Kenya’s Election Crisis: The Trials and Tribulations of an African Democracy

In an unprecedented move in September of 2017, the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified the Presidential election that took place less than a month earlier. It was the first time an election has been invalidated in a democratic African nation, a sign of pro-democracy reform and judicial independence. Four of the six voting judges agreed that the August election was “neither transparent or verifiable;” they found that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had failed to account for polling data from over 11,000 separate polling stations throughout Kenya. To the judges, the election irregularities clearly indicated that the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta was not the indisputable victor. The Court ordered a new election to take place within sixty days, to settle whether or not President Kenyatta’s 54% victory over opposition leader Raila Odinga’s 44% was, in fact, a victory.

Female voters in Kenya’s 2017 Election /

Since the Court’s initial ruling, the situation in Kenya has devolved into a full-blown crisis. Although the rerun was held on October 26th, there is little faith that the results of this election will be any more authentic than the results of the first. After the disputed election, opposition candidate Odinga offered a list of demands to the IEBC. He asked that the officials who muddled the original election be replaced, along with the company that provided ballot papers and voter verification kits, in order to ensure free and fair elections. The IEBC made no such changes.

Citing the inaction of the IEBC, Odinga withdrew himself from the upcoming election on October 10th, stating that he was pulling out in consideration of “ the interests of the people of Kenya, the region, and the world at large.” Arguably, however, Odinga’s move may have less to do with the malpractice, and more to do with the fact that his coalition is dangerously low on funds. By withdrawing himself, Odinga can “maintain his legacy as a veteran fighter for democratic reforms and for having instigated the Supreme Court’s historic ruling,” rather than being reduced to just another failed Presidential candidate.

Odinga’s actions add another layer of complexity to the situation. His withdrawal prompted the Court to step in once again, to determine which candidates should be allowed to run in the re-election; in the end, all eight original candidates were put back on the ballot. In addition, because Odinga refused to submit the paperwork to officially withdraw (in protest, of course), his name remained on the ballot for the upcoming election. Thus, even though Odinga has unofficially conceded, his supporters might pull votes from Kenyatta. If Kenyatta is unable to reach the 50% cutoff, Kenya will be facing yet another election, this time a runoff between the two leading candidates.

Before that happens, Kenya must first survive the current election. Already the streets resemble the chaos of the 2007. Disputed elections that year sparked protests, where protesters were met with tear gas and live ammunition, leading to the deaths of over a thousand and the displacement of six hundred thousand more. In the lead up to and aftermath of the 2017 election however, only three have died so far in clashes between protesters and law enforcement, but after the election results are announced (and are likely denounced) more deaths and injuries are sure follow.

Kenyan opposition leader Odinga /

Odinga supporters are particularly enraged because the unverifiable rerun was nearly avoided. Two days before the scheduled election date, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition to stop the election, a petition based on the statements of two prominent election officials. One Roselyn Akombe, a member of the electoral commission, fled to New York after receiving death threats. She argued that “it [is] impossible, at this point, to hold a credible election next week.” In addition, the current top election official Wafula Chebukati warned that he would not “truly be confident of the possibility of having a credible presidential election” now, or anytime in the near future. Their testimonies, combined with Odinga’s withdrawal, convinced the Court to reevaluate the situation. However, for unknown and rather suspicious reasons, only two of the seven judges appeared to hear the case. Because they lacked quorum, the case was thrown out and the election was set to proceed.  

Now Kenya is in the midst of a crisis with no clear way out. The opposing sides refuse to come to any sort of compromise, leaving the people to fight it out on the streets. Those who are not protesting are staying home from the polls to wait out the violence. But the election will not be the end; no matter which side comes out on top, the opposition party will likely revolt. It is up to the candidates themselves to preserve the Kenyan democracy. If all major candidates can agree to hold another new election, contingent on changes in the electoral commission, Kenya may ultimately see a free and fair election. If, however, the candidates and IEBC are unable to put aside partisan political interests, the political stability of Kenya will be, and remain, compromised.

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