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Severin Wirz: Corruption scandals, threats of violence are backdrop to Kenya’s August presidential election

On August 8, Kenya’s 19.7 million registered voters will head to the polls in a much-anticipated general election. Although the country will vote on more than 1,800 offices across 47 counties, by far the most-watched seat is for the presidency. 

According to one recent poll, current president Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, has a slight 5 point edge over four-time challenger Raila Odinga. In a separate poll conducted last week, Odinga is beating Kenyatta by 1 percent. 

But in speaking to Kenyans of various political persuasions over the last few months, many have told me that for them the outcome of the election has never truly been in question — that Uhuru Kenyatta will remain president of Kenya over the next five years. The only real question is what will happen immediately after the election, and whether the country will once more fall victim to post-election bloodshed.

While electoral violence has been common in Kenya since the introduction of multi-party politics in 1991, anxiety about the upcoming election stems largely from Kenya’s more recent past. During the 2007 election, Odinga lost in his second presidential bid to incumbent Mwai Kibaki in an election that was tainted by wide ranging allegations of fraud and vote-rigging. 

Within minutes of the announcement of Kibaki’s victory, violence erupted in major cities across the country, igniting ethnic tensions over a period of several months between Luos who overwhelmingly supported Odinga and Kikuyus who supported Kibaki.

Both Odinga and Kenyatta have been tied to claims of inciting violence in the aftermath of the 2007 vote. Odinga, who initially refused to concede defeat, called for his supporters to engage in mass protests across the country which included thinly-veiled instructions towards violence. For his part, Kenyatta, who supported Kibaki, was charged in 2010 by the International Criminal Court with helping to organize and fund retaliatory violence, although those charges were eventually dropped due to lack of witness evidence.

For many observers, the fear is that 2017 could be a repeat of 2007. Today it is accepted by most Kenyans that Kibaki was not the real winner ten years ago — even by those who voted for him at the time. And as with Kibaki, it seems unlikely that Kenyatta would be willing to concede defeat were he to lose the vote in August. By hook or by crook, many believe, Kenyatta will try to retain power.

As for Odinga, who is now 72, many predict that this is most likely his last presidential contest and that he will rally his supporters to one last call-to-action should he again be denied the presidency. Not taking any chances, the U.S. embassy in Nairobi has already advised its citizens to stay indoors on the day of the election.

The big question, then, is not whether Kenyatta will win, but whether he’ll be able to pull off a clean and fair victory so as to preempt any post-election protests by the opposition that could threaten his legitimacy. If the results are close enough to be disputed, or if Kenyatta goes so far as to manipulate the results in order to retain his position, then the likelihood of violence increases significantly.

Part of the challenge Kenyatta faces is that the election has played out against a backdrop of corruption scandals over the past several years that have left much of the electorate, even among his own base, demoralized with the existing government. 

The scandals have involved hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds stolen by government officials and their close associates. Among them is the disappearance of millions as part of the country’s 2013 Eurobond issue, the awarding of several multi-million shilling tenders by the Kenya National Youth Service, and a massive corruption scandal involving the Kenyan Ministry of Health. Regarding the Ministry of Health, several million shillings-worth of tenders were awarded to a company owned by Kenyatta’s sister and cousin.

It is no wonder, then, that many Kenyans are dismayed by their country’s governance and that so many have taken a fatalistic view towards the upcoming election. Corruption is seen as the biggest problem with the current government, but also the one that’s hardest to change. And while the violence that came after the 2007 election is widely abhorred, many feel powerless to affect change through the formal democratic process.

It is perhaps for this same reason that in speaking with Kenyans over the last few months, much to my surprise I have encountered so many who have expressed their support for U.S. President Donald Trump. Although Trump’s policies will likely result in less U.S. aid going to the country, there is a palpable joy that some in Kenya have for Trump as a populist leader who won against an establishment candidate.

Many of Odinga’s supporters, some friends, others whom I have met in passing, have wondered aloud to me whether their candidate might be able to pull off the kind of political disruption achieved by Trump, and whether the peaceful handover of power to a candidate who represents anti-establishment views will ever be possible in Kenya.  

“Over there, you have fair democratic elections,” one friend tells me. “Here, it’s Africa politics. Or, as you say in America, ‘a whole different ballgame.’”


Severin Wirz is the Founder of Practical Ethics Solutions, a firm specializing in anti-bribery, trade and money laundering compliance in the East Africa region. He can be reached here.

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