A cross-party parliamentary committee in Kenya ruled earlier this week that officials serving on the country’s electoral commission are to stand down as the country heads towards a general election in August 2017.  The ruling brings to an end a tense stand-off between the incumbent Jubilee government and Kenya’s opposition coalition, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD).  At least four people were killed earlier this year as CORD supporters conducted a series of almost weekly protests calling for reforms to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission on the grounds that it favoured the Jubilee government and acted fraudulently during previous polls. The violence was met with a brutal crackdown by police who fired tear gas and live rounds to break up demonstrations. Protesters largely from Nairobi’s Kibera slum converged on the city centre and businesses were forced to close.  But the unrest was most pronounced in western Kenya, an opposition stronghold, hitting the town of Kisumu and others areas including Busia, Kakamega, Migori and Siaya.

In a further spate of unrest in June protesters took to the streets of Kisumu without warning to oppose the decision of a Nairobi court to imprison seven members of parliament and a senator over allegations of incitement to violence. Although those implicated spanned both sides of the political divide CORD supporters alleged unfair treatment of their representatives.  Protesters burnt tyres and blocked key roads throughout Kisumu.  According to local sources, groups of youths stopped cars and passengers and asked people for their identification cards in order to verify which ethnic group they belonged to.

After a relatively peaceful general election in 2013 the recent unrest and accompanying police brutality has echoed scenes from the disastrous polls held almost nine years ago in December 2007 which led to a bloody political and ethnic conflict across large swathes of the country.  More than 1,100 people were killed and at least 500,000 others displaced from their homes when the disputed election result escalated into two-months of bloodshed. CORD’s leader, Raila Odinga, who then led the Orange Democratic Movement party, and the former president, Mwai Kibaki, eventually reach a power-sharing agreement after the international community had intervened.

Besides the humanitarian consequences, the mass bloodshed in 2008 – which followed similar electoral violence in the Rift Valley in 2002 – had a disastrous impact on Kenya’s thriving economy.  Annual GDP growth slowed from well above 7 per cent to just 1.7 per cent in 2008.  Foreign direct investment also plummeted 75 per cent from more than 700 million US dollars in 2007 to around 180 million the following year.  The 2017 elections come at a pivotal time for Kenya as it builds on a strong economic recovery and opens up investment opportunities in its extractive industries and technology sector.  At the end of the month Nairobi will host the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) Summit, the first to be held in Africa in its 20-year history, and Nairobi will welcome several heads of state and global business leaders.  But Kenya is also facing stiff competition for investment from its regional rivals.  Earlier this year it lost out to its southern neighbour Tanzania which secured an oil pipeline deal with Uganda. With international investors wary of the poor security situation the deal saw Uganda backtrack on an earlier agreement with Nairobi to route the pipeline through northern Kenya.  A few miles up the coast from Dar es Salaam Tanzania is also currently building a new port in Bagamoyo – set to be the largest in the East Africa – which will represent a significant rival to Mombasa as a trade hub for the region.

This week’s report by the parliamentary committee has addressed a key issue for Kenya’s political opposition and will come as some relief to investors.  The outcome was welcomed by Odinga and goes a long way towards diffusing tensions, particularly in western Kenya and other opposition strongholds where citizens would likely have taken to the streets again if their demands had not been met. However, although calm has been restored in recent weeks, Kenya continues to face many of the same fault lines that have led to violence at previous polls. The politicians charged with incitement to violence in June are just one sign of the depth of ethnic grievances that remain across Kenya and the lengths its leaders are willing to go to in order to win votes. Political and ethnic incitement remains commonplace, not just in political circles but also among the electorate, and is particularly pronounced on social media where the authorities have struggled to implement any controls.  Kenya is also reeling from the failed investigations by the International Criminal Court into the post-election violence of 2008. The Hague court’s investigations not only deepened political and ethnic rivalries as President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy faced crimes against humanity charges but his rival, Odinga, did not, but all six cases brought in The Hague collapsed and no one has been held accountable for the horror.  The outstanding legacy is one of impunity and Kenya itself has failed to try thousands of cases related to electoral violence in its own courts.

New Sources of Tension

Besides Kenya’s entrenched political and ethnic divisions, fresh tensions have already surfaced between rival opposition groups just under a year out from the polls. Amid rising tension, Odinga conducted a tour of the western region last month in an effort to shore up support and he is likely to return to the area in the coming days as he seeks to unite different opposition factions behind his presidential bid.  If he wins the nomination Odinga will be fighting his fourth presidential campaign but his lack of universal appeal in opposition areas could lead to unrest even before official campaigning begins.  Among other hopefuls, the senator for Bungoma County, Moses Wetangula, has launched his own presidential bid and Odinga has come under pressure to back alternative candidates such as Musalia Mudavadi. Multiple challengers for the CORD presidential nomination looks set to increase the stakes between rival groups of supporters in the coming months.

The 2017 elections will also present a new challenge for Kenya. The polls will be the first in which elected county governors will be vying to defend their seats. Governors are a cornerstone of Kenya’s new devolved governance system that was voted in as part of the new constitution in 2010 and rolled out after the 2013 election.  Candidates will undertake what is likely to be a tense nominations process in April and May next year before the vote in August.  Over the last four years the role and considerable powers of county governors have become clear, significantly raising the stakes at the local level.  Some governors have already called for incumbents to forego the nominations process and retain their party tickets, arguing they have spent much of their time in office getting to grips with their role.  With challengers amassing their own rival sets of supporters at the local level the authorities will be challenged to maintain calm.

Robust and Transparent Procedures

Much of the attention on the 2017 election has focused on the familiar ethnic and political dynamics surrounding the vote and their potential to trigger violence, but less has been made of Kenya’s physical voting infrastructure. In 2013 the electoral commission deployed biometric identification voting kits and an electronic counting system, both of which badly malfunctioned and undermined the electoral process.  Laptops delivered to rural locations ran out of battery early in the first few hours of polling and officials had to revert to a manual counting system at the eleventh hour when the SMS vote-relaying system failed. During the counting process the number of spoiled ballots was erroneously multiplied by a factor of eight, badly denting voter confidence.  Peace prevailed throughout the results process but the gross failures gave the opposition reason to challenge the outcome through the courts.

At a general election sudden delays in the voting or results process can be interpreted as undue interference.  Such instances can quickly be misconstrued by leaders and the electorate, or both, triggering breaches of the peace, particularly in opposition strongholds.  To avoid a repeat of past violence Kenya needs to ensure a transparent election procedure; and that means having an accurate register of voters and functional equipment.  But less than a year out from the 2017 polls the signs are not good. By-elections held in two constituencies in March this year demonstrated that several of these problems are still to be ironed out.  In Kericho in the Rift Valley there were discrepancies between the electronic and the manual voter registers, with voters’ names appearing on one list but not the other. Some polling stations in Kericho also flouted regulations by failing to use transparent ballot boxes and accusations of ballot stuffing duly followed.  Meanwhile in the coastal constituency of Malindi the vote-count was delayed leading to widespread allegations of foul play. In June, during ward by-elections in Siaya and Nandi counties, things were not much better.  Problems with the IEBC’s results transmission system meant that officials had to physically collect the results from each polling station.

Kenya’s entrenched ethnic divisions, widespread incitement to violence and historical impunity for electoral crimes means in 2017 the country risks a repeat of the violence witnessed at previous elections.  But much depends on the country’s leaders; if they can recognise the risks and the authorities ensure that the mechanics of the vote run smoothly, violence can be avoided.  In 2013 Odinga called on his supporters to respect the decision of Kenya’s Supreme Court over his election challenge.  The former prime minister lost and his supporters largely remained calm. Similarly, in protests held earlier this year, CORD’s calls to take to the streets on successive Mondays and to suspend protests during talks with Jubilee were largely respected.  But if key elements of the ballot and vote-counting fail and leaders use their supporters to stoke tensions, Kenya will struggle to avoid the violence that has often marred previous elections.

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