Kenya holds regular multiparty elections. However, pervasive corruption and brutality by security forces remain serious problems. The country’s media and civil society sectors are vibrant, even as journalists and human rights defenders remain vulnerable to restrictive laws and intimidation.
- The Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a two-day attack on a hotel and office complex in Nairobi in January, in which more than 20 people were killed.
- The Building Bridges Initiative—founded by President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga and intended to address problems that led to past political violence and disputed elections—released its findings in November. Its wide-ranging recommendations included introducing a prime minister and reducing the size of the cabinet, as well as measures aimed at encouraging whistleblowers and boosting local development.
- Several prominent political figures were arrested on corruption charges during the year, including Finance Minister Henry Rotich, and the governor of Nairobi County, Mike Mbuvi, known as “Sonko.”
- In February, several members of the ruling Jubilee Coalition publicly attacked the sitting deputy president, William Ruto, suggesting widening rifts within the grouping.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||1.001 4.004|
The president and deputy president, who can serve up to two five-year terms, are directly elected by majority vote; they are also required to win 25 percent of the votes in at least half of Kenya’s 47 counties.
President Kenyatta was reelected in October 2017 in a disputed election, the rerun of which was boycotted by the main opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, on account of a lack of electoral reforms. The first presidential election, held that August, was annulled the following month by the Supreme Court, which ruled that vote-counting procedures by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had been severely flawed, and that a rerun should be held. (The count had returned a solid victory by Kenyatta, which many analysts had predicted.) The main opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance (NASA), threatened to boycott the rerun unless a number of reforms were implemented at the IEBC. Some of these reforms were not met, prompting a boycott of the rerun by Odinga, who urged his supporters not to participate in the poll.
The final results showed that Kenyatta won the rerun with 98.3 percent of the vote. Turnout for the rerun was just 38.8 percent—much lower than turnout for the August polls, which reached nearly 80 percent. Odinga continued to harshly criticize the election process after the rerun, and Kenyatta began his final term facing a significant legitimacy crisis.
Violence and intimidation marred the 2017 election period. Chris Msando, the IEBC member in charge of the vote-counting system, was murdered days ahead of the August vote, with his body showing signs of torture. In the weeks between the annulled election and the rerun, one IEBC commissioner fled Kenya for the United States, prompting the IEBC chairman to assert that the body could not guarantee a free election given the atmosphere of intimidation. Police in Nairobi and Kisumu used excessive force in an attempt to quell sometimes-violent opposition protests. Several dozen people were reportedly killed by police in the capital alone, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
The bicameral Parliament consists of the 349-seat National Assembly and the 67-seat Senate. In the National Assembly, 290 members are directly elected from single-member constituencies. A further 47 special women representatives are elected from the counties, and political parties nominate 12 additional members according to the share of seats won. The Senate has 47 elected members representing the counties, 16 special women representatives nominated by political parties based on the share of seats won, and four nominated members representing youth and people with disabilities. Both houses have speakers who are ex-officio members.
In 2017, Kenyatta’s Jubilee Coalition secured majorities in both the National Assembly and the Senate, and stakeholders broadly accepted the results. Irregularities and violations were reported, but they were not systematic and did not harm or benefit any specific party.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||2.002 4.004|
The IEBC is mandated with conducting free and fair elections, and operates under a robust electoral framework. However, the IEBC faces frequent allegations of favoritism toward the incumbent Jubilee Coalition, and in 2017 its members experienced violence and intimidation severe enough to prompt its chairman to declare that he could not guarantee the integrity of the presidential rerun. After the annulment of the first presidential election in 2017, the National Assembly approved controversial measures mandating that if a candidate withdraws from a rerun election, the other candidate would automatically win the poll. The amendments additionally limited the Supreme Court’s power to annul election results. The measures took effect a few days after the rerun was held.
In May 2018, after a public reconciliation, Kenyatta and Odinga formed the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). Under the initiative, a task force was convened, and entrusted with studying public opinion on the problems that plague Kenyan politics such as ethnic strife, corruption, and political dysfunction, and ultimately producing recommendations for reform. The BBI report was launched in November 2019; its recommendations were geared toward changing some structures of the government in advance of 2022 elections, and included introducing a prime minister and reducing the size of the cabinet, among other measures aimed at encouraging whistleblowers and boosting local development.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||2.002 4.004|
Citizens are free to organize into political parties. Kenyan parties represent a range of ideological, regional, and ethnic interests, but are notoriously weak, and are often amalgamated into coalitions designed only to contest elections. Under the Political Parties Act, parties that receive at least 5 percent of the votes cast in a national election are eligible for public funds.
In 2019, the Registrar of Political Parties announced that 30 new parties had been granted preliminarily registration since the 2017 elections.
A March 2018 rapprochement between Kenyatta and Odinga helped deescalate political tensions somewhat, though little has been done to bring to justice the perpetrators of political violence that took place in the previous years.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||2.002 4.004|
Opposition parties and candidates are competitive in Kenyan elections, and the 2017 polls saw a high number of incumbents voted out of office. However, Odinga’s decision to boycott the rerun election in protest of a lack of reforms at the IEBC left Kenyatta opponents without a viable candidate to vote for, effectively guaranteeing Kenyatta’s reelection.
Politics have been unstable since March 2018, when Kenyatta and Odinga publicly reached a truce in an event that became popularly known as “the handshake.” Some analysts say the handshake dealt a blow to the foundations of both the ruling Jubilee Coalition and the opposing NASA, because each party’s opposition to the other had served as a key factor in keeping them each united. Odinga was later named African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development in October 2018, a role that distanced him from national politics. In February 2019, several Jubilee members publicly attacked the sitting deputy president, William Ruto, and his qualifications to serve in executive office, suggesting widening rifts in the ruling coalition.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||2.002 4.004|
People’s political choices are mostly free from undue influence by powerful, democratically unaccountable actors. However, ethnicity remains the most salient organizing principle in Kenyan politics, and two ethnic groups—the Kikuyu and Kalenjin—have dominated the presidency since independence.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||2.002 4.004|
The 2010 constitution was intended to reduce the role of ethnicity in elections, and fiscal and political devolution, implemented in 2013, has served to generate more intraethnic competition at the county level. Nevertheless, the ongoing politicization of ethnicity at the national level hinders effective representation of different segments of Kenya’s diverse population, limits voter choice, and impedes meaningful policy debates.
The stipulation that all voters possess a National Identity Card hinders historically marginalized groups from obtaining greater access to the political process, particularly the nearly seven million pastoralists from the upper Rift Valley and the North Eastern Province. There are significant implicit barriers to the participation of non-Christian and LGBT+ people in national politics.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||2.002 4.004|
The ability of elected officials to set and implement policy is undermined by corruption and other dysfunction. Although the 2010 constitution reduced the powers of the executive branch and improved the oversight role of Parliament, corruption limits the independence of the legislative branch, and in practice, Parliament is generally subordinate to the president.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||1.001 4.004|
Corruption continues to plague national and county governments in Kenya, and state institutions tasked with combating corruption have been ineffective. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) lacks prosecutorial power and has been largely unsuccessful in pursuing corruption cases. The EACC’s weakness is compounded by shortcomings at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) and within the judiciary.
However, following the April 2018 appointment of Noordin Haji as the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), the ODPP stepped up anticorruption investigations, arresting and charging a number of high-profile officials. In July 2019, Finance Minister Henry Rotich was arrested on corruption charges, marking the first time that a sitting minister had been arrested in the country’s history. Additionally, the prominent governor of Nairobi County, Mike Mbuvi, known as “Sonko,” was charged with a multimillion dollar corruption scandal relating to property acquisition and money laundering in December.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
Elaborate rules govern public finance in Kenya, but enforcement is often lacking. Parliament’s Budget and Appropriations Committee effectively delegates the budget process to the Treasury, and the legislature has demonstrated limited willingness to ensure that the Treasury respects budget-making procedures. When budget information is made available, it is generally released long after the planning stages during which stakeholders could offer input.
Many of the central government’s expenditures are not disclosed. While the number of budgeting documents published by county governments increased somewhat in 2019, the availability of financial information still fell below levels that would allow for adequate public participation in local-government budgetary processes.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
Kenya has one of the more vibrant media landscapes on the African continent, with journalists actively working to expose government corruption and other wrongdoing. However, several laws restrict press freedom, and the government and security forces harass journalists, leading to self-censorship in some cases. The Kenyan Union of Journalists stated that 2019 was characterized by increased use of “frivolous” defamation charges against journalists, physical attacks, and other infringements of journalists’ rights.
Journalists risk harassment and attacks in connection with their work, and these incidents are rarely investigated by police. In June 2019, Kenyan Television Network journalists were attacked with stones by high school students and their principal, who then burned the journalists’ vehicle. In this case, the principal was arrested and charged with property damage, arson, and inciting violence. The journalists had been investigating the disappearance of a student, who has since reappeared; the principal allegedly directed other students to remove the journalists from school premises.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||2.002 4.004|
The government generally respects the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. However, counterterrorism operations against the Somalia-based Shabaab militant group have left Muslims exposed to state violence and intimidation. Shabaab militants have at times specifically targeted Christians in Kenya.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Academic freedom in Kenya is traditionally robust. However, student union elections have led to allegations of fraud, and violent protests. In addition, there is evidence that ethnic considerations have influenced university hiring, leaving the staff of some institutions with significant ethnic imbalances.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
The relatively unfettered freedom of private discussion in Kenya has suffered somewhat from state counterterrorism operations and intimidation by security forces and ethnically affiliated gangs. The government in recent years has used its broadly defined surveillance powers to monitor mobile phone and internet communications.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly. However, the law requires organizers of public meetings to notify local police in advance, and in practice police have regularly prohibited gatherings on security or other grounds, and violently dispersed assemblies that they had not explicitly banned.
In June 2019, police tear gassed and violently dispersed a protest organized in Nairobi to express solidarity with the prodemocracy movement in Sudan, and arrested the deputy director of the Kenya Human Rights Council (KHRC) on grounds of organizing an illegal protest, even though the group had obtained a permit. In November, police used disproportionate force against Kiambu University students protesting a lack of security on campus.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||2.002 4.004|
Kenya has an active nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector, but civil society groups have faced growing obstacles in recent years, including repeated government attempts to deregister hundreds of NGOs for alleged financial violations. The government has still not implemented the Public Benefits Organizations (PBO) Act, which was passed in 2013 to improve the regulatory framework for NGOs and offer greater freedom for them to operate.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
The 2010 constitution affirmed the rights of trade unions to establish their own agendas, bargain collectively, and strike. Unions are active in Kenya, with approximately 40 unions representing nearly two million workers. However, labor leaders sometimes experience intimidation, notably in the wake of strike actions. A number of strikes have taken place in the past several years, including those organized by medical workers and university staff.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
The judiciary is generally considered to be independent, but judicial procedures are inefficient. The government has occasionally refused to comply with court orders. In 2018, it refused to release opposition politician and Odinga supporter Miguna Miguna and halt his deportation as ordered, and to end the shutdown of several television stations.
After the High Court annulled the first 2017 presidential election, members of the ruling Jubilee Coalition threatened and intimidated judges. In June 2018, President Kenyatta signed an appropriations bill that reduced the budget for the judiciary to $143 million, compared to $173 million the previous year. Some critics claim that the budget cut was retaliation for the 2017 election annulment.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
Constitutional guarantees of due process are poorly upheld. There remains a significant backlog of court cases. The police service is thoroughly undermined by corruption and criminality.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||1.001 4.004|
The Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab continued to pose a security threat in 2019. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a two-day terrorist attack on the DusitD2 hotel and office complex in the Westlands area of Nairobi in January 2019, which left more than 20 people dead.
Violence against suspects and detainees by security forces, including extrajudicial killings, remains a serious concern, and abuses are rarely punished. According to the Deadly Force Database kept by the Daily Nation, about 189 people were killed by police in the period between October 1, 2018, through September 30, 2019. An average of 16 people were killed each month, a decline from the 21 a month during the previous year. Further deaths are believed to have gone unreported. Some officers posted photos of executed victims on social media. Extrajudicial killings have been especially prevalent in low-income areas in Nairobi.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||1.001 4.004|
Consensual same-sex sexual activity is criminalized under the penal code, with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. In May 2019, the High Court dismissed a challenge to the law. LGBT+ people to face discrimination, abuse, and violent attacks. Reports of police abuses against refugees and asylum seekers continue.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||2.002 4.004|
While the constitution provides protections for freedom of movement and related rights, they are impeded in practice by security concerns and ethnic tensions that lead many residents to avoid certain parts of the country.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||1.001 4.004|
Organized crime continues to threaten legitimate business activity in Kenya. Political corruption and ethnic favoritism also affect the business sector and exacerbate existing imbalances in wealth and access to economic opportunities, including public-sector jobs. Forced evictions without compensation are prevalent in low-income areas, particularly in Nairobi.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution recognizes marriage as a union between two people of the opposite sex, but otherwise does not place explicit restrictions on social freedoms. Polygamy is legal, and approximately 10 percent of the married population are in polygamous marriages. Rape and domestic violence remain common and are rarely prosecuted.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Kenya remains an unequal society, with wealth generally concentrated in towns and cities. The arid and semiarid north and northeastern parts of the country have particularly high poverty rates.
Refugees and asylum seekers from neighboring countries, particularly children, have been vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor in Kenya, though Kenyan children are also subject to such abuses. Kenyan workers are recruited for employment abroad in sometimes exploitative conditions, particularly in the Middle East.
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Global Freedom Score48 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score66 100 partly free