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As election season nears, Kenyans brace for unrest and hope for peace

Protesters march to demand peaceful elections and justice for victims of post-election violence in Nairobi on June 23. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)
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WAJIR, Kenya — A fleet of shiny SUVs descended on the dusty city of Wajir in northeast Kenya on a spring afternoon. Campaign staff members with cellphones glued to their ears emerged from the air-conditioned interiors into 100-degree heat. The advance team for former opposition leader Raila Odinga set up a stage in a field normally populated by goats and the occasional donkey.

The ostentation of the campaign stunned residents in a city so remote that it is not even connected to the country’s main power grid. Nairobi’s political bigwigs are rarely seen here, but they know how to draw a crowd.

“Whenever the presidential candidates come to town, it’s like a mega rally,” said Osman Mohamad Abdille, a 54-year-old engineer and community leader. “These politicians normally give handouts when they come.”

But this area is experiencing its worst drought in decades, and the small cash handouts will do little for herders who have lost their livestock.

“You’ll find many people who are jobless,” Abdille said. “[The rallies] don’t have any value to the common man.”

The Wajir event was a sign the 2022 presidential race is heating up. Past elections have descended into violence, with the most recent one in 2017 culminating in a nullified result, a runoff vote, and street riots.

The upcoming election, on Aug. 9, promises to be as fractious as ever. It’s an unusual contest with all the usual names: Odinga has teamed up with former rival Uhuru Kenyatta, the sitting president, against William Ruto, the sitting deputy president.

Experts are already predicting that the results could be challenged in the Supreme Court, and the decision could provoke violence and a prolonged period of unrest in this East African country — a pillar of democracy and a key U.S. ally.

Kenya is an important partner in the fight against al-Shabab militants, who have terrorized the region for years and control large parts of neighboring Somalia. President Biden signed off recently on the deployment of hundreds of Special Operations troops to Somalia, reversing President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces in late 2020.

Kenya and the United States also have close economic ties. In recent years, a growing number of American companies have set up headquarters in Nairobi. The country also benefits from preferential treatment under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, an American program designed to enhance trade relations amid rising Chinese influence across the continent.

Kenya has a history of contested elections and political violence. In 2008, around 1,200 people were killed and more than 350,000 displaced in ethnic riots that scarred the nation. In the aftermath, both Kenyatta and Ruto were brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of crimes against humanity, but Kenyatta’s charges were dropped, and Ruto’s case was dismissed.

In the 2013 and 2017 contests, Odinga ran and lost to Kenyatta, challenging the results in the Supreme Court both times. In 2013, the court upheld the election results, but in 2017, in a decision hailed as a victory for judicial independence in Africa, the court nullified the results on the basis that the process had violated the constitutional principles of a free and fair election. The court ordered a second vote, which Odinga also lost.

In an unexpected twist, Odinga and Kenyatta then became allies after a widely publicized, carefully choreographed 2018 handshake ostensibly meant to unite the country, though skeptics branded it a cheap political maneuver. The move allowed Odinga to transition from opposition outsider to political insider.

Today, Odinga and Kenyatta, both descendants of Kenya’s ruling elite, are united in their fight against Ruto, who grew up poor and coined the phrase “Hustler Nation” to appeal to Kenyans hoping to follow his path from rags to riches.

Ruto is running on a bottom-up economics platform in a bid to win votes from the 37 percent of people who live on less than $1.90 per day. Kenyans are still struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, while dealing with food shortages and soaring inflation, partly because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“[It’s] a hard thing when people are still getting the same amount of money they used to get,” says Peter Ndegwa, a driver in Nairobi. “Right now, as we speak, maize flour is at 200ksh ($1.70), up from 120ksh ($1.02) in the beginning of the year.”

Kenyatta has accused Ruto of ruthlessly polarizing the country in his quest for the presidency, while Odinga has focused on fighting corruption, positioning himself as a peacemaker who can bring Kenyans together.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), responsible for overseeing elections, is facing accusations of corruption and incompetence. Issues surrounding the integrity of the voter registration process and the handling of ballots are still in question five years after the systemic failures that led to the 2017 nullification.

“It is unlikely that the IEBC will be able to address all those by this election,” says Mulle Musau, national coordinator of Kenya’s Election Observation Group, a civil society coalition.

Those concerns were echoed by Eric Watnik, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi: “It is the Kenyan Parliament’s responsibility to adopt necessary reforms to Kenya’s electoral legal framework in a timely manner, a process that remains incomplete this year.”

With international observers sounding the alarm, and both campaigns already questioning the integrity of the election, the stage is set for a legal battle following the August vote.

“[T]here’s a widespread expectation that there will be a petition challenging this election by whomever loses,” says Tom Wolf, a political analyst at Trends and Insights for Africa Research.

The pressure on the Supreme Court and the IEBC has been heightened by threats of violence.

Nine days before the 2017 August presidential election, a top election official was tortured and murdered. In October of that year, IEBC Commissioner Roselyn Akombe resigned and fled to the United States, saying she feared for her life. And on the eve of a last-minute hearing about canceling the election rerun, the Deputy Supreme Court Chief Justice’s bodyguard was shot and injured.

If the election results are challenged, the controversy could spill out of the courtroom and into the streets. Any unrest could escalate if either Odinga or Ruto chooses to leverage ethnic divisions to stir up anger among voters, although analysts say tribal violence is less likely because of the intertribal coalitions both candidates have built.

Whatever the outcome, people like Abdille and his neighbors in Wajir have lost faith in the political process. They have little hope this election will improve their lives.

“There’s no civilized way of voting,” Abdille lamented. “There’s no civilized way of campaigning. There’s no civilized way of convincing the common man.”

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