A view of the Kenyan elections

Kenya’s violence cannot be regarded as isolated events unconnected to how society negotiates the terms on which it will live together by accounting for gender, class and regional dynamics.

Awino Okech
14 August 2017

24-year-old Cynthia Jepkosgey Muge won the Kilibwoni Ward on an independent ticket in Nandi. Photo: Courtesy. The recent Kenyan general elections have filled the international news with contestation around the presidential results. The legacy of the 2007/8 post-election crisis meant that these are likely to be one of the most observed general elections globally. In addition to national teams there were at least seven regional and international observer groups, resulting in over four thousand observers.

Largely unexamined outside Kenya is the fact that five other elections accompanied the presidential ballot. These included voting for a constituency member of parliament and a series of seats created under the current devolution governance arrangement. These are a county governor, senator, member of county assembly and a women’s representative that is an affirmative action elective position created by the 2010 Constitution. Four important observations arise from this.

Trust deficit

First, it is evident that a legacy of mistrust that emanates from the mismanagement of the disputed 2007/8 presidential elections cannot be resolved by a robust legal framework in the form of a constitution and/or the creation of a devolved system of government. Laws set out the principles and therefore procedure for how national institutions and individuals within them should function. However, there is a human factor that we assume will be disciplined by that system. Yet, experience shows us that the human factor remains a critical stumbling block.

The clearest illustration of this is through the disregard for the gender party provisions in the Kenyan constitution. Specifically, that which states that “not more than two thirds of members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender […] the State shall take legislative and other measures, including affirmative action programmes and policies designed to redress any disadvantage suffered by individuals or groups because of past discrimination”.

The last government pursued the lowest common denominator approach to meeting this provision and found encouragement from a Supreme Court ruling that the realization of this provision would be progressive.

Women gain despite resistance

Second, the number of women who have become pioneers by being the first women to hold any elective position in the history of their regions since independence is an important development. Notable here are elected parliamentarians in Samburu, Ijara, Laikipia, Gatundu and Uasin Gishu. This is in addition to six young – all in their twenties – first time women county assembly members in Nandi. These historical milestones demonstrate the slow destruction of patriarchal barriers that have blocked women’s public leadership.

These gains are also bolstered by the election of seasoned technocrats and politicians as the first three women county governors. While these numbers pale in comparison to the number of men that continue to dominate public and political office in Kenya, they must be highlighted in a context where the absence of political leadership to drive effective efforts to counter structural barriers against women remains. The fact that these few women have been elected does not mean that affirmative action elective seats are no longer useful as some public commentary on social media might suggest. Rather they demonstrate their critical role in acting as a counter balance to regimes that refuse to fulfill equality principles enshrined in the constitution.

The tyranny of peace

Third, the 2007/8-post election crisis as well as a historical pattern of violence that accompanies political campaigns has led to three dynamics. The first is the construction of voices of dissent as instigators of violence leading to false patriotism based on fear. Underlying this approach is the removal of responsibility from those that escalate violence, which in Kenya’s case is the state’s security machinery.

The second dynamic is that at this moment, peace talk is about managing the fall out from an elite jostle for the presidency and not the numerous women aspirants, whose houses have been torched, bodies violated and personal security threatened prior to these elections. History shows us that they will continue to face these threats while in office.

Finally, the continuous cordoning off of peri-urban areas as sites of violence continues to criminalize young, male urban poor and in turn places women’s bodily autonomy at great risk to sexual and other forms of violence in addition to death.  

The trust and peace dividend in Kenya has to be calculated in a more holistic manner. That will require transcending the tendency to examine violence as isolated events unconnected to how society negotiates the terms on which it will live together by accounting for gender, class and regional dynamics.

Devolution is working

The party primaries that preceded these elections provided the clearest indicator yet of a population that has slowly emerged from the trauma of post-election violence in 2007/8, which meant that the vote as a symbol of a citizen’s voice lost its purpose.

The results from the five elective seats across the country point to voters who will not keep individuals in office when they do not deliver access to basic goods and services and create the necessary conditions that ensure inclusivity.

In this regard, there are class dynamics to account for here, which are evident in the shifts that have occurred in relation to what were considered well educated and professional male candidates who have been jettisoned for new representatives whose social and not necessarily economic credentials differ vastly from their predecessors. The test for these incoming county governors such as Mike Sonko in Nairobi and Ferdinand Waititu in Kiambu is whether they will fulfill their fairly socialist, sometimes populist approach to transforming the structural conditions that sustain socio-economic inequality across Kenya.

For the women candidates we must not fall into the trap of assuming that the greatest women’s rights gains will be achieved through them. Our task as Kenyans interested in freedom and social justice is to offer a transformative social justice agenda that addresses the gender, class, ethnicity and regional dynamics that foster inequality in Kenya, for all these leaders to pursue.

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