Elections in Kenya: fear of unrest ahead of August election

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WAJIR, Kenya –– A fleet of gleaming SUVs drove over the dusty town of Wajir in northeastern Kenya on a spring afternoon. Campaign workers with cell phones taped to their ears stepped out of the air-conditioned interior into the 100-degree heat. Former opposition leader Raila Odinga’s advance team set up a stage in a field usually populated by goats and the occasional donkey.

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

“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 usually give handouts when they come.”

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

“You will find a lot of people who are unemployed,” Abdille said. “[The rallies] have no value to the common man.”

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

The upcoming August 9 election promises to be as contradictory as ever. It’s an unusual contest by all the usual names: Odinga has teamed up with former rival Uhuru Kenyatta, the acting president, against William Ruto, the acting vice president.

Experts are already predicting the findings 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 US ally.

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

Kenya and the United States also have close economic ties. In recent years, more and more American companies have settled in Nairobi. The country also benefits from preferential treatment under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, an American program to improve trade relations amid increasing Chinese influence across the continent.

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

In the 2013 and 2017 competitions, Odinga laced up and lost to Kenyatta, both times challenging the results in the Supreme Court. 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 annulled the results on the grounds that the trial violated 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 became allies after a widely publicized, carefully choreographed handshake in 2018 that was rumored 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 in poverty and coined the term “Hustler Nation” to appeal to Kenyans hoping to follow his rags-to-riches journey.

Ruto runs on a bottom-up economic platform to win votes from the 37 percent of people who live on less than $1.90 a day. Kenyans are still struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic while grappling with food shortages and rising inflation, partly due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“[It’s] A difficult thing when people are still getting the same amount of money as they used to be,” says Peter Ndegwa, a driver in Nairobi. “Right now, as we speak, cornmeal is at 200,000 ($1.70), down from 120,000 ($1.02) at the start of the year.”

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

Meanwhile, Kenya’s independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which oversees elections, faces allegations of corruption and incompetence. Issues related to the integrity of the voter registration process and ballot handling remain in question five years after the systemic failures that led to the 2017 annulment.

“It is unlikely that the IEBC will be able to address everyone in this election,” said Mulle Musau, national coordinator of the Kenya Election Observation Group, a civil society coalition.

These concerns were echoed by Eric Watnik, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Nairobi: “It is the responsibility of the Kenyan Parliament to pass the necessary reforms to Kenya’s electoral framework in a timely manner, a process that is still 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 post-August legal battle.

“[T]There is a widespread expectation that there will be a petition challenging this election by each loser,” said Tom Wolf, policy analyst at Trends and Insights for Africa Research.

Threats of violence increased pressure on the Supreme Court and the IEBC.

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

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

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

“There is no civilized way of voting,” Abdille lamented. “There is no civilized way of campaigning. There is no civilized way of persuading the common man.”

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