Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.
In his op-ed for The Post, published on the eve of Kenya’s repeat presidential election, President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed “every confidence that the impasse in Kenya will be resolved by this new vote.” Which was strange given that the current impasse was precisely about the new vote, the fresh election ordered by Kenya’s Supreme Court after it annulled the August presidential election in which Kenyatta had been declared the winner.
As Kenyatta wrote, that historic decision came as a shock to everyone. There were sufficient grounds to question the veracity of the results announced by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. A reading of the full Supreme Court majority judgment demonstrates multiple irregularities and illegalities in the election’s conduct. The real reason for the surprise at the reversal was that no one expected that the power of Kenya’s “owners” would be seriously questioned.
The owners are the very few at the very top of the country’s Ponzi state, a legacy of the failure to reform the colonial state inherited from the British.
Though the constitution did require that a fresh election be held by the end of October, it was clear that without serious changes, the credibility of such would always be in doubt. It was rather about putting down the democratic revolt that the Supreme Court threatened in September and ensuring that the owners stayed in charge.
The gambit, however, appears to have backfired. Turnout has been much lower than anticipated, dropping from nearly 80 percent in August to less than 34 percent, denying Kenyatta legitimacy and indicating serious misgivings even in his electoral backyard. Along with a poll showing most Kenyans, including half of those in Kenyatta’s strongholds, approved of the decision to annul the August election, this suggests that across the political divide, Kenyans prefer credible processes to fixed outcomes.
Kenyatta was being disingenuous when he wrote: “I did not agree with that [annulment] decision. But I accepted it.” The decision shook him — and his fellow owners — to the core. He launched a frenzied attack on the courts: The judges were branded “wakora” or bandits, the judgment itself a “judicial coup.” His supporters started openly extolling the virtues of dictatorship. In parliament, his allies changed the electoral laws to make it essentially impossible for another presidential election to ever be annulled.
Even more worrying, this fits into a wider trend in Kenya where democratic rights and freedoms are being sharply curtailed and avenues for popular political participation — from media to civil society to street protest — are being closed. A report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch alleges that up to 67 people in opposition strongholds may have been killed by the police in the period following the Aug. 8 election.
Even judges may not feel safe. Following an attack on her bodyguard, the deputy chief justice was unable to attend the scheduled hearing on the eve of the election of an urgent case at the Supreme Court and sought to have it postponed — something Kenyatta has flatly rejected. Her absence, along with that of four others (two so far without explanation), meant the case could not be heard.
So what’s next? Kenyatta has said he is now willing to talk to Raila Odinga, his main rival, though no one is sure what about. However, Kenyans should be wary of leaving it up to the two of them. Kenya’s political factions have historically been interested, not in free and fair polls, but rather in retaining the ability to manipulate results while denying the same to opponents. The inevitable horse trading always leads to shortchanging of the electorate.
Kenya cannot afford to leave its politics to the whims of its politicians. Any talks should be conducted within the context of a wider national dialogue that involves a wider cross section of society, including representatives of civil society and workers, as well as religious and business leaders. Similarly, the issues to be addressed must go beyond the narrow interests of political parties. The agenda must include the people’s “irreducible minimums” — comprehensive audit and reform of the electoral system; constitutional changes to shore up the independence of the judiciary and other constitutional bodies; reform of the police; compliance with all the provisions of the constitution, including the requirement that no gender should have more than two-thirds representation in any appointed or electoral bodies; and implementation of the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which has been gathering dust in parliament for the past three years, so that Kenya can finally begin the hard work of righting the wrongs of the past.
However, dangers remain. The ruling elite will not easily give up its privileged position, which is undergirded by the state. The colonial regime was not legitimated by popular will but by a combination of brute force, co-opting of ethnic elites and dividing the people along ethnic lines. The continuing brutal crackdown on protests and the use of tribal militia in tit-for-tat attacks show that the owners have lost none of their appetite for both state-sponsored and privately contracted ethnic violence.
Reform of Kenya’s colonial state is by no means inevitable. It will be forcefully resisted. But if the people hold firm, they will eventually prevail.