Do-or-die presidential elections in Kenya

by Paul Ogendi*
Kenyan activists hold signs to call for a peaceful presidential election, in front of the venue where the country's first ever presidential debate is being held in Nairobi, Kenya, 11 February 2013. Photo by EPA/DAI KUROKAWA; AJStream’s Flickr.
Why pretend? The fact remains that in Kenya, like in most countries, elections are a big deal. The power, privileges, resources, big titles and the comparatively good life that comes with being a political figure is something to envy. Unfortunately, it does not come easy. Sometimes, the quest for power ends tragically!

Kenyans in particular, are a special people when it comes to politics. Kenya’s distinguishing factor is that presidential elections are regarded as a do-or-die affair. This means that come 5 March 2013, a day after the presidential elections, some communities will be celebrating their victory while others morning their failure. This is assuming that they do not harm each other as was in the infamous post-election violence (PEV) of 2007/08. The PEV claimed the lives of over 1000 Kenyans, displaced hundreds of thousands, and caused destruction of millions worth of property.

Pundits regard the 2013 elections as the mother of all elections in the entire electoral history of Kenya. The 2012 elections are unique for four reasons. First, they are the first general elections being conducted under the new Constitution which was promulgated on 27 August 2010; secondly, one of the leading coalitions may have both of its flag bearer and running mate before the International Criminal Court (ICC); thirdly, these elections are being conducted by a newly established Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) complete with inexperienced Commissioners (as far as conducting presidential elections is concerned); lastly, the main contenders in this year’s elections have rekindled historical memories of the bitter rivalry between the founding father of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

While the campaigns have largely been peaceful, some concerns have emerged which threaten a repeat of the 2007/08 PEV. First, tribalism has continued to dominate the political terrain and discourse. Virtually all the coalitions were formed and are driven on the basis of tribes. Consequently, the presidential elections are a tribal contest! If not managed properly, Kenyans could once again turn against each other for voting against their tribes.

Secondly, the recent intimidation of the judiciary has challenged their capacity to resolve election disputes. An illegal criminal gang, Mungiki, wrote a letter to the Kenyan Chief Justice threatening judges who decide against their presidential aspirants. No arrests have been made concerning this intimidation. This reflects that impunity in Kenya is still alive!

Thirdly, pockets of violence have been observed across the country. In one of the incidents, a coalition campaign event was attacked by rowdy youths who have since been arraigned in court. An official of a coalition had his windscreen smashed in the ongoing March 2013 election campaigns. These are all indicators of a brewing violence which should be curbed before the situation escalates.

Fourthly, one coalition may have both of its contenders at Hague attending their hearing before the ICC. This might present an awkward position for the presidential elections in Kenya. Their sympathisers may resort to violence or abscond from the run-offs in protest. The ensuing scenario might lead to a long-term instability in the country especially if the opposing coalition is elected without the participation of their opponent’s supporters.

Lastly, the capacity of the IEBC to resolve complex electoral disputes is doubted considering that they were unable to disqualify candidates who were culprits during the recent shambolic nominations exercise conducted by political parties. Kenyans must not allow another 2007/08 PEV. Let’s all observe and maintain peace during these elections period. God bless and protect Kenya!




Paul Ogendi holds a masters degree in human rights and democratisation in Africa from the University of Pretoria, Centre for Human Rights. He was also a research assistant in the now defunct Independent Review Electoral Commission (Kreigler Commission).


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