Rollercoaster Politics Ahead of Kenya’s August Elections
Rollercoaster Politics Ahead of Kenya’s August Elections
Podcast / Africa 20+ minutes

Rollercoaster Politics Ahead of Kenya’s August Elections

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to expert Murithi Mutiga about Kenya’s August election, as Deputy President William Ruto faces off against opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is now backed by Ruto’s former ally, President Uhuru Kenyatta, in a country where bloodshed after previous disputed votes still casts a long shadow.

Kenya’s presidential race has been turned upside down. After a high-profile split with President Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto – despite being in government for the last nine years – is running on an anti-establishment platform. Having distanced himself from Kenyatta, Ruto is positioning himself as a man of the people, or the “hustler in chief”, opposing the political elite. Meanwhile, his main rival Raila Odinga – for decades an opposition leader and fierce critic of the government – has been endorsed by Kenyatta, thus becoming the establishment candidate. At the same time, while previous Kenyan polls have been shaped mostly by ethnic politics, the 2022 race has also seen economic issues come to the fore, with Ruto promising wide-ranging reforms. Whatever its outcome, the election matters not just in Kenya, but for the entire region, riddled by war and crises.

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood is joined by Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director, Murithi Mutiga, to talk about the campaign thus far and what to expect from the election. They discuss how things got so bitter between Kenyatta and Ruto, and what the bad blood might mean for the outcome of the vote. They talk about the main issues dominating the election, as Ruto plays on people’s economic frustrations and Odinga portrays himself as a unifier. They also discuss the risks of a disputed outcome, in a country that has suffered terrible bloodshed after contested results in the past. They look at the impact on Kenyan politics of indictments against Kenyatta and Ruto by the International Criminal Court, which were dropped in 2014 and 2016 respectively. They also look at how Nairobi views the war in Ukraine and the impact of the commodities crisis that war has triggered.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Kenya, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Kenya country page, including our recent briefing “Kenya’s 2022 Election: High Stakes”.

Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt.

Richard 00:06
Hi. This is Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I’m Richard Atwood. On 9 August, so in about seven weeks’ time, Kenyans go to the polls. It’s shaping up to be a tight contest for the presidency between current Deputy President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga. Today we’re going to look at the campaigning so far and we’re going to ask how worried we should be about the risk of violence in a country where a bloody election dispute in 2007 still casts a long shadow.

Clip 00:31
If proof was still needed that Kenyatta and Odinga have definitely buried the hatchet, it came on Saturday. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta endorsed his former rival for the country's top job. Back in 2018, Kenyatta and Odinga stunned the country when they shook hands and declared a truce after post-election violence in 2017 left dozens of people dead. The announcement came after Kenyatta’s anointed successor, William Ruto, who also vies for the presidency, was sacked from the ruling party.

Richard 01:06
It’s been a couple of years of twists and turns in Kenyan politics. Incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta came to power in 2013, and he won a second and final term in 2017. Since then, he’s badly fallen out with Ruto, his deputy president, whom Kenyatta had previously promised to back for the presidency when he stepped down. Instead, President Kenyatta, or “Uhuru” as he’s widely known, has thrown his weight behind opposition leader Raila Odinga, a man who was once his bitter rival.

Clip 01:33
Ruto is running without the support of his former ally. In spite of being in government for nine years, he's now promising change.

Clip 01:41
Our problem is inequality. Our economic model in the last five decades has been the trickle-down type, which has only benefited the few, creating “haves” and “have-nots” who are just hustlers. We aim to change this economic model.

Richard 1:57
The shifting alliances mean that Raila, a long serving opposition leader, is in some ways now the establishment candidate, backed by the ruling party. Ruto, for his part, is running an insurgent campaign, despite being deputy president. Both seem convinced they’ll win. It’s a big election for the region, given that Kenya is an island of relative calm amid wars and crises in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. So what should we expect from the vote? How grave is the danger of a disputed result? How much have Kenyan leaders evolved away from the ethnic politics that have marked previous elections? To talk about all this, I'm delighted to welcome on Murithi Mutiga, who is now Crisis Group’s Africa Director. I think this is your first appearance on the podcast in your new role, right Murithi? 

Murithi 2:41
That's right. 

Richard 2:43
So, there is really no one better, as I’ve learnt over the years, to talk to about Kenyan politics. Murithi, welcome back on. Great that you've joined us again.

Murithi 2:53
Yeah, good to be here Richard.

Richard 2:55
So, Murithi, why don't we start then with the most important question in any election. Who is going to win? Who's going to be in the statehouse in a few months’ time?

Murithi 3:06
Well, the short answer is we don't know. And that's a good thing, because Kenyan elections are actually genuinely competitive. Within weeks, even days before the election, the outcome is always uncertain. And, in a region where we've seen an authoritarian drift over the last couple of years, that has to be seen as a positive thing. It's going to be close. The polls show a very tight race between the main candidates, Ruto and Raila Odinga. I think it will ultimately come down to the way the biggest vote basket in the country – that’s the ethnic Kikuyu constituency – swings at the election in August. The last two Kenyan presidents have been Kikuyu; there won’t be a major Kikuyu candidate in this current election. And so that's the principle uncertainty. How that vote will swing will go a long way to determining the outcome. I think the second thing to watch is whether there will be a run-off. In the last two elections, the winning candidate was able to secure a majority. But this time, that is less certain. Both of them are polling below 50 per cent. And so we don't know whether there will be a run-off or not. So, basically, I'm sorry to disappoint – no idea of who's going to win. But that's a good thing.

Richard 04:18
So, you know, you talked about the importance of which way the Kikuyu vote swings. And  certainly one factor in that is going to be this relationship between Ruto and Uhuru, which has really sort of broken down in quite a stark fashion over the past few years, so much so that Uhuru is now throwing his weight, you know, as we heard up top, behind Raila. So do you want to talk a little bit about sort of what's gone wrong over these past few years?

Murithi 04:49
So that's an important point. And it's an intriguing relationship between Ruto and Uhuru. When they first came to power in 2013, people would make jokes because, you know, they were almost a couple – they would wear matching suits, matching ties, shake hands heartily in public. They seemed to have a closely knit relationship; they worked together in the 2017 election and managed to secure victory, but then fell out very quickly immediately after that election with, as you said, Uhuru throwing his weight behind Odinga. I think to look at this, you have to go back to the 2007 election, which was very contentious. They were on opposite ends. They then fashioned basically an alliance of convenience. Maybe it was not an alliance that was founded in any principles. They basically had both been indicted by the International Criminal Court. They then saw an opportunity in which they could work together, get to power, find their way to get that indictment dropped. So it was never a particularly deep relationship. But I think we have to always remember that Kenyan politics is not particularly ideological. This is a bunch of fairly wealthy individuals, very often with their families also involved in business with the state. The alliances are quite Byzantine, they change all the time, almost at every electoral cycle. And so, it's not too surprising that they've fallen out. The roots of their falling out are a mystery. But even by Kenyan standards, the fallout has been quite spectacular. And you're right to point out that's one of the principal dynamics to watch as we go into the election.

Richard 06:37
And, Murithi, I mean, just so people know. Ruto, he is Kalenjin, right? I mean, we’ve got to be careful not to make it all about ethnic politics. Still, it’s worth noting that the Kalenjin are the third or the fourth most populous group in Kenya. Kenya’s longest serving president, Daniel Arap Moi, was Kalenjin, but since then the Kikuyu have held the presidency – so Kenyatta of course, the current president, and before him Mwai Kibaki, who took over from Daniel Moi.

Murithi 07:08
Yes, that's right. That's a dynamic that hangs over the election, you know, the fact that the presidency has been dominated by these two groups over the last half a century. And Raila is from western Kenya; he would be the first president from that part of the country if he wins. So that's a dynamic, although it's not the principal issue at this election. It's much more about these alliances that they formed, and also at least the Ruto side is trying to make it more about the economy.

Richard 07:40
And we'll talk a little bit more about the sort of election issues, the campaign issues, in a moment. But from Ruto’s perspective, I mean, this must feel like quite a betrayal by Kenyatta, right? That he is now supporting another candidate. That has got to sting. The whole understanding of their alliance, initially, was that Kenyatta would be president for two terms and then he would hand over to Ruto. But at the same time, Ruto seems to have sort of turned that to his advantage during the campaign?

Murithi 08:09
Yes, it's quite stunning. You know, Kenyatta openly said that he would serve for ten years and he would back Ruto to serve two terms as well. So it's a stunning development, but then, you know, just to speak about Ruto a bit, he is standing on its head, because Kenyan electoral politics has always had a bit of a dynastic element. If you look at the last names of the main candidates in the last two elections, they are Kenyatta and Odinga, you know, the son of the first president and the son of the first vice president in Kenya. And so, what Ruto has done is try to use that as a platform to explain why Kenyatta has turned against him. And so, he has positioned himself as what he calls a “hustler”, as an everyman. He says that he represents the interests of the ordinary people.

Richard 09:00
As a hustler?

Murithi  09:02
That's exactly right.

Richard  09:03
Uh huh. As sort of a “hustler in chief”?

Murithi 09:06
Yes, he calls himself the hustler in chief. And he says that the contrast between him – somebody who comes from a very poor background, that sold chicken by the roadside, he claims, to pay for his school fees in high school. And then he positioned that as a contrast with Kenyatta and Odinga, who he casts as what he calls “dynasties”. And so, of course, it's a very heavy fall from being expected to be an incumbent candidate, being viewed as having the support of Kenyatta and the state going into the election. But he has flipped it and tried to position himself as an everyman, who understands the cares of every Kenyan. Of course, we have to add that he himself is very wealthy, he has been in and around power for the last three decades. He is very much a part of the establishment and a part of the elite. But it's clever positioning that he's taken his perceived betrayal by Kenyatta as something to establish a platform, which is intriguing because it's not primarily an ethnic platform. You know, he wants to position himself on a class basis to draw support. And it will be intriguing, you know, he's managed to change the conversation. The question is whether that will count in August when election time comes.

Richard 10:30
And it's true that, as you say, he's been around politics for a long time. He’s now very much part of the establishment, very wealthy, but his background is a bit different. Uhuru, for example, is the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Raila, who we’ll talk about in a moment, also comes from a political family. Ruto really doesn’t have those roots at all and again that’s sort of been part of the way he’s trying to appeal to voters.

Murithi 10:55
Yes. You know, his messaging has struck a chord. He goes around with the symbol of a wheelbarrow, which is an important implement in construction sites. He likes to pose with vegetable vendors, ladies selling vegetables by the roadside. He very much has positioned himself on that class platform. Yes, he's definitely a part of the elite, but, without question, his background is fairly humble. And so, he wants to be seen as somebody that can represent the cares of the ordinary person on the street. And it's an important message that might be able to cut across, because it's a period of economic pain within Kenya in many parts of the region, as we'll discuss I'm sure later. So it's a platform that has helped him to cultivate what he hopes will be a national base. And we've seen his party, the United Democratic Alliance, win important constituencies at the Kenyan coast, in Mount Kenya, within the Kikuyu community. And that class platform has certainly helped, although, again, I'm not sure whether it translates into actual differences in governance, because the Kenyan elite are basically birds of a feather. 

Richard 12:14
And those inroads, Murithi, into areas where he previously hadn’t had support. His traditional base is the Rift Valley, but as you say, he’s picking up support on the coast, in Mount Kenya, where actually Kenyatta is from. And that’s because of his portrayal of himself as a hustler, an everyman, or there’s more to it? His vice presidential nominee is also Kikuyu, right?

Murithi 12:39
Yes. So Ruto has been playing two cards. One is the class card. So, saying that he understands the cares of the ordinary man, very ironically casting himself as an insurgent and therefore saying he'll repair the economy, despite being deputy president. So he's played the class card but also the betrayal card. And I think that has been particularly important among the Mount Kenya constituency, because the way in which Kenyatta promised that he would back him has riled up quite a few of the, you know, important players within Mount Kenya, who perceive, you know, Kenyatta as having been quite brazen in turning against Ruto. So yes, we've seen him win a couple of by-elections within the Mount Kenya constituency. We've seen him also attract a lot of heavyweights to contest for local, very important governor positions on that ticket or on allied tickets. We have to make two important caveats. One is that the dynamics in Kenyan elections change very, very quickly, the closer you get to the election. So whether this support proves enduring or not is a big question we have to watch. And secondly, his pick of running mate, while a Kikuyu and from an important constituency, a county called Nyeri – the county of the former President Mwai Kibaki – and so, a logical choice from his standpoint in terms of running up the numbers. It was not particularly inspiring. By contrast, Raila picked a very inspiring, principled and widely regarded as uncorrupt woman, former presidential candidate Martha Karua, a very strong character, seen as a much more inspiring pick. We haven't assessed the opinion polls since those picks were done in the last couple of weeks, but it will be intriguing to see whether Raila picks up momentum in the wake of that running mate selection. So it's all up in the air. It's all to play for. But yes, the fact that he survived the onslaught from the state, the fact that he's managed to make these inroads into this Mount Kenya region, where the Kikuyu are dominant, is significant.

Richard 14:56
And, Murithi, maybe just one last one on Ruto before we move on to Raila, to his opponent. Do we have a sense of what sort of president he would be from his tenure as vice president?

Murithi 15:09
So, Ruto is very sharp. He's smart, he's very disciplined. He keeps time. I've interviewed him in the past and I was very impressed by the level of detail and his grasp of issues. But at the same time, it has to be acknowledged that there are integrity issues that have hung over him for most of his career. You know, he's been accused of corruption. Of course, never convicted. But this is something of a cloud that's hung over him. It's true as well of his running mate. And so, I think he’s a bit of a man of mystery. The question for many Kenyans is – if he were to win, would he be the sort of disciplined, maybe even slightly authoritarian leader that quite a few people yearn for, that can just steer the country towards greater development, or would he lead an administration that is corrupt and not accountable to the public? And I think that's one of the greater mysteries about Ruto. 

Richard 16:07
And so, let's talk a little bit about his opponent, Raila Odinga. So, as you said, a long-serving opposition politician, the son of a long-serving opposition politician. He's contested but not prevailed in the last three elections. Do you want to say a word or two about sort of how he's positioning himself beyond, as you say, this astute pick of vice presidential candidate?

Murithi 16:32
Despite him not being in power, Raila has to be considered a giant of Kenyan politics. He's played a very important role at very pivotal periods in Kenyan politics over the last couple of decades. In the 80s, he was in the forefront within the reform movement among the underground opposition that were trying to basically get rid of Moi, who they considered both incompetent and authoritarian. He went to jail; he served nearly eight years in detention, which earned him a lot of sympathy and a lot of credibility. And then in the 90s, he was a very important figure in the opposition movement at that time. And again in 2002, his very critical endorsement of Mwai Kibaki, who was a fellow opposition leader, helped to pave the way for a pivotal moment in African electoral history – the defeat of a ruling founding party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU).

Richard 17:34
That was when Daniel Arap Moi, that we talked about, left office and handed over power peacefully.

Murithi 17:39
Yes, absolutely. To his credit, Moi, despite a very tarnished record in his presidency, handed over peacefully after a landslide victory by the opposition. And this was viewed as very important, both by regional but also by, you know, continental standards. It was an important moment and Raila Odinga was a pivotal player. Yes, you're right, he's contested the last couple of elections. He claims that he's been cheated at every election over the last decade and a half. A lot of people think he had a particularly strong case in 2007, when he was up against Kibaki, who, going back to the theme of betrayal, very quickly fell out with Raila after taking the reins of the presidency. So he's been a giant of Kenyan politics. It will be the culmination of a lifelong dream for his family and his allies if he manages to win the presidency. He has an important national constituency. And, right now, he's positioning himself in the grandfather role, you know. He's 77, he casts himself as harmless, as a uniter, which is quite a contrast, it has to be said. In the past, he was viewed as quite a divisive and hard-edged figure. So, yes, so it's really a battle of titans between Raila and the younger Ruto, with Kenyatta’s shadow hanging above them.

Richard 19:05
This must be quite a sort of tricky evolution in some ways in terms of how he's communicating it, for Raila, right. Because he’s traditionally, as you say, been a firebrand, maybe that’s too strong, but traditionally this opposition politician, the one who's challenging power, the one who's challenging authority. And now he's, in essence, sort of backed by the incumbent and he's got the weight of the state behind him in some ways. How has he been able to sort of adapt his campaign to that new position?

Murithi 19:35
It's a good question and it's the challenge that the Raila candidacy has been grappling with over the last two years. He tends to be very strong as an insurgent, as definitely a firebrand, as a critic of government. Right now, Uhuru Kenyatta's endorsement comes with the advantage of the state being behind him. We see the media supporting him quite strongly. But it does come with its downsides. As you know, the economy in Kenya has been battered by global shocks: Ukraine, Covid. Uhuru Kenyatta is not particularly popular at the moment. He might not be an electoral asset. He brings the might of the state, but perhaps not too much more than that. Although we have to say that’s significant. Maybe Raila’s run will be very well funded, well supported by important state institutions. So it's a fine line to walk. I think what Raila has been trying to do is remind people about his past, create some modest distance between him and Kenyatta’s management of the economy, which tends to be very heavily criticised. I think what he's hoping for is that the inevitable loss of support in places where people view him as a victim, as a champion of victims, especially in the coast of Kenya, in western Kenya, perhaps even in parts of Ukambani in eastern Kenya, maybe that the loss of some votes in those areas will be compensated for by gains in the Mount Kenya region where Kenyatta comes from. It's a logical gamble from where he sits. But it will be one of the intriguing things to watch, whether, you know, he can get over the line, running as an incumbent against a deputy president who's running as an insurgent.

Richard 21:30
And, Murithi, I mean, you mentioned and we heard up top about the 2007 elections, which I imagine that for many of our listeners, when they think about Kenyan elections, that's the one they’ll think of, because it provoked this terrible crisis, disputed results and a lot of violence afterwards, especially in the Rift Valley and, as we talked about, in parts of Nairobi and in the west, where Raila is from. And of course, that led to this mediation by Kofi Annan at the time. It led to some of the reforms that we'll talk about in a moment, but it also led to the cases by the International Criminal Court – indictments against Ruto and Uhuru, which in some ways, as you said, sort of drove that alliance for the subsequent elections in 2012. I think they eventually took place in 2013. Are those sort of ICC cases – I mean, that sort of shaped politics for a while – but is that in any way relevant to the way people perceive Kenyatta and Ruto now?

Murithi 22:29
Kenyan politics is marked by a very short memory. I think, given the conflicts we see in the region, maybe that's a good thing, because people tend to be able to move on very quickly. Alliances shift all the time, people are not very ideological. It was a pivotal moment. It was a moment of great national trauma. It was a great moment of shock within the region. But the country actually moved on, it would seem, very quickly from that. We saw that Uhuru and Ruto have formed an alliance that attained victory at the very next election, after the very gruesome violence. And it's one of those where, you know, it was a moment of reckoning to a certain degree, a great movement of reform domestically which culminated in the constitution. But also, it showed some of the limitations of trying to settle legally disputes that are very founded in political and historical grievances. And so, sometimes the legal route can serve as a deterrent to a leader. But in the Kenyan case, it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, it rallied a lot of the supporters of both Uhuru and Ruto, who saw them as championing community interest, who saw them as, you know, representatives of their particular constituencies during the 2007-2008 crisis. And it's faded in the memory, you know. There are still a few cases going on, in terms of some weaknesses or what not. They do occasionally pop up, you know, in the middle pages of the newspaper, but it's certainly not front and centre as an electoral issue.

Richard 24:13
Murithi, can I just push a bit more on this, and I realise it’s sensitive. But the ICC cases. Well, first, I should say that, from what I understand, many Ruto and Uhuru supporters say that they were scapegoated, that it should have been the two presidential candidates that were indicted – so, Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent, and Raila. But leaving that aside, the ICC indictments, they did have a major political impact in quite an unexpected way, right? I mean, they drove this alliance between the two indictees, between Uhuru and Ruto; it was known at the time as the sort of  “impunity alliance”, which led to them capturing the presidency in 2013 and again in 2017. And it also meant that in those two contests, their two communities – the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, that we talked about before, the two that have in some ways dominated Kenyan politics – weren’t pitted against one another. They were behind the same ticket (mostly, I appreciate it’s not always as simple as that). And in that sense, perhaps the ICC – I mean, even though the cases were dropped, there hasn’t been accountability for the violence in 2007-2008, you know, witnesses pulled out. But the ICC indictments did have a big impact on Kenyan politics and in some ways had a calming influence on Kenyan politics, even if completely unintentionally and certainly not in the way the prosecutor back then might have imagined.

Murithi 25:41
Yeah, no, I think it's very interesting. The Uhuru-Ruto alliance was born out of the cases at the ICC. Those cases brought these two major figures together; that meant that the Kikuyu and Kalenjin were friends and not rivals in the next election. That certainly contributed to more peaceful outcomes in those two elections, being blunt about it. And even in this election, I think the fact that Ruto has managed to make such inroads among the Kikuyu has helped to lower the volume to the extent that you don't see this great fault line that has marked especially the Rift Valley, a very significant part of the country, one that is a melting pot of a lot of ethnic groups. It has kept things quite calm in the Rift Valley. I think we can't take it for granted. I think, you know, we don't know what will happen in the future. There must be quite a bit of resentment among the Kalenjin for the way they perceive Uhuru as having treated Ruto. But the unity we've seen among Kikuyu and Kalenjin elites over the last few years, the support Ruto seems to have secured among the Kikuyu, has helped to calm the waters.

Richard 27:02
And from what I understand, Murithi, this time around, the ethnic politics – for want of a better way to put it, communities voting for their leaders – and it really being about how the leaders strike alliances among themselves, that is as you describe, with Ruto winning over many Kikuyu, it seems a little bit different this time around. That not only has the way that politics has been conducted sort of shifted, but there doesn't seem to be the same sort of language that sort of appeals to ethnicity or runs down others. I mean, it just seems a little calmer this time around, notwithstanding all the bad blood between Ruto and Kenyatta.

Murithi 27:43
And that's a fascinating aspect in this election. We see very low societal tensions, lower group on group tensions than I can remember. We see of course, as you said, very high levels of elite tension. But I think Kenyans have grown tired of all the Byzantine alliances they've been seeing among the elite. So, you know, you've had multiple handshakes, you had the Uhuru-Ruto handshake. You then had, you know, the quite surprising Raila-Uhuru handshake. And I think this has made Kenyans much more indifferent, much less inflamed, much more likely to see that the elite are basically just playing their own game and pitching for their own interests rather than the interests of the group. And yes, we see much calmer politics, we see much less hate speech on the stump, we see a much quicker condemnation of hate speech when it occurs. Of course, it helps that there isn't a Kikuyu candidate, because, in the past, that was a major issue, you know, the perceptions of Kikuyu political and economic dominance. But yes, I think Kenyan politics is in a better place than in the past. There was a lot of concern, because very few youth registered as new voters when the Electoral Commission began voter registration over the last year, but, you know, for people like you and me that are interested in seeing lower societal tensions and seeing more peaceful politics, in fact, this level of indifference is a positive omen. Of course, we mustn't discount the level of elite tension within the country, the elite have a well practised capacity to incite conflict, and especially if the election is disputed, then that might be a really risky territory. But yes, it's a good thing that societal tensions are lower than most people can remember.

Richard 29:42
And so, as you say, previous elections in Kenya, obviously, that 2007 vote was marked by a lot of violence. But even in elections since then, there's been some violence around campaigning, sometimes on election day aimed at influencing the vote. But, you know, the real danger in the past at least has always been conflict stemming from a disputed result.  How do you sort of assess the risks this time around, notwithstanding the sort of calm that seems to prevail during this campaign?

Murithi 30:12
I have to say, Richard, that myself and a few other analysts have called wrong very frequently the risks of violence in Kenyan elections. I remember covering the 2007 election and I absolutely didn't see the violence coming. We could see all the hate speech, all the tension, but I think Kenyans had come to convince themselves after the pivotal 2002 election that, you know, the country was going to be an exception, that you will always have peaceful politics. And then you had the very gruesome violence in 2007-2008, which was a huge shock, of course followed by very substantial reform. And then in 2013, a lot of people were worried about the election, the stakes were very high because of the ICC indictments, in part. And I remember seeing a news item that it was one of the most observed elections in African history since the 1994 post-apartheid vote in South Africa. So nothing really happened in 2013. There was tension, there was a protest, of course, there were some police killings, which was terrible. There were very unfortunate developments, but it was not as bad as many people had feared. And again, in 2017, it was relatively peaceful. Just to say that we have to be careful, the fact that a lot of us are seeing the risks being relatively low this time, you know, we should still be on our guard. It's very possible for something to go wrong. I would say a couple of things in terms of the risks. One is the absence of an elite compact, an elite consensus, going into the election, the risk that one or other of the parties will view the election as having been fixed in favour of their opponent. The fact that it's an open seat election. So, in most of Africa, in many parts of the world, when you have an incumbent running for re-election, they generally tend to win. But when it's an open seat election, so-called, where it's a ruling party versus, you know, an opposition leader, despite the convoluted nature of the Kenyan election, it tends to be that the risks are higher. The capacity of electoral institutions is not particularly high. And I think these are kept deliberately weak by the elite. And therefore whether the Electoral Commission is able to deliver an election that most people can regard as a fair election, that will be very important. I think something else that should worry us is the confidence of the two candidates. Both Ruto and Raila view themselves as shoe-ins, they see themselves as very heavily favoured, and that tends to lead to crushing disappointment, and then, you know, a rallying of the base and the rallying up of their constituencies. So those are all worrying signs. But yes, we have to regard the positives as being as important, the fact that the societal tensions are quite low, the fact that there's been this evolution in alliance building, you know, the fact that you don't really have a major Kikuyu candidate, and the strength of institutions as compared to 2007-2008; most institutions are stronger than they were at that time and that possibly will help.

Richard 33:38
And I mean, Murithi, you talked a little bit about the 2017 elections. It's true that they weren't violent in the same way that the 2007 elections were, but there was a sort of protracted political crisis afterwards. There was certainly some violence as Raila disputed the result. And that time around, the judiciary played this sort of very prominent role. Raila went to the courts and the courts ruled, actually, that the election had to be held again, right. They overturned the result, which was sort of unprecedented for a judiciary in Africa. Is that seen as something positive that the judiciary’s so strong and independent? Or was that judicial overreach? How much is the judiciary a sort of safeguard? And if people feel that they can resolve their issues in the courts, is that a safeguard against sort of taking to the streets?

Murithi 34:22
That's a really important point, Richard. And just, as I mentioned, there was a lot of reform following the 2007 and 2008 political crises. I think there are lessons to be drawn from many post-conflict countries, to the extent that the degree of reform in Kenya – a whole new constitution, endorsed by referendum, mostly fashioned by the people themselves through barazas or conferences at the local level – was unprecedented. And the judiciary is really the crown jewel of the changes that came in after that. They changed it around so that the judges were no longer appointed by the president. You have an independent Judicial Service Commission that picks the senior judges, the interviews for chief justice are conducted in public and televised. Then you've had more independent ways of funding the judiciary so that they're not at the mercy of the executive, although the executive still does try to tinker with that. And so the stronger judiciary is really a big safeguard of democracy in Kenya. They've shown in 2017 – whatever people might think about the merits and demerits of the judgement – they showed their capacity to be independent. I think that was really important. I think it was also important that Kenya survived that moment, despite the outrage within the executive. So that judiciary is a big safeguard. The hope, again, is that at the next election, as we've said in some of our reporting at Crisis Group, that it's important that any candidate that opposes the result goes to court rather than to the street. One hopes that will be the case. But yes, a strong judiciary has been very important and I think it's a lesson too for the rest of the region as a way of peacefully adjudicating disputes. 

Richard 36:23
And, as you say, the judiciary, the judicial reform, the independence of the judiciary was one of the big changes put in place in this big constitutional overhaul after the 2007-2008 crisis. And Murithi, one of the other things that was done at the time was sort of trying to reduce the reforms aimed at sort of reducing the zero sum nature of presidential contests, that so much power was vested in the executive and in the state house in Nairobi. And one of the things that was rolled out to address that was devolution, decentralisation, so putting more power and resources in Kenya’s counties at a local level, spreading things around a bit so the stakes of presidential elections weren't quite so high. Do you want to say a word or two about how that has worked and how that’s shaped Kenyan politics since then? 

Murithi 37:23
So the quest for constitutional change in Kenya was very much driven by what the opposition branded an imperial presidency. And so, when you look at the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, his successor, Daniel Moi, as well, they could just decide by executive fiat, which parts of the country would get roads, which ones would not, where resources for education and health would be located. And especially under Moi, when politics became competitive, national resources became a tool to reward or punish whole communities, regions and groups for the way they voted. And so, the big change, as you mentioned, in the 2010 constitution, was to create a system of devolved power. And, you know, devolution is a subject that's been debated in many parts of the world, but when implemented in the right way, it can help to limit the scale of tension within a country and to help to create a bigger sense of fairness among groups that feel excluded. So basically, the 2010 constitution devolution model created what I would call a “winner takes more”, rather than a “winner takes all” system. And so yes, you're right, the presidency remains important and remains quite powerful. Some even say that's a good thing, because, you know, in a developing country you do need a level of executive leadership. But that presidency is very much less powerful than it was, to the extent that in this devolved system of government, what you have is elections at the local level – there are 47 counties – so you have sub-national elections, where you elect a governor and county assembly representatives, that then are allocated a set amount of the overall budget, which they then have the freedom to decide how to use at the local level for education, for health, for local infrastructure. And so that's been a huge change. It's helped, I think, create more peaceful politics. It has helped to make elites across the country feel they're more represented. 

Richard 39:21
So Murithi, traditionally the arguments against devolution are sort of that it can also sort of shift not just devolved power and resources, but also potentially devolve violent contestation around the local power and resources, and potentially also devolve corruption and potentially sort of strengthen secessionist sentiment. But your sense in Kenya is that those fears sort of haven't been borne out, that overall it's been a net positive?

Murithi 39:55
So, Richard, that's a really important point to the extent that how much to decentralise, whether to decentralise, is at the heart, I would say, of a lot of the conflicts we see in the region. And so, the tragic war, the civil war in Ethiopia, you know, the question of decentralisation has been really really at the heart of it. Sudan's perennial instability has been underpinned and again the secession of South Sudan was really about the degree to which you remove power from the centre to the peripheries. And, you know, it's striking that the Horn of Africa is the only part of the continent where you've had two secessions with Eritrea, again having broken away from Ethiopia after a very bitter fight that partly flowed from the mistakes from the emperor’s age when they excessively centralised and didn't recognise, you know, the determination for greater autonomy in Eritrea. So the question of devolution, decentralisation is really important. It is a debate that's going on in places like Uganda,  Zanzibar has been trying to break away from mainland Tanzania for a long time. I think there's some lessons to be drawn from Kenya: one is that it has to be actual devolution when it comes to, you know, the fiscal decentralisation. And so, I think that the way the designers of the constitution made it so that the president has no choice in the matter – you have an independent commission that determines the allocation to every county, depending on need, depending on population, depending on geographic size – has been really important. I would say, a bit cynically, that the smaller size of the devolved units has helped as well. Because sometimes when you have massive devolved units, you know, you do sometimes tend to provoke the secessionist tendencies you mentioned. So that design has helped. In Kenya, it's geographic rather than ethnic decentralisation. You do, of course, have quite a few devolved units that tend to be mostly mono-ethnic, but it's mostly geographic. It followed the patterns of the districts that were in place in the early 1990s. So you have 47 devolved units. And so I think it has given elites across the country a stake in the management of the country. We don't hear too much about a secessionist movement that was very active on the coast anymore. We don't hear too much about the north of Kenya trying to break away, and I think devolution has been really important. Secondly, on the question of corruption: yes, indeed, there have been questions about accountability at the local level. But the thing is that there were still huge levels of corruption at the centre. You know, people feel that even if there is a bit of corruption at the local level, there is a degree to which you're getting more and more services, you know, it's much better than having nothing. All the, you know, graft, you know, centred, you know, within the presidency as it was in the past. And I know this is a very hard-nosed take, I would say without question, devolution has been a net positive. I think the way Kenya has rolled it out holds lessons for other countries, emphasising that context matters and, you know, every context will be different.

Richard 43:31
So interesting. And this probably sounds very wonky, but as you say it’s just such a crucial question for many countries in the Horn and other places too. Murithi, the relationship between Nairobi and the regions, centre-periphery relations, is obviously not the only way you can sort of spread power around and introduce new checks and balances. After the 2007 election, in that big reform process, Kenyans decided against stripping more power from the presidency and sort of creating the post of prime minister. But, from what I understand over the past couple of years, Uhuru and Raila, since they’ve been united, have been trying to embark on another round of constitutional reform aimed at doing just that, aimed at creating a prime minister, potentially more constituencies sort of to shift away from the presidential system. And one interpretation of these efforts is that it is executive overreach. Maybe even sort of a way for Uhuru to stay influential. And actually the reforms were stopped by the courts, by the judiciary. But a more generous interpretation might be that it was a way to, again, spread more power around, reducing further the stakes of Kenyan politics not just through devolution, but also through new checks and balances in the capital. I mean, what do you make of arguments about moving away from the stronger presidency in that way as well?

Murithi 45:00
I have sympathy for that perspective. I think the principal problem with what this effort to change the constitution, the Building Bridges Initiative as it came to be known, was not so much the primary intent, which is to spread the power around a little more, maybe create a Tanzania style prime minister that, in the Kenyan context, would allow you to then have the presidency and the deputy president, maybe a prime minister, a deputy prime Minister, from different parts of the country. There is some merit to that argument. The problem was the way in which it was conducted. The constitution in Kenya, the way it was conceived and crafted, it is a people's document. Unlike many parts of the region, where it was either colonial imposition or an imposition by victorious rebel groups, the constitution in Kenya was drawn from the people and the way it should be changed is very specific – either through legislative amendment or by a popular initiative. I think the problem with the Uhuru and Raila initiative was more about the method than the substance. And so, the judges found that they decided to allocate themselves the powers that are allocated to ordinary Kenyans. They pushed it in a way that also inserted a lot of pork barrel politics, promising new constituencies, different ways of spreading resources around, you know, from the way the constitution is formulated, trying to weaken the judiciary. So they loaded too much into it. If they had been honest enough, and maybe framed it just the way you framed the question and kept it really simple, then there's a chance that it might have been more successful. But a very quick caveat, though, is the other criticism of spreading power around in ways that you might end up with non-competitive politics, because then you have an alliance essentially of the big four or five ethnic groups; a criticism of that is the “Lebanon problem” that you might have an elite that then doesn't feel the need to go to the people. And there's a strong critique within Kenya that you better have competitive politics than politics informed by some sort of consociational power sharing among the elite.

Richard 47:16
Let me ask one more point about the elections, Murithi. And then I also want to ask something about views in Nairobi of what's happening in Ukraine. But before we do that, one of the things that we've often spoken about, and one of the things we would like the candidates to do this time around, is – some sort of pre-election pact is probably too strong a word – but some commitment that the winner doesn't go too much after the loser. But obviously, there's also a perception that there's tremendous corruption in Kenyan politics. You know, a lot of Kenyan leaders own vast amounts of land. I mean, inequality is a huge issue. So how do you balance a sort of call for that type of agreement before the elections with demands by many Kenyans for steps to tackle corruption and for accountability?

Murithi 48:13
So I think it's really important, given the power they have over their constituencies, given their command of very large support bases that, especially Ruto and Raila, try and lower the volume ahead of the election, that they come together, at least have some sort of handshake, say that they will abide by the electoral code of conduct, that they will avoid attacking each other too much, that they will accept the results or challenge them in the courts. We've seen this sort of rough agreement help, even in countries where you had very contentious elections. In Nigeria, for example, I think in 2015, we saw the major candidates make this sort of commitment. We don't have quite the same political culture as in places like Ghana, in Kenya; where in Ghana you might have an election where the winner takes it by one percentage point and, you know, the loser concedes. That culture doesn't exist. I think it's really important that the major candidates come out to say that, you know, life goes on after the election. That would help. I don't think there would be a contradiction between that and what, you know, you're right to say, is politics dominated by money, governments involved in very high levels of corruption. I think it would just be a gesture to supporters to say that it's not a life and death matter, we'll have to live together after the election, and especially that the winner will treat the loser and the outgoing president with grace and dignity.

Richard 49:41
So let me end then, Murithi, by asking a little bit about the sort of perceptions in Nairobi of  Ukraine and Russia's invasion of its neighbour. Kenya is such an interesting country for this. As you know, the permanent representative, the ambassador to the UN, made this very impassioned speech in the Security Council sort of shortly after the invasion started. And yet, very quickly, his comments seemed to be kind of walked back by Nairobi. There is this sort of sense now that Ukraine, because of the support it's getting from the West, that the invasion isn't seen in those sort of neo-imperial terms that the Kenyan Ambassador portrayed it initially in the Security Council, and that because of the support from the West, Ukraine's finding it difficult to muster support in countries like Kenya – Kenya being an important one, because it's so sort of influential in the region.

Murithi 50:40
So the way Kenya has responded to the crisis in Ukraine has been very mixed. Yes, we did see the very articulate and strong presentation by Ambassador Martin Kimani at the United Nations, which echoed around the world and was very significant, and which represented a very important sentiment within Kenya to the extent that you don't want to encourage irredentist wars, you want to respect the borders as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, just because even if you're discontented with those borders, you know, the alternative is perpetual conflict. And so there was sympathy for this Ukrainian perspective right from the start. But you're right, to the extent that Kenya also, like many countries on the continent, like many in the Global South, perceives this, unfortunately, primarily not as a conflict between Ukraine and a bigger power, Russia, but between the West and Russia. And so the instinct is very much in the direction of being non-aligned and not taking sides. And so, you know, we saw requests from the Ukrainian prime minister, according to the media, to address the Kenyan parliament that was quietly turned down. We've seen Kenya very assiduously try to cultivate the middle ground and not appear to be taking sides too heavily. Richard, I would say a couple of things about this: I think we need to recognise, and I think this has been a mistake in some of the commentaries, but also some of the approaches from actors like the European Union and others that are normally quite astute, not to expect a monolith or a single response from a continent with multiple countries, with diverse interests. And so, as we have written in our coverage in Crisis Group, that those countries which have genuine respect for what the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, in their own struggles with apartheid regimes in southern Africa and not just, you know, rhetorical support but actually sending troops. And so in places like Tanzania, in South Africa, in Mozambique and much of southern Africa, you can't discount the degree of lingering gratitude for this support. And then you will have countries in the Sahel, some of which will have much more situational, much more opportunistic, one would say, reasons for gratitude to Moscow because of perceived support in their battles against the jihadists that have been cutting across that region. You will have, as I said, countries like Kenya that still want to maintain a non-aligned posture. And then you have countries like Ethiopia, whose relations with the Russians goes back to the age of the Tsar. You have relations between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. You have more recent Russian support for Prime Minister Abiy’s government, as it fought its internal civil wars. And then you have the Eritreans that are very discontented with the Americans. And so I think it's a mistake to ask for a coherent united African position. I think it's important for people to communicate with each other, understand each other's concerns. At the beginning of this, much of the West was surprised at the African ambivalence at the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, and much of Africa was surprised that the West was surprised, because, you know, clearly they had not been listening. As Gérard Araud outlined very well on your podcast, at the level of grievance, at the way the West behaved in its moment of unipolar power, at things like Libya where, you know, whatever you might think of Muammar Gaddafi, it was seen as a subversion of UN resolutions, as regime change, you know, by a very unilateral West. And so, the upshot of it is that it's complicated. There is a diversity of views. I think nobody should aspire to have one view, except to say that, you know, the Ukrainians, of course, need to make their own case, and they've been trying to make that case, that they are the victims of a unilateral aggression, whatever you might think of any other disputes. This conflict has wrought such terrible pain on Ukraine, but also elsewhere in terms of the global economic shocks. But if it is increasingly seen as NATO and the West against the Russians, the instinct overwhelmingly in much of the Global South will be to straddle a middle line and try and be non-aligned.

Richard 55:50
And Murithi, I mean, just to ask about the commodities crisis: I mean, you mentioned obviously for Ruto, his big line is on the economy, and you mentioned that, you know, with food prices and other commodities prices going up, you know, that's put the squeeze even more on Kenyans, that Kenyans are feeling that. The commodities crisis has a number of quite complicated causes. Obviously, there's the Russian blockade of the Black Sea, which means that a lot of the Ukrainian grain can't get out. There's the sanctions, which Russian grain isn't sanctioned, but the sanctions do mean that it's difficult for Russian ships to be insured, some of the payments are more difficult. President Putin himself appears to be withholding some, not food, but some fertiliser and then blaming the sanctions. And then many countries around the world have themselves imposed export bans on grain, fearing what's to come. Plus, of course, the pandemic and some of the challenges that that posed for supply lines. So there's a whole bunch of reasons behind the commodities crisis, even if Russia's invasion of Ukraine has underpinned it. But, I mean, how do you think the commodities crisis is sort of understood in Nairobi?

Murithi 56:51
It's interesting because Kenya has a lively media environment. And we've seen over the last couple of months very sharp op-eds by the Russian ambassador and the European Union ambassadors and envoys blaming each other. I would say that the elite tend to try not to assign blame particularly, except to say that it's a global problem and “don't blame me” – that's what Kenyatta has said directly. He says: “You know, it's the war in Ukraine. It's not my business”. But for the political elite, they tend to focus on the domestic issue and the various commentators internally say that we've been warning that the country needs to be more careful to prepare for shocks, to build up its capacity and its forex reserves. I wouldn't say that there's a neat alignment in terms of, you know, whether it's the Russians or Western sanctions, of course, the main thing is that, you know, very few countries outside, you know, the West and major allies, like South Korea and Japan, have gone along with the sanctions.  But it's an internal debate. There hasn't been too much debate about, you know, the wider issue of who is to blame. There's a constant striving for the non-alignment position, which I understand some people view as, you know, morally decrepit. But it's a deeply felt instinct to be non-aligned in this part of the world and, yeah, so among the elite, you don't really see too much debate.

Richard 58:31
Muruthi, thanks so much for coming on.

Murithi 58:34
Thanks. Thanks, Richard.

Richard 58:38
Hold Your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I'm Richard Atwood. You can find all of our work on Kenya – we actually just put out a paper last week and I'm sure there's going to be more to come – on our website, You can also follow us on Twitter, @CrisisGroup. We have transcripts for our shows if you want to reference or check up on anything you've heard today or in some of the previous episodes. That should make it easier. They're also on our website. Thanks to our producers, Sam Mednick, Kevin Murphy and Finn Johnson. And thanks, of course, to all of our listeners. Please do get in touch. You can write to me directly at [email protected] or use the [email protected] address if you have any suggestions. If you like the show, please do leave us a positive rating or review. Next week, we are probably going to look again at Ukraine. We're going to look at the Finnish and Swedish application for NATO, and some of Turkey's objections to that, and whether those can be resolved ahead of the NATO meeting at the end of the month. And we're going to look at European security more broadly. So I very much hope that you all tune in for that.


Executive Vice President
Program Director, Africa

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