Cliff Owen

World News


What does Kenya’s Annulled Election Mean?

On August 8, 2017 over 19 million people, including myself, stood in line to vote for a new president. After a tense week of waiting for election results, streets empty, shelves stocked, and people anxiously waiting at home, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced President Uhuru Kenyatta had won a second term. Normally, this would be the end of most elections. But the suspense continued as the country waited to see how the opposition, led by Raila Odinga, would respond. Several days later, they ceremoniously filed a Supreme Court petition with less than two hours left on the constitutionally mandated deadline to file an appeal petition. This started the 14-day clock when the Supreme Court was obliged to rule on the petition.

The Supreme Court shocked the country — and possibly the world — with an historic decision to annul the election. I heard this news from a WhatsApp group before quickly going online to verify it for myself. In most Kenyan circles, many expected that today would be a rubber stamp on the election results with work resuming normally starting next week. Instead, today’s news has thrown the country into a lurch as people begin processing what this election means for them, their businesses, and the country.

As I processed the results of the ruling, I was filled with a mix of emotions. Dread that the business climate would continue in depressed mode for a further two months as the country prepares for new elections. It is common knowledge in Kenya that business is typically slow in the months leading up to and after an election as people wait to see how the political climate might shift. This is especially true in Kenya following the post-election violence of 2007.

National Implications

At the same time, I wondered what this news meant for the country and felt a sense of hope and optimism that Kenya is turning a corner in many ways. The Supreme Court’s decision, while surprising, begins to make a certain amount of sense when considering some of the facts of this case. While I was not there with the judges in their deliberation, two highly suspicious aspects of this election left me with doubts as to its legitimacy. First was the shocking death of Christopher Msando, a man that by many accounts, was just trying to do his IT job at the IEBC. Tortured, then murdered, this was an ominous sign for the country and begged the question: was someone trying to tamper with the election? The second aspect had to do with the peculiarity of the provisional results being announced. From almost the first moment results began to be announced, President Kenyatta maintained a constant lead of roughly 10–11% over Raila Odinga. In an election where they each had strongholds, one would have expected this number to fluctuate over the course of the announcements, yet it never did.

In graduate school, I remember writing a paper analyzing various aspects of Kenya. One of the critical conclusions of this paper was a recognition that Kenya’s prosperity as a nation, for most of its citizens, is deeply tied to the strength of its institutions. Transparency International ranked Kenya 145/176 in 2016 in its Corruption Perception Index, meaning only 21 other countries are more corrupt. Transparency International puts this score in context: “The lower-ranked countries in our index are plagued by untrustworthy and badly functioning public institutions like the police and judiciary.” In the outcome of this election, there is a major indication that perhaps the judiciary in Kenya has turned a corner. The Supreme Court’s ruling is a landmark decision for Africa, marking the first time that a presidential election has ever been nullified in the continent by a court in response to a challenge by the opposition.

Beyond the importance of this ruling for institutions, this ruling is deeply significant for Kenya’s ethnic populations. Kenya is comprised of over 40 ethnic groups. Since independence, there has been a strong undercurrent of division between them. Despite Kenya’s position as a stable beacon of democracy in Africa, these tensions bubbled to the surface in 2007 in the immediate aftermath of the presidential electoral contest between Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki, each of whom hail from two of the most prominent tribes in Kenya, the Luo and Kikuyu respectively. In early 2008, ethnic tensions fueled post-election violence that claimed the lives of over 1,000 people and displaced over 200,000 members of both tribes.

Although this year’s election was largely peaceful, these ethnic tensions remain and there is a feeling, even among Kikuyu people, that a large part of the country feels excluded from the nation. This continuing feud has even given risen to secession calls from some quarters. Unrealistic though they may be, they point to the underlying fissures that stem from a specific group or class of people continuing to wield power while a majority of the country experiences economic blight. The Supreme Court’s ruling gives hope to a significant portion of the country that perhaps for the first time, they will be included as part of the national fabric of Kenya — not just in word but in substance.

The challenger: Raila Odinga. (via Facebook)

This ruling also serves as a warning shot to Kenya’s power elite who may seek to interfere with future elections. Though the ruling by no means confirms that the election was rigged (“irregularities” were cited in the ruling), if indeed it was, it means that the days of impunity are coming to an end. The next election is much more likely to be viewed as free, fair and credible, particularly since there is much less room for potential interference given the tight timeline and high level of scrutiny. Whatever the outcome of this next election, it is possible that it may mark the first time in a long time (or ever) when the voice of the wananchi (citizens) will be heard loud and clear.

What’s next?

In the short term, Kenya will suffer because of this ruling. Already the markets are reacting with the Nairobi Stock Exchange experiencing a rapid sell off and the Shilling weakening. As business owners continue to hold investments at bay, the economy will continue to experience a slow-down. Though it is too early to tell, GDP growth figures are likely to soften for this year relative to expectations. In the longer run, this ruling hopefully strengthens investor confidence in Kenya’s institutions and results in greater economic growth.

Politically, it will be interesting to observe the outcome of this re-election. In most elections, candidates who muster the highest turnout in their favor tend to win. President Kenyatta garnered a higher turnout in the election than Raila Odinga did. Will the same people turnout to vote? Will the opposition be more energized this time around? Speaking to one of my staff, her immediate reaction was, “I’m not standing in line again.” I suspect this will be a widely shared sentiment. Voting is a big expenditure of time and effort, particularly in Kenya where much of the country returns upcountry to cast their votes. Given a depressed economy, the additional time and expense, and the prolonged emotional fatigue related to elections, it’s likely that turnout for the re-election will likely be lower, adding to the potential for a surprise upset.

It’s easy to read more into this decision that perhaps one should. It is after all just one decision, a single point in time in the history of a nation. Kenya’s problems cannot be solved in one day by a small group of citizens. Yet, there comes a point in every democracy that becomes the turning point — when institutions get that spark they need to begin to thrive, when a people begin to coalesce around a common vision and unite behind a common purpose. Safaricom capture’s this spirit well in their #KenyaTwaweza promotion.

My sincere hope is that this ruling marks that turning point when we as a nation begin to stand up to embrace the virtues of a healthy, vibrant democracy. I hope that no matter who wins the outcome of the re-election, we will have leaders who put the well-being of Kenya and Kenyans ahead of personal pursuits of power.

One aspect of August 8 was the unity demonstrated by Kenyans as they stood in line to vote. It’s the same spirit the authors of our national anthem had when they wrote: “Natujenge taifa letu Ee, ndio wajibu wetu Kenya istahili heshima (Let all with one accord in common bond united Build this our nation together).”

Let’s hope Kenya moves forward with this common bond.