Power over process – the battle to preserve Kenyan democracy

By Grace Hunt


KENYAN democracy has been preserved on a knife edge with considerable challenges to the process still prevailing.

The drama which frequents election time makes for exciting viewing but the unrest, and often violence, which follows concerns domestic and international observers alike.

Party politics takes a backseat to personalities and ethnic tribes, campaign rallies quickly become parties with dancing and street parties, and election results bring turbulence and uncertainty.

Kenya has a notable recent history of violent and dramatic elections. Following the results of the 2007 election, the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, did not accept the results as fair. The chairman of the Electoral Commission later admitted himself to be unsure of the results.

Violent outbreaks over the following weeks resulted in hundreds of thousands becoming displaced and reports of around a thousand killed.

The election of 2017 was nullified by the Supreme Court following the announcement of Uhuru Kenyatta, the current president, as the winner.

New elections were arranged, but the opposition withdrew. Human Rights Watch reported that “at least 12 people were killed by police in western counties of Kisumu and Siaya alone and another 33 in Nairobi”. Police brutality in opposition stronghold areas meant that another election was defined by violence and killings.

Violent outbreaks have been explained as a protest against the failure and sabotage of democracy. To remedy this fundamental issue, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was established in 2011, tasked with providing free and fair elections in Kenya. However, the political climate has provided many challenges for this body, alongside arising questions around the feasibility of the job.

Someone who understands the demand of this agenda more than most is IEBC County Manager for Kilifi County, Hussein*. During our conversation, Hussein explained the mounting pressure upon officials to ensure effective democracy.

“This election must be a success”, he expressed, explaining that Kenyan democracy “is not yet full and effective”.

The value of the upcoming election for national faith in democracy and political institutions cannot be overstated, according to the official.

Understandably, memories of the 2007 and 2017 elections are hanging over the heads of Kenyans nationwide, with the fear of repeated incitements to violence, and consequential killings. On this basis, Hussein’s emphasis on the significance of the election for democracy seems fair.

Alongside the success of national democracy, the credibility of the IEBC as an organisation is hanging in the balance.

While the pressure mounts for senior IEBC officials, others perceive their job to be an impossible one. Many voters are concerned that violence is a fairly likely outcome, while others are certain that it will take place.

This could be due to a lack of faith in the IEBC, or a certainty that politicians and their campaigners will dispute results which they do not like, regardless of how democratic the processes are.

Alice, a young Kenyan graduate, told Redaction Report that violence is inevitable following the election results.

“There will be conflict, absolutely,” she said.

With President Kenyatta supporting the opposition rather than his deputy, William Ruto, Alice believes that he will use his power in the security forces to forcefully dispute the result, if Ruto succeeds.

Alternatively, if Raila Odinga succeeds, Ruto is unlikely to accept the announcement. He will use his own means to entice his supporters to violence in order to overturn the result. Multiple locals have expressed this concern to me. They fear for their fellow Kenyans in western regions, and they fear the threat to their national democracy.

They’re not alone. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) published a report which reinforced these concerns, stating that politicians are exploiting high youth unemployment by paying youths to intimidate opponents. This often turns violent.

Regarding the IEBC agenda for violence following the vote, you might assume that if the IEBC can provide a free and fair election, there would be no need for violence. This is likely not the case, violence and elections have become entwined in this country with only the severity of the consequences fluctuating.

Perhaps politicians and their campaigners, upon their electoral failure, are doomed to entice violence, regardless of IEBC efforts to expand and strengthen democracy. This dimension of the IEBC agenda may be an impossible job due to the desire of the politicians to overturn democracy if it means they can obtain or maintain power. While the politicians crave power over process, the IEBC will not have an easy ride protecting their fragile democracy.

At the time this article was published – two days after polling day – officials had yet to announce which of the candidates was ahead.

Grace Hunt is a freelance journalist focusing on foreign affairs and international development.


Featured Image: Commonwealth Secretariat @ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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