Kenya’s Elections Promise More of the Same | Freedom House

Kenya’s Elections Promise More of the Same

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Next Monday, Kenyans will go to the polls for what are regarded as the most important general elections in the country’s history. But these voters face a less than inspiring choice. Regardless of whom they elect, it is doubtful that the process will result in a much-needed transformation of the dominant political culture, which is characterized by ethnic favoritism, widespread corruption, and impunity for human rights violations.

Since the 2002 electoral defeat of the regime established by Daniel Arap Moi, who had ruled for more than two decades through a strategic mixture of ethnic politics, state repression, and marginalization of opposition forces, Kenya’s democratic development has been impeded by a number of obstacles. Reforms have been erratic, the manipulation of ethnic divisions has continued, and accountability among political elites has been lacking. Under Mwai Kibaki, who won the presidency in 2002 by defeating Uhuru Kenyatta, Moi’s protégé, an ambitious reform program was hampered by the fragility of the governing coalition—from which one important figure, Raila Odinga, withdrew—as well as a failed bid to overhaul the constitution and endemic corruption.

Raila Odinga

Photo Credit: World Economic Forum

Uhuru Kenyatta
Photo Credit: Nairobi Photo

Kenya suffered another blow as a result of apparent manipulation of the December 2007 presidential election. Kibaki was declared the winner despite credible allegations of systematic fraud, sparking weeks of nationwide ethnic violence. Over 1,100 people were killed, and more than 300,000 others were displaced. In late February 2008, Kibaki and Odinga, the leading opposition candidate, negotiated a compromise agreement under intense international pressure, whereby Odinga was given the newly created post of prime minister in a coalition government.

This arrangement pulled the country back from the precipice of a catastrophic civil war, but it neither curbed impunity nor delivered a transformation of the political culture, as mandated by the power-sharing agreement. A constitutional referendum in August 2010 was arguably the best-run poll in Kenyan history, with over two-thirds of voters favoring the new charter’s radical overhaul of the political system. However, implementation has been slow, uneven, and incomplete. Many provisions in bills enacted by the parliament have not met the requirements of the new constitution. Political and economic elites have fought hard to protect their interests, particularly on sensitive issues like corruption.

The resistance of elites and political manipulation have also prevented the Kenyan justice system from properly investigating and prosecuting the alleged planners and perpetrators of the 2008 postelection violence. Out of 5,000 suspected instigators of the violence, including dozens of high-profile political figures and current candidates for the parliament, only a few individuals have been prosecuted. Due to the complete failure of Kenyan institutions to conduct effective investigations or trials, the cases of the high-level perpetrators, including current presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, were referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Today, new multiethnic alliances have been forged, but their aims are disappointingly narrow. Odinga’s coalition of Luo, Kamba, and Luhya has been assembled with electoral victory in mind rather than concern about a just and democratic Kenya. More worryingly, the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance, which brings together the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups, was forged not to advance democratic reforms but to protect the two leaders and those close to them from prosecution.

If elected, Kenyatta and his Jubilee coalition can be expected to frustrate and even reverse democratic reforms and attack those who worked toward his indictment by the ICC. His election manifesto openly promotes a highly restrictive legal framework for civil society. It is based on an Ethiopian law that demolished that country’s domestic human rights movement. Even if Kenyatta does not win the presidency and his coalition is defeated in the parliamentary polls, they will present a formidable opposition capable of delaying any reform attempt—assuming that Odinga is actually able and willing to seize the opportunity offered by the new constitution and attempts to change how Kenya is governed. The bloc that Odinga has created to win the elections is fragile, and its appetite for reforms is doubtful.

These unappealing options are rooted to some degree in voters’ own attitudes. Decades of misrule have left many Kenyans—regardless of their level of education, profession, or economic status—with the feeling that only fellow members of their own tribe or ethnic group can ensure their families’ survival, protection, and prosperity.

The latest opinion poll shows a very close race between Kenyatta and Odinga, with clear divisions along ethnic lines, underscoring the determinative importance of ethnic identity in the electoral sphere. It seems that Kenyans will vote again based on their ethnic allegiances, maintaining a political culture that favors the interests of the ruling elite rather than the public at large.

Consequently, the current state of play is likely to continue for the next five years, until the 2018 elections. Unless voters overcome their fears, opt for the promise of a greater good, and begin demanding that their leaders prove themselves accountable, ethical, and responsive to public needs, the potential of the new constitution will go unexploited, and a just and democratic Kenya will remain beyond the horizon.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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