President Kenyatta – now is a time for restraint

While the results of Kenya's election impending, it is clear that democracy in Kenya is in peril. Kenyatta must pursue the path of dialogue.

Aly Verjee
26 October 2017

An officer secures a waiting line at a polling station in Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 26, 2017. Voting in Kenya's repeat presidential polls began on Thursday as some polling stations, mainly in opposition strongholds, reported disruptions and low voter turnout. Chen Cheng/PA Images. All rights reserved.The results of Kenya’s presidential election are not yet in, and voting will continue in some areas on Saturday, but Raila Odinga’s decision to boycott the election leaves only one outcome possible: President Uhuru Kenyatta will have the majority of votes cast.

Any result, however, is marred by the choice millions of Kenyans made to not participate in the most basic, fundamental exercise of democracy. It is marred by the reality that without Odinga, the election was not a contest.

Turnout across the country was much, much lower than in the previous vote in August. It may well prove to have been the lowest turnout in Kenya’s history of multi-party elections. Many people, even if they favoured Kenyatta, were anxious, and either decided that going to vote was not worth the trouble, or that elections should have been delayed, and stayed at home.  

With a significant number of polling stations in various parts of the country unable to open, either due to a lack of electoral staff or because of precarious security conditions, the legal and political legitimacy of the election was only further eroded. More people were killed and injured by what is likely to have been disproportionate police action.

Any result is marred by the choice millions of Kenyans made not to participate in the most basic, fundamental exercise of democracy.

Citing a lack of security, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) this evening postponed voting to Saturday in four counties: Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay and Migori, all areas which voted strongly for Odinga in August. These four constituencies have just under 1.9 million registered voters.

Political differences in Kenya are not new, but this electoral process has only further exacerbated social divisions. Nearly half (if not a full half) of the country wants a different political leader to the one they have.

President Kenyatta has a choice. He can meaningfully reach out to his opponent, his allies and supporters, and accept the hard path of reconciliation and dialogue, even if, as may occur, any initial overture is rebuffed. True magnanimity and humility is not demonstrated by a one-time offer. Or, the President can pursue a path of confrontation.  

There are instructive, warning examples from the region: Tanzania in 2015 and Zambia in 2016. In both countries, the presidential candidates of the incumbent political parties, John Magufuli in Tanzania, and Edgar Lungu in Zambia, won office. Both elections were competitive, but disputed.  

Both countries saw almost half of their populations vote for opposition candidates: Edward Lowassa in Tanzania and Hakainde Hichilema in Zambia. Like Odinga, both Lowassa and Hichilema were veterans of the political scene. Like Odinga, Lowassa once served as prime minister. Like Odinga, Hichilema ran for president multiple times (five to Odinga’s four).

President Kenyatta has a choice: to accept the hard path of reconciliation and dialogue, or pursue confrontation. 

The divisions, anger, and mistrust in these electoral processes amongst supporters of the opposition were clear in both countries.  Yet neither resident of State House pursued paths of reconciliation and compromise.  

Instead, they largely acted in ways that sought confrontation, undermined independent state institutions, the media and civil society. Both showed little tolerance for political diversity and a plurality of views. In Tanzania, Magufuli banned the rallies of political parties, and, in one episode, Lowassa was briefly detained. In Zambia, Hichilema was charged with treason on completely spurious grounds, only further driving the opposition’s narrative of persecution. The ridiculous charges against Hichilema were eventually dropped.

I am not suggesting that all of these sorts of incidents will necessarily occur in Kenya. I hope that Kenya’s political leaders are not so reckless, and understand the consequences of further irresponsible escalation.  

But the attacks and interference with the judiciary, the attempts to limit peaceful assembly and protest, and the evident anger some in the ruling Jubilee Party feel at having to run for election again when they believe they won outright in August, all give much pause for concern. It is not too late to pull back from the brink.

On the eve of the election, President Kenyatta addressed the nation.  

He said:

"…experience has taught us that elections, by their very nature, polarize people. So, in the weeks that followed, it was necessary for us to come together to heal as a nation…

I came to see that this [court] ruling – as unsettling and distressing as it was – was indeed an opportunity. An opportunity for all of us, an opportunity for us as a country and as a people to prove to the world that, indeed, we are a mature democracy…

Tomorrow [October 26], we have yet another opportunity to show the world that we are a free modern state, preoccupied with striving for unity, peace, shared progress and shared prosperity.'’

These were amongst the better sentiments of the president’s speech. However, the words restraint, reconciliation and dialogue did not appear in the remarks. It is vital now that Kenyatta use his hugely powerful office to go beyond what he called the opportunity of today’s vote. The vote’s limitations must be recognised. It is a time for restraint, not a time for vindication.

Odinga’s call for a resistance movement underlines the anger he, and millions of Kenyans, feel. Once more, as in the elections in 2007 and 2013, Odinga feels aggrieved. The aggrieved party, out of office, only has recourse to the street, to boycotts, to civil disobedience.  

It is those who hold office who have it within their power to extend the olive branch and develop an environment conducive to further dialogue. It might seem difficult to find common ground amongst the political class, given the polarization that exists across the country. Yet I believe, as Kenyans have found before, that there are essential principles that can be summoned in order to realize this call, and that the true test of the values of equality, consultation, democracy, and inclusion, as enshrined in Kenya’s Constitution, is not when times are easy, but when they are hard. President Kenyatta, your nation is looking to you to do all that is possible to avoid further acrimony and division.

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