23.01.2013 | Old problems, new fault lines: Kenya’s forthcoming elections

What happens in Kenya affects the whole of east Africa and confidence in African markets more broadly. Kenya is the economic motor for around half the output of the region’s five countries. It is the regional transport, energy and investment hub. So, when Kenya has elections, there is a lot at stake. The next poll – on 4th March – is the first since the country went into near-meltdown of 2007-8. Anyone who cares about Kenya will get increasingly nervous as March approaches.


Kenya’s politics is such an over-analysed industry that it becomes near-impossible to sift the glut of media reporting and work out what is objective and what matters. For example, there is much talk about the risk of violence in March. But it is actually not a question of whether the polls will be violent. There is always violence in Kenyan elections. The issue is the scale and location of violence: whether it opens dangerous national fault-lines (as in 2008); the will of the security, electoral, judicial and constitutional structures to respect the law while deterring, containing and remedying violence; and how violence might affect the chances of a credible political process and outcome.

Administrative Issues

Kenya failed on all counts in 2007-8. It cannot afford a repeat in 2013. The omens  –  judging by a messy series of pre-election ‘primaries’ – are that the administrative system has its work cut out to deliver a credible poll. True, there are better leaders than five years ago in the key election-management roles, such as policing. But this election will be more complicated and challenging administratively, in part because it is the first under Kenya’s new constitution. Voter registration and education have been a notable problem area, opening the risk of fraud. Things could still come good, but a neutral observer would want to be more confident at this stage of the proceedings.

Big Egos Not Big Ideas

The electoral battle lines themselves are now drawn. We know who the front-runners are. The Odinga caucus – the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) - will line up against the Kenyatta caucus, the Jubilee Alliance (JA). Odinga will be CORD’s presidential candidate: he is its dominant figure and the flag-bearer for the country’s fourth-largest ethnic group, the Luo.
Odinga has honed a mainstream business-friendly reputation in recent years, having long been styled as a tub-thumping socialist. He has worked (unsuccessfully, so far) to counter Kikuyu accusations that he has an agenda to strip them of their long dominance of Kenya’s business and politics. He also holds a lead in the opinion polls, though these are not necessarily a reliable guide to what will happen in March.

The JA is broader-based than CORD, but more fragile. Its problems start at the top. Leading the ticket is Uhuru Kenyatta, scion of the family who ruled Kenya after independence who has a strong following among fellow members of Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. He has proven a more-than-competent finance minister. But he has also been indicted for serious crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his part in Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007-8.
Kenyatta’s second is William Ruto, another ICC indictee, accused of organising violence against Kikuyu communities after the 2007 poll. In those days, Ruto’s Kalenjin communities of north-west Kenya, the country’s third-largest, were allied with Odinga.

These days, Ruto and Kenyatta seem united only by the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments they received for their alleged role in the 2007-8 violence, and their mutual dislike of Odinga. That is not much of a basis for a political partnership or for appealing to the wider electorate. It is not clear how their supporters can work together in the key Rift Valley province having been set at each other’s throats only five years ago. Long-standing inter-community grievances (like land reform) continue to fester.

Kenyatta seemed to realise his vulnerability by wooing Musalia Mudavadi, another former Odinga ally, into the JA last year. Mudavadi is a figurehead for Kenya’second-largest ethnic group, the Luhya, a key constituency in deciding the election outcome. Mudavadi jumped ship to the JA when Odinga out-manoeuvred him for the CORD nomination. Then having been enticed into the JA tent, he split a few weeks ago when Kenyatta would not yield the JA presidential nomination to him either.

High Stakes

The stakes are high for Kenyatta, with an ICC indictment hanging over his head. The authorities in the 100-plus countries that have signed up to the ICC Charter are obliged to arrest him if he sets foot on their territory. If he loses the election, therefore, he faces both political oblivion and – potentially – jail. The ICC trials are scheduled to take place in April, around the time a presidential election run-off is expected. The ICC is not to blame. The Kenyan government decided to postpone the elections from late 2012 into 2013.

So, forget the idea that the March elections are about policy differences or ideology. To many in the business community, for example, Kenya the day after the March elections will likely be a lot like Kenya the day before, so long as the process is professionally and credibly managed and violence more or less contained. Kikuyu business interests and political chauvinists are the only ones really worried about an Odinga presidency opening investigations into corruption and abuse of power by big fish in previous Kikuyu-dominated administrations.


The presidential election may well be decided by non-JA and non-CORD minority candidates like Mudavadi. The conventional wisdom is that Mudavadi’s split from the JA leaves Odinga the clear favourite. Mudavadi may have calculated that walking away now was the best way of attracting a better offer from either caucus later on. He knows that senior Kikuyu grandees quietly pressured Kenyatta before Christmas to support a Mudavadi candidacy and stand aside. He didn’t budge.
Kenya’s notoriously biddable courts may have a decisive say: a ruling is expected soon on Kenyatta or Ruto even being eligible to stand for the presidency with ICC indictments pending. If they say ‘no,’ we could see a back-lash and violence instigated by some of the more radical Kikuyu elements. And, in this event, Mudavadi may also see an opportunity to secure the JA nomination by the back door.

Reasons for Hope

But there is some good news for the average citizen. 2013 cannot be a carbon copy of 2007-8. There are new sets of political groupings, guaranteeing a different pattern of outcomes. The money-politics and game of ethnic-electoral arithmetic have become less important and harder to read under the new constitution (see below).

Kenya’s growing middle class – of all ethnic groups – could also be key. It has become a silent majority distrustful of politicians. Middle-class Kenyans of all ethnicities had the salutary experience in 2007-8 of losing homes and businesses in the turmoil, and then watched their respective political leaders negotiate a coalition with their erstwhile enemies, and enrich themselves.

In many countries, voter apathy might be seen as a problem. In Kenya, it may be the best hope of preventing demagogues from whipping up inter-ethnic violence. Kenya’s middle class has been doing relatively well despite the global economic environment and is increasingly inter-marrying. While such factors are hard to define empirically, they could also be a much-needed and powerful insurance policy come March. Kenya is still some way from eradicating ethnicity from its politics, but we are inching towards it becoming a realistic possibility.

The indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of six of the alleged main instigators of the election violence in 2008 may also act as a deterrent to anyone thinking of sponsoring such behaviour in 2013. Let’s hope so.

New Constitution, New Dynamics

The 4th March election will be the first under Kenya’s new US-style constitution. This pushes more power and resources to Kenya’s 47 administrative regions, the counties. The old system was based on the UK’s more centralised Westminster model. By diluting Kenya’s centres of power, the reasoning goes, the new constitution builds checks and balances  into the political system and makes it less important who wins the national presidency. The champions of the new text have a point.
But the new system could also make politics more complicated and time-consuming for the voters (who have to cast six ballots this time around, including for national parliamentary and local representatives). This means polling stations will need to stay open longer and there will be delays in announcing their results. The potential for violence and friction therefore increases.
The new system also risks opening tensions in parts of Kenya where violence has largely been dormant, as competition for power and state resources becomes more localised in nature. So, instead of a repeat of the problems in the Rift Valley or western regions of 2007-8, in 2013 we may see tensions and violence in Coast or the far northern provinces. Significantly, these are the areas where foreign tourism, mining and energy companies have invested the most money.
Two likely examples of these are recent outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence in Tana River district in Coast province and in Turkana in the north. Both have the long-neglected issue of land rights at their core. Communities in both will have worked out that the victors in their local polls in 2013 will have the decisive say on land and other grievances. Some seem to be staking their claims in advance.

The 50% Threshold

The most decisive factor of all may be the new constitution’s requirement that a candidate win over 50% of the popular vote to win the presidency . Alongside CORD and JA, there are three other coalitions in the electoral mix, including Mudavadi’s Amani group. None of the three can win, but collectively they can do enough in the first round to prevent CORD or JA reaching the 50% threshold.
So, unless these smaller groups disintegrate or their support gets squeezed by the two main caucuses, Kenya’s election will likely go to a second round sometime in April.  This creates a second round of risks, with twice the opportunity for violence, interference and manipulation. With the stakes so high, it also means double the risk that the final outcome will not be accepted by one major ethnic or political grouping. Investors will not welcome an extended period of uncertainty and will, in any case, making contingency plans accordingly.

If the smaller parties get squeezed, an outright winner in the first round is possible. In that event, Odinga may well prevail. But the most likely scenario is that Odinga and Kenyatta will get through the first round with less than 50% each and face a run-off. The outcome of a second round would then depend on two factors: where Mudavadi especially lays his hat and on what terms, and whether Kenya’s constitutional, administrative and electoral systems are able to cope with the stresses of two fractious polls in the space of a few weeks without succumbing to the interference that precipitated crisis in 2007-8.

As things stand, though, the election looks like Raila Odinga’s to lose. If he prevails, he may well confound his Kikuyu critics by playing the statesman, running an inclusive agenda and ditching once and for all the socialist rhetoric of his early career. It would also leave Kenya’s army of election pundits having to explain what the pre-election fuss was all about. And, for the long term, a lack of fuss about the outcome to an election could be just what Kenya needs the most.