Kenya hoping for a peaceful and transparent election season

In the first in a series of insights in the run-up to the Kenyan election in August, Speyside’s Maina Kamau takes a look at the key players and issues framing the race for the Presidency.

Kenyan politics has been characterized by ethnic tensions ever since independence in 1963, but it was not until 2008 that the demons of tribalism truly came to the fore after the disputed national elections claimed the lives of 1,300 people and displaced thousands. On the 8th of August this year, Kenyans will return to the polls with ethnicity, corruption and the cost of living likely to dominate voters’ intentions. Memories of 2008 will of course cause trepidation and concern and areas such as Kisumu, Nairobi and Mombasa have already been placed on high alert. However, elections in 2013 passed off relatively peacefully under the same candidates, and reforms have been made to the electoral process to ensure mass violence is hopefully left firmly in the past.

Where are we now?

Eight candidates have been cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to participate in the elections. Of those cleared, 2017 sees the reading of a familiar script with incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto of the Jubilee Party campaigning against veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga of the coalition NASA party. Chaotic scenes marred the primaries in April, against a backdrop of multiple candidates accusing their opponents of rigging the outcomes. Although President Uhuru was cleared to run for a second term as expected, there had been calls for Raila Odinga to pave way for a new and younger candidate to compete.

With the decisions made and candidates placed, the feeling locally is that since President Kenyatta is running for his final term and has already delivered on some – but not all - key promises from his campaign, he should be given the time to see out a final term. Kenyatta has made significant progress in healthcare and infrastructure and has been key in spurring growth for his ambition to establish the country as a financial, investment and trade hub in the region. Some of Kenyatta’s most notable policies are:

  • Increasing private investment in existing state owned companies such as KenGen, Kenya Power and the Kenya Pipeline Company. This is part of an overarching goal of expanding electricity production capacity to 10GW over the next decade and then to 25GW by 2030, transforming Kenya into a net exporter of energy
  • Establishing a Kenya Development Bank to provide finance to the private sector for capital projects, such as infrastructure development
  • Promoting the creation of a Single East African Market (SEAM). This would phase out tariffs and barriers among East African Community member countries and move towards the creation of a single regional currency
  • Targeting a 7-10% GDP growth rate in the first two years
  • Enacting new Public Private Partnership (PPP) legislation to encourage private investment in public projects, speeding up the delivery of infrastructure urgently needed to achieve Kenya’s Vision 2030
  • Creating 1 million new jobs by introducing tax incentives and grants for overseas companies to encourage investment and growth in the manufacturing and service sectors.

However, the Kenyatta administration has been overcome by corruption allegations that have engulfed close party members. Although Odinga’s detailed manifesto has yet to be launched (expected on June 19th), it is on these allegations that his campaign is focused, with continuous and relentless criticism of the Government.  It must be noted that the opposition coalition has remained inactive in stemming corruption themselves during the last five years.

Turnout could be key

Local pollsters and commentary is leaning towards Uhuru Kenyatta retaining the Presidency as his hands-off, swashbuckling style and easy approach to government has made him popular with the younger demographic. This contrasts with a lack of enthusiasm from opposition voters in being drawn towards the same failed opposition ticket as four years ago.

To have any success, Raila Odinga will need to energize his near-equal support among ethnic voting blocs to vote for a three-time failed presidential candidate – especially in key swing areas such as Nairobi – to enforce a run-off vote. What is of concern are the tactics being waged by the Odinga team to this end. Odinga and his coalition party NASA have adopted the slogan ‘10 million strong’ under which they claim to be backed by an overwhelming majority of 10 million voters, placing them favorites to win.

While this may seem innocuous at first glance, this type of propaganda brings painful memories of the “41 against one” slogan used in 2007 that did much to cause division and convince opposition voters that the election was rigged. Mass violence erupted as a result at that time and this inciting could spell trouble if polling results reveal a disappointing return for the opposition.  Raila Odinga has asked the electoral commission to respect the law on presidential results and announce the outcome at polling stations and is desperate to be rewarded with the title he feels is deserved, in what is likely to be his fourth and last run for the Presidency.

Some proposals to improve the electoral process have been implemented and new officials installed at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), but the abrasive behavior and communication of leading politicians continues, with both campaigns returning to tried and tested methods in playing to their allied ethnic groups along tribal lines.

Investors have shied away from making any major announcements this year until an outcome is clear but we are positive that Kenya will continue being an attractive investment destination regardless of the choice made.  As Kenyans go to the polls to elect almost 1900 public officials, the rule of law and those set by the IEBC must be respected from both sides, irrespective of the result, for the country’s fragile democracy to continue making strides forward.

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Maina Kamau
  • Senior Counsel and Team Lead, Kenya
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