Kenya's Crisis of Legitimacy
On Jan. 30, Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga was symbolically sworn in as the “People’s President” in the capital city of Nairobi. Holding a bible and white flag of peace high in the air, Odinga pledged to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution.” Thousands witnessed the brief ceremony, but it was seen by very few outside of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park.
Hours earlier, several major TV stations had their broadcast signals cut off by the state for covering the event, which the ruling party had deemed an act of treason. By the end of the day, Odinga’s national resistance movement was declared a criminal organization through a government decree.
What are the implications of this public act of defiance? It takes place amid an intense political battle that has been waged at the ballot box, on the streets and in Kenya’s supreme court for the past five months, and to answer, we need to contextualize the ongoing electoral crisis within the nation’s authoritarian past.
Since August, Kenya has been embroiled in the most protracted electoral crisis in the nation’s history. Protests on the street and petitions to the Supreme Court have tested Kenya’s new constitutional order and crippled East Africa’s largest economy. Allegations of corruption and vote rigging have been dismissed by the ruling elite as acts of political desperation. However, reports from civil society and global watchdog organizations detail how dissent has been silenced with deadly force.
On Aug. 8, Kenyans went to the polls and cast their ballot for six elected officials, including the president. Incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and his opponent Odinga drew diverse support from across the country within their respective Jubilee and National Super Alliance, or NASA, coalitions, in a rematch of the 2013 election. The vote was peaceful and key international observers were quick to give their approval. However, many claimed the warning signs of electoral interference were pushed aside in favor of forceful “peace narratives” and a hasty resolution to prevent the catalysts that triggered past violence.
When Kenyatta was declared the presidential winner, the opposition responded immediately. Supporters took to the streets to protest. In clashes with police in opposition strongholds in the capital Nairobi and parts of Western Kenya, dozens were reportedly killed. Eventually the NASA coalition submitted their detailed complaintsabout electoral fraud to the Supreme Court.
On Sept. 1, the Kenyan Supreme Court became the first judiciary on the African continent to annul a presidential election. Within minutes of the ruling, the tense campaign season was reignited as Kenyans warily prepared for a repeat election.
On Oct. 26, Kenyatta seemingly won a landslide re-election victory. More than 98 percent of the votes cast went to the incumbent, but there was one problem: Only 39 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, as opposed to nearly 80 percent in August. In protest of the failure to implement electoral reforms, opposition supporters overwhelming stayed home. On election day nearly 40 percent of constituencies reported less than 20 percent voter turnout, and four counties did not hold elections at all.
Judicial rulings and international calls for dialogue since October have done little to bridge a deep political divide. So how did Kenya arrive at this crucial impasse, and how does the nation’s 60 year old democracy move forward? The key is addressing the legacy of historical injustice which continues to influence contemporary Kenyan politics.
Dynastic Politics and Historical Injustice
Kenyans went to the polls in 2017 with claims of both historical injustice and contemporary politics influencing the vote. Kenyatta, 56, and Odinga 72, seemingly represent different generational constituencies, but their struggle is very much rooted in enduring debates about decolonization. As sons of Kenya’s first president and vice president, two political dynasties squared off in a familiar contest that Kenyans have been witnessing since the 1960s.
From independence in 1963 until 2002, Kenya was ruled by just one political party, the Kenya African National Union, or KANU, and by two presidents. Uhuru Kenyatta was barely two years old when his father and independence leader Jomo Kenyatta assumed the presidency. Raila’s father, Oginga Odinga, served as Kenyatta Sr.’s first vice president until ideological differences led to his he resignation in 1966. This schism led to Kenya’s first repressive crackdown on dissent and a 22-year period of one-party rule.
The KANU era represents a dark period of authoritarianism, where the power of the president was supreme, dissent was checked with violent repression, and economic development was reserved disproportionately for regions loyal to the ruling party. Those who attempted to challenge this system, including Raila Odinga, were often detained and violently attacked by the state. Both Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy president William Ruto were beneficiaries of the patronage system which ensured KANU’s electoral supremacy.
2017 marked the sixth set of national elections since domestic and international pressure forced the end of Kenya’s one-party state in 1991. However, incumbent elections in 1992, 1997, and 2007 were all linked to high levels of state-sponsored political violence. In 2007-2008 more than 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 internally displaced, with Odinga and Kenyatta on opposite sides of a violent electoral divide. And over the past decade, attempts by local courts and the International Criminal Court have all failed to bring any of the top perpetrators to justice.
Kenya’s Democratic Future?
Hours before his controversial symbolic swearing-in, Odinga claimed that Kenyatta represented a “return of an authoritarian, imperial presidency.” Odinga’s critics argue his unconstitutional attempt to create a parallel presidency is an act of treason. Where does this leave Kenya’s democracy moving forward?
Critics of the ruling party claim that Kenyatta is taking the country back to the dark days of KANU-style authoritarianism. During the election season, peaceful protests were often dispersed with water cannons, tear gas, and sometimes live ammunition. Civil society groups and the media have also come under attack by the state. On Jan. 26, Kenyatta reportedly summoned the heads of the major media houses to the state house and warned them not to cover Odinga’s swearing-in ceremony, in the name of maintaining law and order. When media houses ignored Kenyatta’s warning, their local TV signals were switched off by the state.
Supporters of Odinga have few options moving forward. Kenyatta’s party maintains majority control of Kenya’s legislature and shows little commitment to reconciliation and reform. Fractures within the opposition have also emerged. Odinga was sworn in without his running mate and other “co-principles,” suggesting to some that his coalition is falling apart. At 72, this was likely Odinga’s last chance at the presidency. After losing the presidential race for the fourth time, his disenfranchised supporters are beginning to look for other options.
When incumbent president Kenyatta took the oath of office on Nov. 28, he reminded Kenyans that the “the election we have just concluded is probably one of the longest ever held in our continent’s history…..Today’s inauguration, therefore, marks the end of our electoral process. The elections are now firmly behind us.”
Two months after the inauguration, the stakes remain high and calls for dialogue, reform, and reconciliation are needed for the nation to move forward. This requires bringing two political dynasties to the bargaining table to discuss both the past and present. Without addressing issues of contemporary and historical injustice, the next presidential election in 2022 may bring more of the same.