Many Kenyans will go to the polls on 4 March 2013 with a sense of trepidation. Three of the country's four elections since 1992 have been accompanied by significant violence, with 2002 the exception. On each occasion politicians used local grievances over land and inequality to label supporters of rival candidates as ethnic “outsiders”. Militias were then used to force those same voters from their homes. Thousands of people were killed in violence around the 1992, 1997 and 2007 elections and tens of thousands more fled. Some of these supposed “outsiders” never returned to places where their families had lived for decades. No wonder, then, that many Kenyans see elections as something to endure rather than to celebrate.
In light of this history, anyone of a nervous disposition might have hoped that this would be a straightforward election with a clear result. That looks unlikely, as on the eve of the vote the final result is too close to call. President Mwai Kibaki is retiring after two terms in office, and prime minister Raila Odinga is the frontrunner. But Odinga's lead in the opinion polls is narrow, and he will almost certainly be denied an outright majority; in that case a run-off will be held in a few weeks’ time.
Odinga’s main rival is Uhuru Kenyatta, who, if successful, faces the prospect of governing the country while mounting his defence at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. He and his running mate, William Ruto, are accused of orchestrating the violence that followed the December 2007 election. Rather than standing aside, both decided to exercise their right - confirmed recently by the Kenyan courts - to contest the election, apparently in order to gain a position of greater strength vis-à-vis the ICC. They promise they can run the country and mount their court defences remotely, by using technology.
The rest of the world only began to notice the 2007 election when violence broke out during the suspiciously prolonged counting process, and quickly escalated. In the first two months of 2008, nearly 1,200 people lost their lives. An effect of those tragic events is that this time, Kenya has held foreign attention for months before voters go to the polls. But both foreign and local observers are nagged by a simple question: has enough been done over the past five years to avoid a repeat of the eruption?
There are some good signs, most notably independent inquiries into the management of the election and the subsequent violence, a new constitution and an ongoing reform of the judiciary. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that these reforms are not enough to guarantee a peaceful election. A collective psychosis has therefore gripped many, if by no means all, local and foreign commentators.
An array of figures, from President Obama and Kofi Annan down to the local diplomatic corps, has felt the need to advise Kenyans on how to vote - most likely to no or ill effect. Many fear further instability should Uhuru Kenyatta win, and threaten Kenya with diplomatic isolation should that happen. Uganda, whose businesses are still waiting for compensation for goods destroyed during the 2007-08 violence, has made contingency plans in case of disruption to vital imports being transported along the routes that connect it to the Indian Ocean. Foreign investment slowed in 2012 due to fears of insecurity. Local businesses have been buying dollars in case post-election violence causes the Kenyan shilling to collapse.
Ethnicity and devolution
So why does this election seem to matter so much? There is a flippant and, on one level, accurate response to this question; it doesn’t. Those of a cynical persuasion could argue that - regardless of the result - it amounts to the replacement of one elite politician with a dubious record in government and a limited commitment to solving the problems of their poorest constituents by another. After all, there are few major differences of opinion over policy between the candidates, and anyone who thinks that a victory for Odinga will solve Kenya’s problems with the ICC is in for a shock. Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto have access to enormous wealth and political leverage, and if they refuse to go to The Hague - whether Kenyatta is president or not - it will take a lot to budge them. Yet the ICC is a constitutional and judicial leviathan that will dominate Kenya's political landscape for years to come.
The cynical view, however, does not really answer the question. The election does matter. To insist otherwise is to patronise an electorate that will turn out in great numbers, and display euphoria and dismay in equal measure once the final result is announced. The significance of the election can also be gauged from the international attention that this vote has garnered.This is about more than the legacy of 2007-08. Kenya has not seemed so significant to the outside world since the end of the cold war. Its role in the African Union’s peacebuilding mission to Somalia has placed it on the frontline of global counter-terror operations, and its economy is seen as the mainstay of a surging regional bloc encompassing northeastern and eastern Africa.
There is another answer, both common and simple, to the question of why the election matters: it’s ethnicity, stupid. And it is true that voting will, with some exceptions, follow predictable ethnic patterns. But ethnicity also makes sense as a strategy for voters and leaders alike.
The voters know that there are not unlimited jobs. They also understand that land, at least in arable parts of the country, is under pressure for all sorts of reasons and that the state has a finite amount of money for investment in development projects. In those circumstances, clubbing together to protect what one holds while trying to work collectively to gain more wealth and influence is hardly irrational. There may be better strategies for such collective action, but ethnicity is what history has bequeathed Kenyans and ethnicity is what they have to work with.
For their part, the politicians are normally wealthy men and women seeking the votes of poor constituents. Ethnicity provides a mechanism by which politicians can cross sometimes vast chasms of wealth and class to win the votes of individuals with whom they otherwise share little in common. Kenya’s problem is that those in power have encouraged the divisions between groups to be violent, and some of their supporters have followed suit; it is difficult to reverse back down that path.
For better or for worse, ethnicity is the way in which class, inequality and history are debated in Kenya. Beneath the labels of Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo, Luhya or Maasai are very different versions of the past and ideas about current and future policies. Almost any of the great debates in Kenyan politics can be read in these terms. In the interests of brevity, take just one example: devolution.
This was a subject of fierce debate in the years surrounding independence and in the early 1990s, and remains a matter of great current significance. For Kenyans, as well as choosing their member of parliament and the next president, will on 4 March be electing representatives to fill newly empowered county administrations, new county governors, and senators to represent the interests of their county in central government.
Many Kikuyu are sceptical about the value of devolution. Some critics see this as nothing more than Kikuyu ethnic chauvinism. Two of Kenya's three post-independence presidents - Jomo Kenyatta (1963-78) and the outgoing Mwai Kibaki (2002-13) - have been Kikuyu, and so the community has been portrayed as unwilling to tolerate any devolution of significant powers from central to local government. To be fair, neither president did much to dispel such criticism. But with Kikuyu - to say nothing of the other major ethnic groups - spread across the country, many feel with good reason that central government is a better guarantor of their property rights and personal security than local authorities controlled by communities who see Kikuyu as an economic and political threat. To many members of other, more economically marginal communities, such as Mijikenda at the coast or Somali in the northeast, an excessively centralised form of government is blamed for the uneven distribution of economic growth, improvements in living standards and investment in infrastructure.
A modest hope
The ICC and devolution are just two of the enormous issues that confront Kenyan voters. Others include strategies for continued economic growth, land reform, police reform; the ongoing military intervention in Somalia; incidents of terrorism at home; a coastal separatist movement; and the management of recently discovered oil-and-gas reserves. The next government will have tremendous influence over all these matters, even as it has to deal with issues of regional integration and significant fiscal pressures.
The time available for the next government to attend to any of these issues will, however, be dictated in large part by the conduct of the elections. Much that is on the agenda will have to be sacrificed if, as with the period since 2007-08, time is lost mourning the dead and undergoing prolonged processes of "transitional justice" without any transition actually taking place.
All this makes it clear that these elections are truly of great significance. Yet those hoping for dramatic change in Kenya, on 4 March or in the years to come, will be disappointed. Kenya, like most of the rest of Africa, had its equivalent of the "Arab spring" - with all its attendant joy and disappointment - two decades ago, when the rest of the world was looking elsewhere. But if revolution is not on the cards, a more modest hope is simply for the next election not to matter quite so much. It doesn’t have to be like this every time, does it?