Kenya: The show must go on

Date first published: 12/10/2017

Key sectors: all

Key risks: civil unrest; democratic backsliding; weakened economic growth

Kenya’s electoral and political crisis shows no signs of abating, with the Supreme Court’s decision on 1 September to rerun the presidential election result continuing to test the country’s commitment to enshrining democratic norms, values and institutions.

In three major developments over the course of the week, on 10 October, opposition leader Raila Odinga withdrew his candidacy from the presidential election re-run, scheduled for 26 October, as his demands for reforms to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) went unmet, stating his party had no time for “empty rhetoric and divisive politics”. His National Super Alliance (NASA) party’s demands included: firing electoral commission officials it had identified of mishandling the 8 August poll, replacing the companies that printed papers and supplied the voter verification and transmission kits, and implementing staff reform within the IEBC to prevent results being rigged. While chairman Wafula Chebukati promised to make changes to the team, political pressure appears to have prevented him from doing more than appointing a special team, which has little more than symbolic value, to oversee the re-run. These divisions within the electoral commission have led to many pointing out that the organisation is under siege.

However, even if the necessary changes to the electoral commission were made, it is unlikely that this would do anything to overturn the result of the August poll, in which Kenyatta secured 54 per cent of the vote. The Supreme Court’s ruling was more as a result of concerns over the process, rather than claims of widespread electoral manipulation. As such, Odinga had few choices left but to withdraw. Even his current international tour will do little to prompt international intervention.

The day after Odinga withdrew his candidacy, on 11 October, Kenya’s High Court ruled that all eight candidates who participated in the initial 8 August presidential election could now stand in the re-run This followed a petition by Ekuru Aukot, who polled less than 1 per cent in the initial race. The High Court also said that although Odinga had notified them of his withdrawal by letter, he was yet to submit the official Form 24A to formalise his withdrawal. While the court order introduces some degree of superficial competition into the polls, Kenyatta’s victory – already the most likely prospect even before Odinga’s withdrawal – now appears a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile almost simultaneously, Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee party passed an electoral reform bill in parliament, as the opposition boycotted the vote. The amendment stated that if one candidate withdrew from repeat elections, the other would win by default. Rather than face further delays, the events demonstrate that the show will go on.

As Kenya’s political players continue to assert themselves, the tension has spilled over onto the streets. Protests have taken place on an almost daily basis, with police firing tear gas and live bullets in response. On 12 October, Kenya’s internal security minister announced that organisers of demonstrations would be held personally liable for any damage caused, and anti-IEBC demonstrations were banned in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa city centres in a move that highlights the increasingly restrictive political environment that has come to characterise Kenyan democracy. Amidst the political uncertainty and vitriolic electioneering, the country’s economy weakens.

What was hailed a landmark ruling and a turning point in democracy has quickly transformed into a missed opportunity to consolidate democracy.