Kenya elections on high-stakes: both Odinga & Ruto see a loss as posing existential peril to political & economic interests

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Kenyan elections are always hotly contested but the forthcoming vote on 9 August promises to be especially bitterly fought.
While there are reasons to be anxious about the risks ahead, there are also reasons for cautious optimism. Of perhaps greatest concern, Ruto, Odinga and Kenyatta all command significant voter support, and none appears willing to endure the exclusion from Kenya’s patronage-driven politics that electoral defeat entails.
Kenya’s electoral institutions, meanwhile, remain weak, in part because of the authorities’ failure to adopt all the prescriptions of commissions of inquiry that reviewed weeks of election-related mass violence occurring in 2007 and 2008. The combination of high intra-elite tensions and weak institutions means that the outcome of the vote may well be contested if either of the main candidates rejects official results, claiming he has been cheated.

A prime scenario for unrest would be if one or another group of Kenya’s political leaders decides to play on existing ethnic and economic cleavages to drive voters into the streets rather than concede defeat. Such a situation would be still more combustible if voters feel that the polls have been rigged because ill-prepared electoral institutions are visibly struggling to fulfil their mandate.
A similar scenario played out in the immediate aftermath of 2007 elections, leaving over 1,000 dead. While Kenyan institutions and civil society have since taken substantial steps to avoid a repeat, observers nevertheless see the broken relationship between the president and his deputy, as well as Kenyatta’s determination to shape his succession, as significant potential threats to peaceful August polls.
At the same time, much has changed in Kenya since 2007, and these changes may help temper the risk of violence. The public holds Kenya’s judiciary, one of the most ferociously independent in Africa, in high regard since it took the historic decision to annul the results of the 2017 presidential contest and order a rerun after finding irregularities in the electoral process..
Tensions between ethnic groups, which reached a boiling point in 2007 and 2008 amid lethal intercommunal violence, are at a low ebb. Additionally, the general mood is one of indifference. Voter registration has been markedly low

Improving Institutions, Divisive Politics

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Kenyan elections are among the most competitive in East and Central Africa, with politics dominated by personalities and money rather than first- or second-generation scions of an armed liberation movement who are reluctant to relinquish power, as in several other countries in the region. Opposition candidates can campaign more freely than those in most nearby countries and outcomes are usually uncertain even days before voting occurs. An entrenched culture of leadership rotation, with presidents legally required to step down at the end of two terms, further sets the country apart from many in the neighbourhood.
These competitive votes sometimes strain the country’s institutions to the breaking point, however. In December 2007, following a vote that international observers deemed deeply flawed, serious violence broke out. During the next eight weeks, intercommunal clashes in various parts of the country and a heavy-handed police response killed close to 1,100 people and displaced over 600,000.
The 2008 agreement and the unity government it generated paved the way for deep institutional reforms that culminated in the adoption of a new constitution in August 2010. That charter, one of the most progressive on the continent, introduced significant changes to Kenya’s system of government, most importantly by whittling down the presidency’s remit and devolving powers and resources to locally elected leaders. It also gave parliament the authority to vet presidential appointees and strengthened the judiciary by insulating judges from executive pressure through the formation of an independent commission responsible for appointing judges and running judicial affairs.

Despite the emergence of a stronger judiciary and other substantial institutional changes, Kenya remains highly vulnerable to episodes of pre- and post-election violence. That is mainly due to the polarised, ethnically driven and personalist politics that has been a feature of electoral competition in the country for decades. Five potential drivers of violence are of particular concern as the 2022 electoral cycle approaches.
The most prominent is elite polarisation. As outlined below, relations between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, have seemingly broken down perhaps irretrievably. Both men command substantial voter bases, and the disillusionment in Ruto’s camp – which had expected Kenyatta’s endorsement and was bitterly disappointed not to receive it.
In several interviews, diplomats and even senior figures in Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s camps pointed to these tensions, and in particular the sense that neither candidate feels he can afford defeat, as the biggest potential destabilising factor in the run-up to the election.
also, institutions with a critical role in elections management, notably the IEBC, are weak and insufficiently prepared for the polls. The Independent Review Commission, an international commission of inquiry appointed in the aftermath of the 2008 violence and headed by retired South African judge Johann Kriegler, prominently recommended that electoral laws and personnel to lead the electoral commission should be in place at least two years before polling day. Authorities have thus far ignored most of the Commission’s recommendations
IEBC funding has also been a problem. The commission said it needed close to $352 million to organise elections; it had received only a quarter of that amount by the end of 2021.

Fourthly, bitterness about income inequality and Kenya’s deteriorating economy runs deep, potentially making it easier to mobilise frustrated crowds in the streets, and also creating the risk that unemployed youth could be recruited into gangs to commit violence during electioneering. The high cost of living consistently ranks as a priority concern for Kenyans, many of whom accuse the government of profligacy during the past decade. These worrying trends come against the backdrop of a high debt burden, with debt service costs consuming about half of projected revenue in Kenya’s 2022-2023 budget. In April, motorists faced rare, nationwide fuel shortages after the government failed to pay subsidies owed to oil marketing companies.

Additionally, Kenya is grappling with the consequences of its longest drought in decades, which has devastated crops, decimated cattle herds and left at least 2.8 million people in 23 counties in need of food relief.
the election is likely to swing in favour of one candidate or the other at the last minute, which heightens the risk that the losing side will feel something untoward has occurred. Public opinion polls show a tight race between Ruto and Odinga, with one fifth of Kenyans undecided about who they will vote for. Although Ruto for months remained a marginal favourite in most surveys, Odinga has closed the gap of late and took the lead in some polls after naming a respected figure in Kenya’s reform movement, Martha Karua, as his running mate in May.
UhuRuto: A House Divided
Ruto, 55, has been deputy president since 2013. Over the past four years, the energetic campaigner has rallied significant sections of the Kenyan electorate to his side, casting himself as a self-made everyman who understands the grievances of the poor. Though one of Kenya’s wealthiest politicians, he draws a contrast between his humble background and the privileged upbringings of Odinga and Kenyatta, both of whom come from political dynasties and have throughout their careers benefited from considerable family fortunes. He positions himself as a “hustler” in tune with Kenyans struggling to earn a living, unlike his opponents whom he casts as out-of-touch scions of Kenyan aristocracy. Ruto has confounded many pundits by establishing a firm foothold in Kenyatta’s Mount Kenya home region. Many important political figures from this area back his campaign.

Despite his efforts to distance himself from Kenyatta and Odinga, however, Ruto is himself part of Kenya’s rent-seeking elites. Kenyatta and Ruto formed a formidable alliance in 2012, appearing to be such close friends that the public dubbed the inseparable duo “UhuRuto”. That union brought together their populous voter bases, the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups, respectively, allowing them to navigate their way to victory in March 2013 elections.
For their part, Ruto camp insiders claim that Kenyatta sidelined his deputy because he wants to protect his family’s extensive business interests, some of which are intertwined with the state, from an unpredictable Ruto presidency. In this telling, the Kenyattas feel they will be safer under an Odinga presidency than one led by the younger and more ambitious Ruto. Although often unspoken, protecting the personal fortunes of politicians and their families is a key concern in Kenya’s succession politics; virtually all major politicians, including Kenyatta, Ruto and Odinga, own large plots of land and a range of lucrative companies. This issue is the one that raises the stakes in Kenyan elections and the reason why political figures tend to view electoral contests as existential. Ruto coyly referred to it in March, when he suggested he would protect Kenyatta’s legacy if he becomes president.
The Kenyatta-Ruto rift has also sharpened the tone of Kenya’s intra-elite relations. The bad blood between president and deputy led to increasingly bitter recriminations from each side, with Ruto’s camp alleging it is the victim of a campaign of state intimidation. In January 2020, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations reopened a 2004 case accusing Ruto of defrauding the Kenyan state of over $2 million. Ruto had already been acquitted in the case nine years earlier due to lack of evidence.

The falling-out between Kenyatta and Ruto has played out prominently in the Mount Kenya region, the country’s most populous electoral constituency and Kenyatta’s political base. The region is populated primarily by the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. In one of the more confounding features of the 2022 electoral cycle, Ruto, an ethnic Kalenjin, has brought many of Kenyatta’s traditional Kikuyu supporters onto his side through his spirited campaign. In 2021, his UDA party won several parliamentary and ward by-elections in the region against Kenyatta-backed candidates. Many in the region cite the need to repay Ruto’s earlier loyalty to Kenyatta when explaining their decision to stick with Ruto despite Kenyatta’s decision to part ways with him.
There is a benefit to this dynamic: while acrimony between national politicians has in the past stoked inter-ethnic tensions and election-related violence, the Kikuyus’ surprising embrace of Ruto in both Mount Kenya and the Rift Valley means that tensions between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin have thus far been limited. Whether the calm endures in the immediate aftermath of the election will depend to a large extent on politicians’ behaviour, however. Although the falling-out between Kenyatta and Ruto follows a well-worn pattern of shifting alliances among Kenyan elites, there is widespread (and reasonable) concern about the extent to which one candidate or the other might try to game the system given the perceived sky-high stakes of the August vote for both. For Kenyatta, that could mean using state power to influence the election, while for Ruto’s camp it could mean mobilising street protests to reject an unfavourable outcome.
In some respects, the enmity between Kenyatta and Ruto has left Odinga in an awkward position, but he is working assiduously to parlay it to his advantage. Having previously always campaigned on an anti-incumbent platform, Odinga is now running as the establishment candidate with Kenyatta’s blessing. But he is also looking elsewhere for support: he has attempted to forge a broad alliance by wooing major opposition figures such as Kalonzo Musyoka, leader of the Wiper Democratic Movement, and Gideon Moi of the Kenya African National Union.
The veteran leader’s camp is quietly confident. Their mood was boosted in mid-May after Odinga picked his running mate – who, as noted above, is Martha Karua, a highly regarded former minister from central Kenya. They hope she might woo some Kikuyu back into the Odinga fold while bringing along some undecided moderates. The optimism appears to go deeper than that, however. “Odinga knows how to win elections, he has a broad support base and now at least the state is not working to stop him”, Paul Mwangi, Odinga’s long-time legal adviser, told Crisis Group.

Avoiding Another Crisis

For better or worse, the overall public mood is one of mixed indifference and resignation, particularly among young Kenyans, though the disposition among the latter is understandably sour. Some polls show more younger voters expressing a preference for Ruto’s candidacy, but the overall mood is one of disillusionment verging on apathy. “The youth are disappointed in the major candidates and fear that none can bring about the sort of quick change they need on a wide array of issues, including unemployment and the high cost of living”, Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, the director of Siasa Place, an organisation that promotes youth civic education and political participation, told Crisis Group.

That there is no major Kikuyu candidate in the presidential race for the first time since 1992 may also be helping tamp down tensions. Among other things it has helped dampen public perceptions of Kikuyu dominance in Kenyan politics and Kikuyu elite control of the economy, which Kenyatta’s opponents exploited to whip up grievance in prior elections. In a welcome development, rather than appealing to ethnic allegiances, Odinga and Ruto appear to be banking on bagging cross-ethnic support – Odinga by positioning himself as a mellowed father figure who could be a safe pair of hands and Ruto by branding himself as a champion of the downtrodden. Moreover, both candidates have chosen Kikuyu running mates, making it more difficult for either to play the anti-Kikuyu card against the other.

editor’s note: a heavily edited report by Crisis Group

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