Conflict Alerts # 544, 18 August 2022
In the news
On 15 August, the Kenyan Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced William Ruto’s electoral victory to be the fifth President of Kenya. Ruto secured a narrow victory with 50.5 percent of the votes; his opponent Raila Odinga secured 48.85 percent. Even before the results were declared, four IEBC commissioners rejected the results alleging the “opaque nature” of the final outcome. Juliana Cheverea, Vice President of the IEBC distanced the Commission from the results saying: “We cannot take ownership of the results that will be announced because of the opaque nature of how the last phase has been handled”. The enraged Odinga supporters protested shouting “No Raila, No Peace”. In Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold region, his supporters reacted violently, burning tyres and blocking roads.
On 16 August, Odinga, calling the results “null and void” said: “What we saw yesterday was a travesty and a blatant disregard of the constitution of Kenya”. The same day, the newly elected President William Ruto announced: “I want to commit to the people of Kenya that I will build on the foundation that President Kenyatta and I put together and take this country to the next level”.
Issues at large
First, major issues were at stake during the election. The elections were held amid a food and fuel crisis, rising cost of living, severe drought, and concerns over fair and peaceful elections. The election turnout was 64.6 percent, while in 2017 it was 79.51 per cent. According to IEBC, only 40 percent of voters were youth, though three-fourths of the Kenyan population is under 35 years of age. In recent months, inflation has gone up as high as 8.3 percent. Rising youth unemployment and inequalities have caused discontent with the political elites compelling many to abstain from voting. According to the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, McGill University, Kenya has one of the highest rates of voter bribery in the continent. The worst drought in 40 years has devastated the northern region leaving 4.1 million people dependent on aid.
Second, is Kenya’s history of electoral violence. Kenya has an established reputation for volatile electoral processes that threaten regional stability. For instance, during the 2007 elections, nearly 1300 people were killed and 600,000 were displaced after allegations of vote rigging led to widespread violence. Following that, Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto were indicted by the International Criminal Court for inciting ethnic violence. However, the charges were dropped later due to a lack of evidence. More recently, in 2017, the supreme court cancelled elections citing electoral irregularities following accusations of fraud by the National Super Alliance party led by Raila Odinga. At least 100 people were killed in the violence that broke out.
Third, is the state of politics in Kenya. The political landscape is marked by weak coalitions, ethnic politics, political interference in state institutions, corruption, and failure of electoral politics. Since independence, Kenyan politics has been dominated by Kenyatta and Odinga “dynasties”. In 2018, an informal “handshake” between Kenyatta and Odinga, once major rivals, put an end to their standoff. And this year, Odinga entered the electoral contest with the support of the outgoing President Kenyatta. In contrast, William Ruto, Deputy President since 2013 and once running mate to Kenyatta, was sidelined, resulting in Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee party breaking up. Frustrated, Kenyans see politics as another way to get rich. In 2013, Kenyatta had an estimated net worth of USD 500 million making him one of the richest people in the country. Not surprisingly, economic issues dominated this year’s electoral campaign, a stark departure from the usual deeply polarised ethnic and tribal propaganda.
Four, Kenya in African politics. Despite its electoral politics and violence, the country is seen as an economic hub and anchor of stability in East Africa and is a key partner in the fight against terrorism in the continent. As the third-largest democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kenyan elections have implications beyond the national boundaries. In October 2021, Kenya assumed the rotational presidency in UNSC and assumed responsibility to steer multiple peace and security issues in Africa. The country has led peace talks between Rwanda and Congo and has a critical diplomatic role in the conflict in Ethiopia and the issue over GERD.
First, the scuffle over the results was due to three reasons: the narrow margin of victory, disagreements within the IEBC, and public dissatisfaction with IEBC caused by previous irregularities and poor electoral management.
Second, President William Ruto, on priority, will have to address the economic discontent after the COVID-19 pandemic and, more particularly, tackle the looming food and fuel crisis. Ruto being elected as President also signals a significant change and departure from the domination of Kenyan politics by the Kenyatta and Odinga families.
Three, if the post-election political environment in the country remains stable and trouble-free, it could resume its role as a peace mediator in Africa.