Breaking the electoral deadlock in Kenya

Amid continent-wide political unrest, expectations that Africa will begin the journey to sustainable democratic practice with the recent general elections in Kenya are fading. It’s extremely frustrating. Tensions boiled over shortly after Kenya’s Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission declared the vice president, William Ruto, president-elect on August 15. This immediately sparked dissension within the electorate, the political class and the population. Uncertainty reigns. All stakeholders in the country have a patriotic duty to settle this amicably and avoid plunging the country into a new cycle of deadly violence.

Amid a tense political game, Ruto, 55, of the Kenya Kwanza (Kenya First) party scored 50.49% to defeat three other candidates. However, Raila Odinga, 77, his main challenger and five-time candidate for the post, won 48.85% of the vote. Interestingly, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta backed Odinga against his deputy, upping the ante in the fierce competition.

Ruto, vice president since 2013, had to rely on the youth vote and won against opinion polls that had projected Odinga’s victory. To become Kenya’s fifth political leader after independence in 1963, the president-elect fought the Kenyan establishment to a standstill and triumphed. This is rare in Africa, where the establishment often grabs the spoils of elections by despicable means. The polls were seen as ‘scammer’ (Ruto) versus ‘dynasty’, which is what Odinga stands for.

Before the six-day wait for Ruto’s declaration, Odinga, Prime Minister (2008-2013), rejected the result. He alleged that the results had not been compiled transparently. On his side were four of the seven members of the IEBC, who called a press conference to deny the result published by Wafula Chebukati, the chairman of the commission.

Although Ruto reasonably toed the peaceful line after his victory, saying, “In this election, there are no losers. The people of Kenya won because we raised the political bar,” ethnic divisions are resurfacing. This is where Kenyan political leaders and the international community come in: they must act quickly at various levels to prevent the East African country from descending into unnecessary turmoil.

Like many African countries, Kenya has had more than its fair share of electoral violence. The post-electoral violence of 2007 in this country which attracts two million tourists each year left 1,200 dead. It displaced another 600,000, who fled their homes for fear of violence. Kenyatta and Ruto were tried for crimes against humanity after the horror by the International Criminal Court in 2013. They were later acquitted.

Another wave of violence erupted in 2017 when presidential polls ended in a stalemate between Kenyatta and Odinga. In a joint report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported 33 dead (possibly 50) and 100 seriously injured in neighborhoods of Nairobi, the capital. The Supreme Court ordered a new race which Kenyatta won although Odinga alleged massive rigging, saying he won the final count with 8.5 million votes.

Instructively, there was initial praise for the conduct of the latest ballot, mainly because it’s the third time the referee will deploy the technology. From the polling station, the result went directly to the central server. Despite this, there were still six days of waiting for the results until August 15. It is too long. Technology should make things better and faster.

And, as Odinga’s rejection of the polling results shows, the bad blood still runs deep. This means a delicate moment for a country of 51.46 million people and a GDP of $110.35 billion (in 2021). In Kisumu, Odinga’s hometown, protests broke out. His parents were adamant that he was cheated out of the win. They set fire to tires and erected barricades. It was the opposite in the Rift Valley, where Ruto grew up selling barefoot chickens on the side of the road as jubilant citizens took to the streets.

This stalemate is bad for Kenya. The president-elect has to deal with a work overload. Clearly, the result once again portrays Africa as lacking strong democratic instincts. Only a few countries on the continent can be described as truly growing democracies, unlike Europe, North America and Oceania. This is largely because African countries have refused to build lasting institutions or allowed for seamless political succession over time. Conversely, the “Big Man” syndrome is omnipresent. It has spawned poverty, conflict and underdevelopment. The inability to overcome ethnic loyalties and animosities also plays a role. In its Democracy Index 2021, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked only Mauritius as a “full-fledged democracy” among the 44 sub-African countries surveyed; six were “imperfect democracies”, 14 (including Nigeria) “hybrid” and 23 “authoritarian”.

At different times, democratic voting degenerated into large-scale chaos in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Gambia, Libya, Sudan, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Election results are often hotly contested and contentious across Africa. Constitutions are compromised by corruption at the 11th hour by extending or eliminating term limits to favor incumbents who lengthen their terms.

Therefore, Kenya needs to get it right. Politicians should not view elections as a do-or-die competition. Kenya is far greater than any individual ambition. If they don’t tread carefully, the ensuing discord could once again turn bloody.

Closer to home, where elections mimic all-out war, there are lessons to be learned ahead of the general elections in February 2023. The Independent National Electoral Commission, which has improved the technology used, should also control the human element in electronic transmission and collection of results. Technology alone cannot guarantee free and fair elections, as the disputes in Kenya demonstrate. This means INEC must combine technology with the capable, efficient and well-trained human capacity to organize free and fair polls next year.

Unfortunately, human saboteurs have defaced the elections in Nigeria with manipulation of numbers and violence. Their illegal acts have been inexplicably legalized by justice at different times. In addition to operating technology transparently, INEC should adequately prepare for the 2023 elections to neutralize manipulators and riggers and protect the judiciary from electoral contests and prevent it from being the ultimate decision maker of elections.

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