Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has emerged from a close and widely watched election as winner over perennial opposition candidate Raila Odinga. But tensions have not lifted despite the declaration by Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that Kenyatta won with 54 percent of the vote.
The election is a litmus test for the nation’s democratic progress, and heightened security measures remain in effect to try to prevent a reoccurrence of the widespread violence that erupted after a presidential vote a decade ago.
Odinga, leader of the National Super Alliance, has appealed to the Supreme Court while at the same time calling for civil disobedience from his supporters. If either side does not accept the court’s eventual ruling, ethnic conflict could erupt again, posing great risks to East Africa’s economic hub and one of the region’s most stable countries.
The question of election credibility
The IEBC and the vote received high marks from international observers. Western observers have concluded that Kenyatta has been legitimately reelected, and the U.S. Department of State has formally congratulated him on his victory. Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party also won a majority of parliamentary seats and governorships, including that of the capital, Nairobi, which had been held by the opposition. Parallel vote counts by the Elections Observation Group (ELOG), an umbrella organization of Kenyan nongovernmental election observers, largely corroborated the IEBC’s results. Nevertheless, some Kenyans see international observers as too quick to accept Kenyatta’s victory, and they did not stay past the election.
Kenya has a history of election fraud. This time, the elections depended on sophisticated technology for voter identification and registration designed to preclude fraud. It appears to have mostly worked. However, the elections were exceptionally expensive, especially for a lower-middle-income country, costing an estimated $333 million in direct costs and another $166 million in indirect costs. The government allocated $25.40 for each of Kenya’s 19.6 million registered voters, making it one of the most expensive elections per capita in the world. Some Kenyans question whether such expense will be justified in the future and whether it significantly mitigates popular suspicions that elections are not credible.
Postelection analysis indicated that most Kenyans voted along ethnic lines, as they have in the past. But at the same time, there is much that is already positive about the 2017 elections. Incumbent governors who were defeated conceded to the victors. The number of women elected to office increased, and, for the first time, a Kenyan Somali, from a hitherto marginalized community, was elected to the parliament. Should the election results as a whole prove to have been credible, public confidence in future elections and, more generally, in democratic institutions is bound to strengthen.
Kenyatta is the son of independent Kenya’s first president, Odinga of its first prime minister. Kenyatta is a member of the Kikuyu, which is the country’s largest ethnic group, with some 7 million of Kenya’s 48 million people; Odinga is a member of the Luo, the fourth largest at about 5 million. Both ethnic groups believe their numbers are undercounted. Both leaders have become rich: Kenyan media has estimated Kenyatta has a net worth $500 million, while Odinga has about half that. By contrast, despite the World Bank’s designation of Kenya as a lower-middle-income country, most Kenyans are poor. Elected officials earn up to 25 times the average Kenyan’s salary, making winning office a compelling concern.
Politics in Kenya is about personality and patronage, not policy. Kenyatta is 56 years old and presumably still has a career in front of him. Odinga is 72; this year’s election was likely his last shot at the presidency. Kenya is waging a war against al-Shabab militants in Somalia and has been subject to terrorist attacks, yet security issues played a muted role, if any, during the campaign.
Economic growth continues to dominate campaigns: while Odinga appeals to a poorer and more marginalized constituency, including the residents of Nairobi’s slums, Kenyatta emphasizes big business. According to the International Monetary Fund, Kenya’s gross domestic product grew 5.3 percent under Kenyatta in 2017 and is projected to increase 5.8 percent next year, though the opposition questions these statistics.
The country is in the midst of a drought, resulting in high food prices, which the Kenyatta administration has sought to control. Some observers thought that Odinga would benefit electorally from high food prices. However, as in other new democracies, Kenyan voters instinctively love a winner; hence Kenyatta’s incumbency worked to his advantage.
A history of violence
In the 2007–2008 election cycle, up to 1,400 were killed and 600,000 were displaced, according to media estimates. Fighting between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups was the prime driver of that violence. In the 2013 elections, Human Rights Watch estimates that 477 were killed and 118,000 displaced, mostly prior to the vote. However, that cycle of violence stopped when Kenyatta and the Kikuyu formed an electoral alliance with former rival William Ruto and the Kalenjin. Election Day in 2013 was peaceful; Kenyatta won the presidency, Ruto the deputy presidency. Odinga contested those election results in the Supreme Court but ultimately accepted its ruling against him.
In 2017, the preelection period included largely underreported violence. Female candidates, of whom there were more than in the past, were victims of violence. The murder of Chris Msando, the electoral commission’s director of technology, days before the election undermined confidence in the process among Odinga’s supporters. Some opposition figures publicly said that his death precluded free and fair elections. Nongovernmental organizations estimate that army and police forces have killed up to 100 Kenyans thus far; the security forces dispute this number. Nevertheless, violence has been lower and the security services have been more restrained than in the past. The Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance of Kenyatta and Ruto has continued, and ethnic conflict between the two ethnic groups has not resumed.
The role of the media
Though better than in other parts of Africa, the quality of the news media is poor. Kenyans trust radio the most for news but use television more. It is estimated that almost half of all Kenyans used social media for their election news, trusting it about as much as television. Disinformation abounds, feeding conspiracy theories. One survey shows that 90 percent of Kenyans have seen so-called fake news. Its pervasiveness undermines confidence in elections and, more generally, democratic political institutions. But it is also through social media that the Kenyan people can hold their government accountable. Most known episodes of security service brutality were first reported by social media.
As Odinga’s court challenge goes forward, social media will both reflect and shape the popular response. It has the potential to amplify and inflame ethnic tensions, and there have been calls for shutting it down to preserve social peace in a dangerous period.
Kenyatta’s margin of victory is much higher than preelection polls indicated, and there remain some irregularities with respect to documenting the vote count. Msando’s unsolved murder may have facilitated the hacking of the IEBC computers and altering of vote tallies, as Odinga claims, though there is no evidence that this took place. Odinga argues that the elections were stolen at the point during which vote counts were consolidated rather than at polling stations, which were the focus of international and domestic monitors.
No matter how the Supreme Court rules, such is the depth of suspicion of the government and its institutions that a substantial part of the electorate will regard any outcome of the presidential race as illegitimate. Violence, however, is not the inevitable outcome of disaffection. The behavior of political leaders and of the security services are crucial factors. Political leaders can inflame ethnic differences, and brutality by the security services can transform peaceful demonstrations into violent mobs. If Kenya is to continue to avoid widespread violence, Kenyatta and Odinga must be restrained in their rhetoric and the administration must insist on security service discipline.
This analysis first appeared on Aug. 21 on the Council on Foreign Relations’ website.