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Crisis Group On the Long Road to Kenya's August Elections
Crisis Group On the Long Road to Kenya's August Elections
Report 197 / Africa

Kenya’s 2013 Elections

Preparations for elections in Kenya turn into high gear today as the parties in the three major coalitions nominate their candidates.

Executive Summary

Kenya’s elections this year should turn the page on the bloodshed of five years ago, but the risk of political violence is still unacceptably high. A new constitution, fresh election commission and reformed judiciary should help. But the vote, now set for 4 March 2013, will still be a high-stakes competition for power, both nationally and in 47 new counties. Forthcoming trials before the International Criminal Court (ICC) of four Kenyans for their alleged role in the 2007-2008 post-election violence look set to shape the campaign. The potential for local violence is especially high. Politicians must stop ignoring rules, exploiting grievances and stoking divisions through ethnic campaigning. The country’s institutions face fierce pressure but must take bold action to curb them. Business and religious leaders and civil society should demand a free and fair vote. So too should regional and wider international partners, who must also make clear that those who jeopardise the stability of the country and region by using or inciting violence will be held to account. 

Many reforms were initiated to address the flawed 2007 polls and subsequent violence. A new constitution, passed in a peaceful referendum in August 2010, aims to fortify democracy and temper zero-sum competition for the presidency by checking executive power. New voting rules require the president to win more than half the votes and enjoy wider geographic support. Power is being devolved to 47 counties, each of which will elect a governor, senator and local assembly. Despite recent mishaps, the new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) still enjoys public trust. Judicial reform, including the appointment of a respected new chief justice, also augurs well for a more robust response to electoral fraud and disputes. 

The new institutions, however, have their work cut out. The ICC proceedings are influencing political alliances and the campaign. The four individuals facing trial deny the charges and maintain their innocence. While the cases aim to erode impunity long enjoyed by political elites and may deter bloodshed, they raise the stakes enormously. The two most powerful of the accused, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, look set to contest the elections on a single ticket (Kenyatta for president, Ruto for deputy president). Both have politicised the ICC cases, deepening ethnic polarisation, and have accused Prime Minister Raila Odinga, their strongest opponent, of conspiring with foreigners against them. 

The Kenyatta-Ruto alliance would be a strong ticket. Aware that Kenyans want an end to impunity, both have pledged to comply with the ICC, even if they win. Yet, regardless of the outcome of their cases, a president facing lengthy trial before the ICC could potentially have extremely damaging implications for reform and foreign relations, which Kenyatta’s backers should ponder carefully. For the moment, their eligibility to run for office remains in doubt; a case challenging their compliance with new constitutional requirements for public officials’ integrity is with a high court and may find its way by appeal to the Supreme Court. Were the courts to find Kenyatta and Ruto ineligible after the closing date for submitting nomination papers on 30 January, their supporters would be unable to choose alternative candidates, which might lead to strong protests and even spark conflict. Dealing as it does with a highly charged political issue, whichever way it goes, the final decision is likely to be contentious. If possible, the date of any decision should be announced in advance so the security agencies and others can prepare accordingly. 

Other signs are also troubling. Political parties and politicians flout new rules unchecked. The IEBC’s bungled procurement of voter registration kits reduced the confidence it previously enjoyed and suggests it may struggle to resist enormous pressure as the vote approaches. The late start to registration has cut all fat from the electoral timeline, and any flaws will heighten tension. The IEBC must work transparently with parties and other stakeholders to clarify and regularly review the timeline, so as to avoid any further – and highly-charged – delays.

Voter education will be crucial. It is the first general election under the 2010 constitution, with new rules that are considerably more complex than previous polls (each voter will cast six ballots). Limiting confusion and misunderstandings could help reduce disputes and election-related conflict. It is also vital that the IEBC provide sufficient access and information to citizen observers and other civil society groups. They must be able to plan their deployment properly and enjoy full access to every part of the election process, especially the tallying of results. Such groups can also be useful allies in bolstering commissioners’ ability to resist political interference.

Insecurity too poses a huge challenge. Despite the reforms, many structural conflict drivers – continuing reliance on ethnicity, competition for land and resources, resettlement of internally displaced people (IDPs), and poverty and youth unemployment – underlying the 2007-2008 violence remain unresolved and may be cynically used by politicians to whip up support. Many of those who fled the turmoil remain displaced. Land disputes feed local tension. Youth unemployment is still very high and, together with poverty and inequality, means a steady flow of recruits for criminal groups and militias that can be mobilised to intimidate opponents and their supporters or protest results, as they have in the past. Attacks blamed on the extremist Al-Shabaab movement and clashes over land can cloak political violence. Meanwhile, police reform has lagged and the security forces look ill-prepared to secure the polls. An experienced inspector general of police, David Kimaiyo, has been appointed, but the delay in his selection means little time remains for significant security reform. Multi-agency security planning, which has also lagged, must be completed and implemented. 

Ethnic campaigning and horse-trading as alliances formed – by Kenyatta and Ruto but also other leading politicians – have deepened divides. How the supporters of either of the two main tickets, those of Deputy Prime Minister Kenyatta and former cabinet minister Ruto running and of Prime Minister Odinga and Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka respectively, would respond to losing a close vote it perceives as flawed, or even to early signs it is falling behind, is unclear. International partners, including regional neighbours whose economies rely on a peaceful transition, should monitor any signs of interference or violence and weigh in quickly to deter it. Devolution, for all its benefits, introduces new conflict dynamics, as competition between groups for power and resources controlled at county level becomes fiercer. 

All these challenges are surmountable, especially given the remarkable determination of most to avoid a repeat of 2007-2008. But they require concerted action by Kenya’s institutions and their allies, and – most important – clear signals to leaders who are seen to be prioritising the pursuit of power. The people deserve better. To put the horror of five years ago behind them, they deserve the chance to vote without fear and elect leaders committed to reform and ready to serve society as a whole rather than the narrow interests of its elites.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 January 2013

Commentary / Africa

Crisis Group On the Long Road to Kenya's August Elections

For the past twelve months, Crisis Group has closely monitored and assessed developments in the run-up to Kenya's 8 August 2017 election. In this letter to our readers, Africa Program Director Comfort Ero highlights Crisis Group's flagship Kenya publications that have helped inform stakeholders of looming threats and ongoing electoral issues.

Dear friends of Crisis Group, 

On 8 August 2017, Kenyans will vote in eagerly anticipated local and presidential elections. The country’s strategic role as East Africa’s transport and commercial hub, the fact that it is one of the continent’s major democracies, and a history of election-related violence explain why these polls are so important and why they will be closely watched. As in past electoral cycles, the 2017 election is hard to call, the campaign has been vigorously fought and there is concern that voting could be marred by violence.

Since the start of the year, Crisis Group has been following the political campaigns and monitoring preparations for next Tuesday’s poll. Our publications provide an overview of key issues surrounding the vote. We have prepared a full reading list, and outline some of our key publications below.

Today, Murithi Mutiga answers crucial questions about Kenya’s readiness for the ballot, what is at stake for each of the major players and the likelihood of a repeat of the weeks of bloodletting that followed the 2007 election.

In May, Crisis Group issued a report on the volatile Rift Valley region, which witnessed some of the worst violence in 2007. We made the point that the task of reconciliation is not yet complete and that authorities and donors should continue investing in grassroots-based reconciliation efforts rather than relying on a transactional electoral pact between leaders of the main ethnic groups (the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin) to maintain peace in the region.

Our March commentary highlighted that the electoral commission’s preparations were well behind schedule and that time was running out for it to be in a position to deliver a credible election.

Crisis Group field research highlights key counties where the threat of ethnic conflict is highest.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution introduced a new system of devolved government to spread power and resources to localities and dilute the president’s powers in order to change the election’s winner-take-all nature that – by raising stakes to existential levels – helped fan past conflicts. But there is a flip side. For devolution reduced the stakes of the presidential election, it simultaneously raised those for the now-powerful position of governors who head the 47 newly created counties. These have been fraught and marked by violence. Crisis Group field research highlights key counties where the threat of ethnic conflict is highest. In July, Abdullahi Abdille examined the northern Kenya counties of Marsabit and Isiolo which have witnessed serious violence in the past decade. Murithi Mutiga travelled to the counties of Laikipia and Narok where political incitement, land hunger and historical grievances drive cycles of violence.

Throughout its reporting, Crisis Group consistently has called on:

  • Kenya’s key external partners to lean on the main presidential candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, to sign a public peace pledge committing them to renounce violence, adhere to the electoral code of conduct, accept the will of the people as expressed in a fair and credible poll and exclusively challenge results through the court system;
  • Observer missions to send teams to Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s strongholds, to act as a safeguard against ballot-box stuffing and vote tampering;
  • Donors to support the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a peacebuilding institution, to improve its capacity to gather evidence for prosecution of actors engaging in hate speech in order to deter politicians from acting irresponsibly in future elections;
  • Donors to encourage improvements of the electoral commission’s communication in order to better inform voters at every stage of the electoral process and avoid tensions that accompanied the tallying process in the past;
  • Kenyan authorities to show restraint in policing potential street protests in the wake of the vote in order to prevent a repeat of the 2007/2008 violence where many died at the hands of the police.

At a time when democratic governance is receding in parts of Africa, Kenya’s elections are of enormous importance. A smooth process will consolidate democratic gains in the country and serve as a symbol for the rest of the continent; a contested outcome and violence will represent a significant setback for both.
Dr. Comfort Ero
Director, Africa Program
International Crisis Group

This letter was originally sent to subscribers to Crisis Group's Africa list. If you would like to receive Crisis Group updates and newsletters, subscribe here.