Kenya’s elections: a make or break moment?

Critically, international election observers (including around 70 observers from the EU) must maintain a strong local presence throughout the election period. The international community must not be caught unprepared again. 

The prospects of a trouble-free election in Kenya look increasingly uncertain. Kenyans go to the polls on 4 March for the first time since widespread post-election violence killed more than 1,000 people and brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2007-8. While President Kibaki has affirmed that this time the country is on track for fair and peaceful elections, indications from the ground suggest otherwise. The international community must be ready to respond to what may be a very chaotic and destabilising election period.

The harsh reality is that Kenya is a more violent place than it was before the 2007 election. There has been a significant rise in group violence over the last year. For example, clashes in Tana River Delta during the second half of 2012 left more than 140 dead, while street protests in Mombasa in August 2012 killed four. While these incidents may be sparked by local grievances, there is evidence that local politicians are stoking the violence. Moreover, violent disturbances are already affecting the election process. The local party primaries in January were almost derailed in some areas by organised violence, including large-scale street fighting.

The political stakes are also higher this time around. Leading presidential contender Uhuru Kenyatta, and his running mate, William Ruto, have both been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to the 2007-8 violence. While they have promised to cooperate with the ICC, in reality their election to office may be their only hope to gain de facto immunity from prosecution. Add to this heady mix the prevalence of ethnic-based – and in some cases hate-based – election campaigning and the risks of tensions spilling over into violence are all too clear.

On the other hand, there has been substantial institutional reform since 2007 and Kenya’s institutions may now be better placed to prevent and respond to violent disturbances. In 2010, a new constitution was passed that aims to strengthen democracy, including through the decentralisation of governance, curbs on executive power and new voting rules.  The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IBEC) has been established to oversee elections and enjoys significant public trust. In addition, a respected new Chief Justice has been appointed, as has an experienced Inspector General of Police. These appointments could help strengthen the judiciary to stand up to electoral fraud and improve the police response to any election violence.

However, while these institutional changes are undoubtely important, other crucial reforms to address broader socio-economic grievances have been blocked by Kenyan leaders. High levels of regional inequality and exclusion are underlying drivers of Kenya’s violence, as are competition over land and resource access. The recent discovery of oil may well heighten such inequalities, given the likelihood that Kenya’s elite will benefit most from oil revenues. In addition, unemployment hovers around 40% and there is widespread labour discontent. The lack of justice for victims of the 2007 violence – many of whom are still displaced – is also a major source of tension. 

At the heart of Kenya’s problems is its dysfunctional politics. Political parties are ethnically-based and use ethnic rivalry rather than policy platforms to mobilise voters. Moreover, corruption is endemic within Kenya’s political system and political appointments and government policies are largely determined by bribes and patronage connections, rather than political vision. What Kenya desperately needs is a politics that is based on policy rather than identity and that addresses the needs and grievances of all communities. The new constitution is an important step in this direction and – if fully implemented – could provide a basis for a more accountable and democratic political system. However, progress will be limited unless Kenya’s politicians can be persuaded to change the way they do business. 

As election day approaches, the international community is watching with concern. Kenya is an important regional power whose instability would have serious security and economic implications for its neighbours and wider international partners. Despite its political problems Kenya has experienced strong economic growth in recent years and is a significant trading partner for global powers such as China. Moreover, Kenya is a key security partner in US-led initiatives to combat Islamic militancy in the region, particularly in Somalia. International actors are therefore deeply worried that election violence may destabilise Kenya and its region. They are also concerned that the election of an ICC-charged Kenyatta could result in Kenya’s isolation, leaving them without an important east African partner. Warnings about such isolation by some EU countries earlier this month brought a sharp rebuke from the Kenyan government for meddling in the election.

So what can the international community do in these final days before the polls? Firstly it must send strong signals that politicians who incite violence will face international sanctions such as asset freezing, travel bans and – where possible – prosecution. Kenya’s international partners (particularly the US, UK and the EU) and its East African Community neighbours must be prepared to speak out forcefully at the first signs of electoral fraud or organised political violence. They must also give all possible support to institutions such as the IBEC and judiciary to resist political pressure and uphold free elections. International actors should also provide extensive support and protection to Kenyan civil society organisations involved in voter education and election monitoring. Critically, international election observers (including around 70 observers from the EU) must maintain a strong local presence throughout the election period. This is particularly important given that decentralisation has increased local level political rivalry and potential for violence. Finally, Kenya’s international partners should develop contingency plans for a coordinated response in the event of a political crisis, widespread violence or a humanitarian emergency. The international community must not be caught unprepared again.

The election result is too close to call. However, whoever comes to power, what is already clear is that Kenya’s politicians have still not learned the lessons of 2007-8. Once elections are over Kenya’s international partners must continue to promote the full implementation of the new constitution, as well as further reforms to strengthen democracy and address political and socio-economic grievances. Critically, international partners must work with both political and civil society to promote fundamental changes within Kenya’s political party system, so that future electoral campaigns are based on policy and not identity. The Kenyan people deserve that much.   

About the author

Clare Castillejo is senior researcher and research coordinator at FRIDE. She has worked extensively in developing countries, especially in West Africa, Southern Africa, South Asia and China. She specialises in fragile states, security, governance, peacebuilding, civil society, development, gender, and human rights, among other issues.