Moving Forward: Kenya’s Rugged Path To Democracy


Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta waves to a crowd. (BEN CURTIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS).


On Oct. 26, after a drawn out election that marked increased tensions between the major Kenyan political parties, the people have spoken. Ironically, the people had also spoken with the same result on Aug. 8 when the original election was held. President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the world-renowned former President Jomo Kenyatta, won 98 percent of popular vote, despite a voter turnout of less than 40 percent.

In the August election, Kenyatta won 54 percent of the final vote, similar to what he had in a preliminary count. Former Prime Minister and opposition party leader, Raila Odinga, received roughly 45 percent of the vote. Soon after, Odinga, citing unfair voting processes, submitted a petition to nullify the election and demand a re-run. The Supreme Court of Kenya granted his proposal and scheduled another vote for Oct. 26. Despite this, Odinga boycotted the second election, alleging that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the regulatory agency for Kenya, would fail to carry out a credible poll. Although his name was already etched in the ballots, Odinga requested that his supporters not vote out of protest.

This isn’t Kenyatta and Odinga’s first battle in the political arena. Both candidates ran against each other for the 2013 presidential election. Kenyatta won over the Kenyan people and emerged the election victor. But Kenyatta and Odinga’s relationship is more than an “it’s complicated” status, as their opposition dates back to their fathers: Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Kenyatta and Odinga served as the first president and vice president of Kenya, but their personalities and tribal affiliations frequently clashed. Tribal identity is deeply rooted, with Kenya being home to over 40 tribes. The largest groups—the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo and Kamba—account for approximately 70 percent of the population. Essentially acting as tribal chiefs, Kenyatta of the Kikuyu and Odinga of the Luo, they blatantly urge their ethnic supporters to vote for them, regardless of their policies. Since winning the presidency requires only 50 percent of the vote and no tribe is that large, many candidates form tribal alliances in hopes of grabbing a seat within the government. But as quickly these alliances form, they can dissolve instantaneously if an opportunity arises for a tribe. It’s quintessential political Darwinism on a live stage. For the grassroots, their views are succinctly summarized in what Kamau, a food stall owner said to Al Jazeera,”They are all the same. They are there for their own interest. The only difference between them is the tribe they belong to.”

However corrupt or unethical the tribalism seems, it is symptom of a greater problem: politics in Kenya is a zero-sum game. Members of the losing party are ostracized from holding important positions, and their supporters are further marginalized. The government has attempted to mediate the overwhelming influence of the president’s affiliated party, but this pales in comparison to the power of winning the presidency. Essentially, the elected president maintains absolute political control and immense benefits.

Contentiously, Odinga has now declared his party, National Super Alliance (NASA), a resistance movement. While calling for “peaceful” demonstrations, protests, and picketing, he has constructed a people’s assembly in the hopes the county governments will eventually join. Currently, the assembly lacks a structured logistics plan. Odinga’s ultimate goal is to utilize public disapproval to coerce Kenyatta’s resignation. Kenyatta, however, is not completely in the right. He has constantly refused to engage in talks with the opposition, essentially cutting all communication with key groups. Stability will become increasingly difficult when major parties are not seated at the table for political discourse.

Stability not only concerns Kenya, but its neighboring countries as well. With the ongoing political cock fights distracting politicians and security forces, Al-Shabab, a terrorist organization associated with Al-Qaeda, has strengthened and returned to the forefront as a relevant source of terrorism. If Al-Shabab becomes a legitimate threat, Kenya could be forced to withdraw from Somalia, a region plagued with terrorist attacks. This could prove costly for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which consists of Djibouti and and Uganda, creating a dangerous precedent for those respective countries also mired in terrorist conflict to withdraw from the state. As Al-Shabab bides its time for an opportunity to strike, Kenyan political instability could lay the groundwork for increased terrorist attacks around the entire North African region.

Odinga’s insistence in increasing demonstrations and protests bodes well for neither Kenya, nor the East African region as a whole. Though the IEBC correctly conducted the re-elections, Odinga continues to denounce the results. Meanwhile, citizens have become restless for civil and honest politics. It appears that the incessantly juvenile actions of Odinga and Kenyatta will be a feature of their political relationship til death do them part. Meanwhile, citizens are restless, desiring a return for normalcy. Both politicians not only threaten the legitimacy of upcoming presidential elections, but the Kenyan political system in its entirety. Kenyatta and Odinga will stand for the system when it appeases them, but suddenly become harsh critics when they feel dissatisfied. Until some civil discourse is achieved, Kenya will continue to be at the forefront of political turmoil. Unfortunately, compromise is nonexistent in their vocabularies.

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