ELECTIONS WITHOUT END: Kenya’s High Politics Continue into 2018

By Faith Kiboro and Bryan Mutiso

The bigger picture for Kenya, and other democratizing countries in the region, is to what extent can we countenance election mode ad infinitum? Kenya was in election mode for a full year, and it continues on as opposition leader, Raila Odinga, refuses to concede defeat after boycotting the 2017 election.

In other spaces - Burundi is yet to conclude with finality its 2015 election. For starters, the underlying cause behind this emerging phenomenon in new democracies, is the fact that free, fair, credible, and transparent contestation is a fairly new process.

It was only in the ‘90s that the liberalized state and economy came into fruition, and even then it has been a gradual process, at best.

Fundamentally, it is the deep-seated divisions within Kenyan society such as ethnicity — that have come to dominate the electioneering period, with dire consequences, at times.

One study by Straus and Taylor (2009) highlights that from 1990 to 2007, 19 percent of elections in Sub-Saharan Africa were fraught with “serious incidents,” with a noteworthy 42 percent having “no reported violence”.

While these figures do go against the grain, where African elections are often smeared as tumultuous and socially destructive affairs, the former figure is still rather high, when compared globally.

In fact, the paradox of elections being a catalyst to violence, coupled with the need and demand for democracy, is what has somewhat stalled the march to democratization in areas of the world that Samuel Huntington once referred to as being on the verge of a “third wave” of democracy.

To interrogate the causes of this stalled process, and in the pursuit of resilience, especially against electoral related conflict, would mean to firmly face the nature of mosaic societies, which tend to create and perpetuate an overly high-stakes, ethnocised political regime, whereby a wider national consensus is often difficult to realise.

Now, despite Kenya having gone through two elections within the space of a few weeks in 2017(the first general election went through, with the presidential race being declared “null & void” by the Supreme Court), Kenya largely managed to have a relatively peaceful election cycle. Granted, deaths were reported, with disputed figures ranging from the official count of 19 killed, to unconfirmed reports of up to 67, or more, fatalities.

Regardless, each loss of life, grievous injury, and property destroyed is evidence of something much larger gripping Kenyan society.

The Secession Debate

Further evidence of this, is the secession debate that seemingly sprung out of nowhere, but has deep, ugly, and at times, trivial roots. Even without this extreme, the fact of a divided/mosaic society remains, with the 44 plus communities reflecting the true makeup of Kenya’s politics.

Sadly, this has not always meant inclusion, but instead, the exact opposite. The manipulation of the ‘tyranny of numbers’ has been the game of the day for the better part of the country’s history.

A key indication of how far this detrimental logic has been played, was the feeling among vast sections of the opposition, NASA, and even a few incumbent party supporters, that an international body, like the UN, be called in to carry out the repeat presidential elections.

Still, it is apparent that not everyone is satisfied with the way power is shared; especially in the way government is currently constituted. However, even opposition leader, Raila Odinga, while distancing himself from the secessionists, argues that their points have merit, stating that there is “something wrong with Project Kenya”.

Nonetheless, even staunch secessionists — if they are at all serious — have not shown how they will address the central problem of “election ad infinitum,” which really is a question of trust. One important question they have failed to address is this: shall the national cake be divided to its most basic unit — the family — in the pursuit of equity?

Reflectively, it might be worth considering whether the “ad infinitum” nature of elections in Kenya, is just part of politics, as a whole, or a sign of the disdain with which the country’s institutions are held, from its constitution, to the judiciary, to the security organs. These tendencies were on full display in the 2017 election cycle.

Perhaps controversially, it could be noted that the declaration of the former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, to swear himself in as the ‘People’s President of the Republic of Kenya’, not only goes against the tenets of our nationhood as laid out in the constitution, but also renders his move to secede as totally dishonest. In sum, the oppositions’ move is meant to seize power at a national level, and not at some sub-national level, as they have often claimed.

Re-building the nation’s fabric

Moving forward, it must be recognized that the key to equitable development, and thereby, inclusion, lies at the grassroots of the nation’s fabric. In the lead-up to the August, 2017 general election, it was actually thought that the county races would play host to much of the anticipated violence, but this did not occur.

On the contrary, what we saw was the historical, symbolic value of the seat of power — the presidency — being fiercely contested, this despite its substantially reduced powers. Even with a new constitution that has significantly reduced the powers of the presidency from between “80 and 90 percent”.

In the meantime, those agitating for secession should ask of themselves what it is they have been able to accomplish thus far, under devolution, and what they might be able to in the future.

Certainly, counties must step up to the challenge of correcting those real and perceived grievances that have retarded national cohesion. Boosting revenue collection, productive capacities, and attracting investments should be top of the list for counties across Kenya.

The national government’s framework for the allocation of resources has not only been duly lauded as progressive for its more than equitable distribution of the ‘national cake,’ it incentivizes and rewards local revenue generation.