the end of his two terms as president. He alienated himself from large sections of the Senegalese population by undermining the very democratic principles he had spent his life fighting for.

In 12 years as head of state, he made 14 revisions to the Constitution, motivated for the most part by his desire to prolong his stay in power.

Rampant state nepotism, lavish lifestyles of Wade and his allies, persecution of his former friends in the opposition and deterioration of state services marred his time in office.

Pushing on with his attempt at a third term as president, he lost to Macky Sall in 2012.

More recently, Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari was fourth time lucky in 2015, having unsuccessfully contested in 2003, 2007 and 2011. He defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, marking the first time that an incumbent President in Nigeria lost to an opposition candidate in a general election.

Working in Buhari's favour in 2015 was Jonathan's legitimacy issues as president.

The unwritten understanding in Nigerian politics is that the presidency should rotate between the north and south.

Jonathan, a southerner and vice president, had taken over when President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua (a northerner) had unexpectedly died in office in 2010.

Jonathan's election as president in 2011 broke that deal, because it wasn't the south's turn yet – the expectation was that a northerner would "finish" Yar'Adua's turn.


Jonathan was unable to shake off that perception of being a usurper to the throne, which played into Buhari's (a northerner) hands.

In addition, Buhari's campaign was built around his image as a staunch anti-corruption fighter and his incorruptible and honest reputation, while Jonathan was seen as a weak leader who had let graft and terrorism run amok, particularly that driven by the Boko Haram insurgency.

Those simmering tensions boosted Buhari's candidature, and he clinched the presidency in 2015.

Still, Buhari's performance as president has been losing steam. Bogged down by ill health, the 74-year-old has rarely been seen in public over the past six months. And for all its bluster, his tough, no-nonsense governance style is only effective with his physical presence – Nigeria's systemic failures largely remain unresolved.

In Zimbabwe, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai is a pale shadow of his former boisterous self. He came closest to outright victory in 2008, taking 47.8 per cent of the vote in the first round according to official results, placing him ahead of President Robert Mugabe, who received 43.2 per cent.

Amid widespread violence and intimidation that left 200 people dead, Tsvangirai boycotted the second round, saying that his supporters risked being killed if they voted for him.

A power-sharing deal was thus reached in 2008, making him Prime Minister – an uncanny parallel with Kenya's own political situation that very year.

But it is as though the trappings of power sapped Tsvangirai's energy in championing democracy; his own insistence in remaining head of the opposition coalition led to bitter splits within his party.

He lost dismally to Mugabe in his third attempt in 2013, and now, he is seen as the main impediment to opposition unity even as Mugabe advances in age – it is believed that a new opposition agenda is "impossible with Tsvangirai around".

In Uganda, indefatigable opposition leader Kizza Besigye has been less lucky, having had an unsuccessful go at the presidency four times – in 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016, each time losing to incumbent Yoweri Museveni.

He probably came closest to victory in 2006, when Museveni was declared winner with 59 per cent of the vote against Besigye's 37 per cent. Besigye challenged the result in court; the Supreme Court of Uganda ruled that the election was marred by intimidation, violence, voter disenfranchisement, and other irregularities. However, the Court voted 4–3 to uphold the results of the election – arguing that such irregularities did not "substantially" affect the final result.

It's a common, and disheartening failure of electoral jurisprudence in Africa. Certain electoral malpractices, such as double voting, ballot stuffing and wrong tallying of results are easy to show numerically, and so prove that fraud was "substantially" committed.

But other irregularities – like voter intimidation and violence – are harder to capture. How does one prove that people stayed at home because they were afraid that they would be targeted, and not because they were busy that day, or drunk, or sleeping, or simply did not care about voting? And how can one show – numerically – how this affected the final result?


African courts, in other words, place the burden of proof unjustly on the petitioner, legal scholar O'Brien Kaaba argues; not only is the challenger supposed to prove that there were irregularities, but also to show how that "substantially" affected the final outcome.

Ironically, the "substantial effect" rule might be entrenching electoral cheating and malpractices. A "smart" incumbent regime now has to cheat so much that the gap in results is numerically large enough to avoid a judicial challenge.

Besigye was even more unlucky in 2016, when he somehow managed to gather the energy to mount a substantial challenge against Museveni when everyone thought Besigye was "finished" politically.

His unlikely success in mounting a very spirited campaign led to the Museveni regime inelegantly tripping over itself to contain him – Besigye has been arrested and detained so many times in the past year that it almost ceased making the news.

Arguably, the greatest threat to Raila's victory in August is if he picks up the Tsvangirai tag – as an obstinate leader who insists on being at the helm, even at the expense of genuine progress and change.

Still, in Kenya's case, it is unlikely that the Jubilee regime will overtly persecute him as befell Besigye – Kenyatta and Ruto will probably be hoping that NASA implodes on its own "greed", as was the case with Tsvangirai.

It seems Raila is attempting to draw from Buhari's anti-corruption campaign to energise the masses against Jubilee's excesses. Whether this will be effective remains to be seen, especially because Kenya largely lacks the widespread social dysfunction and fear of Boko Haram that gripped Nigeria in 2015.

- The writer is a journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Africapedia.com


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