The Twisted Path of Kenyan Politics

Kenyans queueing to vote, on 8 August 2017, anticipated the standard sequence of events – some bribery and dishonesty at polling stations, aggressive police officers assaulting journalists, and heated protests.

While the 54-year-old democracy has witnessed several transformations since independence, many aspects remain static. An Uber driver said, ‘Why should I waste my time when it [the elections] won’t have any impact on my life? I haven’t seen any results from the past few years’.

Historically, Kenya has a reputation for corruption and instability. When politics are not sufficiently bound by checks and balances, there is no accountability. Since an election is the only legitimate path to rule, individuals evade and bend the law to achieve power. But this time, there was a twist to the familiar tale.

As the election concluded, Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya’s president for the past five years) defeated Raila Odinga. Considering incumbents rarely lose, this was within the realm of normative outcomes – until Chief Justice David Maraga declared the election ‘invalid, null, and void’.

This fateful gamble, the first nullification of a Kenyan election, illustrates their wish for a new system – a system wherein citizens select their leadership, and institutions constrain the power of the powerful. Except, a wish is not a plan. Although Kenya has embarked upon an optimistic path; lacking direction and a clear strategy, they risk straying into disorder.


Towards Electoral Credibility?

A noticeably frustrated Mr. Kenyatta branded the Supreme Court judges ‘wakora’ (‘crooks’ in Swahili). Is his reaction due to an unfair annulment?  

Although officials have unearthed no evidence of electoral misconduct, systematic irregularities – including the torture and murder of the senior official responsible for the computerized voting system – were enough to justify an investigation.

Kenya has entered a phase of uncertainty. On one side, if the election was righteously overruled, it is a triumph for the rule of law. On the other, it could be a corrupt ploy, to swindle the election’s result.

African rulers typically have not been known for their honourable leaderships, and Mr. Kenyatta’s efforts offer no exoneration. The East African Bribery Index exposed that 83% of Kenyans define the corruption level as ‘high’. Corruption dovetailing with security concerns, furthers Kenya’s woes as tourism declines. In addition, after the 2007 election process, the International Criminal Court accused Mr. Kenyatta of instigating the attacks against Mr. Odinga’s supporters. Albeit, inadequate evidence terminated the case, Mr. Kenyatta is still far from a paragon of integrity.

Despite all that, Mr. Kenyatta won by a comfortable 54% of the votes. Did people actually vote for such a man?

Mr. Odinga relieves Mr. Kenyatta of some doubt. This is Mr. Odinga’s fourth, and probably final, attempt at the presidency. Therein lies the concern: Mr. Odinga could be playing an adept game of brinkmanship to inveigle his last attempt at election.

The annulment is a contentious debate, and the ongoing investigation makes it premature to assert a conclusion. But perhaps, the mere existence of this discussion points to Kenya’s effort for change. Integrity is being restored to the election process. The stage has been set for challenges to be upheld in court. It serves as a cautionary tale for future presidents, while a trust-inspiring story for citizens.

Yet, one ought to be wary of engaging these recent events as a triumphal narrative. It is not destined to continue forever; the judiciary still needs to preserve the progress made and ensure a fair re-election. Their actions henceforth, are what matter.

Besides, electoral reliability is just one achievement; political stability is a separate, more important, issue.


Moving Forward

The myriad of flaws in Kenya’s political architecture makes it unclear how they will advance from this sudden juncture. The rigmarole of coordinating a re-election, in a much shorter time, catalyzes the pressure. Concerns revolve around transmitting the results digitally – particularly from remote polling stations, where bribes and intimidation are prevalent.  

Democracy works best with informed citizens, yet many Kenyans do not know their rights and responsibilities of voting. Polling is determined by tribal affinities – not candidates or policies. Respectively, hostility ferments as larger tribes hold greater political influence.

The extent of alarm is evident in the allocation of electoral funds: the initial election cost Ksh 49.9 billion ($499 million), and security operations required Ksh 5.3 billion. Moreover, judicial members investigating the election are receiving threats. Kenya lacks the culture of formally airing grievances in court, resulting in unofficial clashes on the streets.

The media has the potential to remedy voter concerns and hefty security expenses. However, legislation, political officials, and the police negatively impact the media’s freedom. More frequently, reporters exposing anomalies, violence, and the duplicity pervading politics, are beleaguered by brutish officials. Without the media, there is no transparency or accountability.


Standing at Crossroads

Witnessing these events unfold, might, grant a moment of lucidity. But, progress is transient. A constant, contentious effort is required to cement legitimacy into Kenyan politics. Furthermore, fair and credible elections are only valuable insofar as they operate within a politically stable environment.

The Supreme Court has laid the foundations. Now, if Kenya chooses to continue down this path, I would bet on positive progress. Not because it is inherently inevitable. Rather, there are too many people longing for change.

After all, great events stem from small acts. Annulling the election has begun to reinforce institutional might, break old habits, and generate the momentum for reform. The people’s willingness to change is brave – even if appended is short-term turbulence.

Be that as it may, credible elections are but the first step in a lengthy, circuitous path towards political stability and institutional legitimacy. In this backdrop, the annulment can be described as modest – modest in its relation to the broader dream of political stability; yet, gigantic in relation to Kenya’s former responses.


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