Why fists and chairs always fly in elections

By Charles Onyango Obbo

Kenya‘s party primaries ahead of August 9 general elections are largely complete. Although some ended relatively peacefully, there were more than enough that descended into the usual chaos and violence.

Although it seemed less anecdotal this time, violence has been a feature of Kenyan party nominations and has increased significantly over the past three election cycles. It’s not exclusively Kenyan either. Primary election violence occurs in many parts of Africa – from the noisy and chaotic democracies like Nigeria to the quasi-democratic, one-party dominated states like Uganda.

At a think-tank retreat in Nairobi last year, a dry-eyed, pragmatic participant blew our minds with his take on the violence in Kenya’s elections. He argued that this was a determining factor in how competitive a presidential candidate in particular was in Kenya. He said it was no coincidence that Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga were front runners in the presidential race.

Both men, he said, had the potential to shut down parts of the economy – even parts of the country if it came to that – if they mobilized their supporters to do so. He said one presidential candidate (whom we won’t name) was deluding himself about his prospects because he “couldn’t even shut down the Waiyaki Way if he tried.”

If he’s right, several of the implications are immediately apparent. For one thing, it could explain why women have not fared well as presidential candidates in Kenya. Perhaps it has less to do with gender bias and more to do with the fact that female candidates are less likely to use violence as a political weapon. They do poorly because they are better citizens and less murderous.

party nominations


That was not always so. If you read earlier newspaper and magazine reports on party nominations, the photos alone don’t make any sense from today’s perspective. They show party members in their Sunday best, sitting neatly, and nominations being carried out like a Rotary club event.

Nowadays you go to a nomination in Kenya, Nigeria or even Zambia in a suit and they might hang you with your tie and strangle you with your scarf if a fight breaks out. Several changes have turned nominations and elections into wars – ironically many of them, otherwise good developments.

Going back to the nomination photos of the 1960s and ’70s and today, another obvious difference is demographics. In the past, party elders who were past beatings had a lot of influence over nominations. Today there are hardly any old people in the nominations and they are full of hot-blooded younger ones.

The other shift is that nominations are much more democratic. The party delegates mostly gathered in order not to elect or even select a candidate chosen by the party headquarters and the president, but to approve it. That still happens via direct tickets, but cases are so few you can count them on your fingertips.

There is simply no leader in Kenya today who has the total control over his party that Jomo Kenyatta and later Daniel arap Moi had at his height over the pro-independence Kenya African National Union (Kanu) party. The parties and their leaders are weaker and the price is small. Because they are less feared, they cannot enforce order and discipline. We get flying chairs and fists for nominations.

Militarized elections

We live in very difficult and competitive economic times, and politics has become a major vehicle for accumulating wealth. The cost of entry has therefore increased and the stakes are much higher. As politicians make ever larger investments to win nominations, a loss is a big blow to their pockets. They will fight as much as possible to win and resist defeat.

It all makes for an explosive mix when they encounter one of the ugliest features of modern elections in most parts of Africa: vote stealing. The reality of vote-rigging has put intense pressure on candidates to protect their votes. Seeing that you can’t protect your vote will make voters question why they should give it to you.

Election theft isn’t just messing around with the numbers. Incumbents and governments have militarized elections; Some of the largest peacetime military and police operations are reserved for Election Day to help with the raid. The opposition and the losers know they can no longer meaningfully respond with placards, walking the streets chanting hallelujah, or telling the system to respect the constitution.

The threat of inflicting pain, disrupting the economy and responding to security officials with stones and Molotov cocktails has tragically become the main incentive for electoral commissions and the ruling party not to brazenly steal the votes.

Candidates are not waiting on election day to mobilize their own militant anti-electoral countermeasures. They do this ahead of time, and their use of the nomination is a test run. Barring an Eritrean-like situation with no elections for most of Africa with hotly contested polls, this violence could conceivably have continued.

Mr. Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, author and curator of The Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3

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