Kenya’s Elections: Implications of Ethnic Rivalries and International Intervention

On March 4, 2013, Kenyans will go to the polls to elect their fourth president in the most crucial election the country has held since independence. It comes five years after the 2007 post-election violence and it will be the first election under a new devolved constitution.

Presidential Election a Major Tipping Point for Kenya’s Role in International Community

The election has attracted eight presidential candidates but the real contest is primarily between the current prime minister, Raila Odinga, who is making a third attempt at the presidency, and Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, who is making his second bid. Both Uhuru and Raila are charismatic leaders and have been able to galvanize broad support across the country boosted by a tight grip on their respective ethnic communities.

The rivalry between the two and their communities dates back to the days of their fathers. Uhuru is the son of Jomo Kenyatta who was imprisoned by the British colonialists and branded a terrorist for pushing for independence. His father later became Kenya’s first president. Raila is the son of Jaramogi Oginga Ondiga who served as Kenyatta’s Vice President before the two fell out and Odinga joined the opposition.

Since the fall out between President Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Oginga, a Luo, the two ethnic groups have remained suspicious of each other and their relationship has been marked by mistrust and at times open animosity. Most of the recent elections have mostly been a contest between Kikuyu candidates and the Odingas.

The 2013 election mirrors the previous contests with a Kikuyu and a Luo as the main contestants— this time with the same family rivalries as the 1960s.

In the first multi-party election in 1992, the main challengers to then incumbent president Moi were Kenneth Matiba (a Kikuyu), Mwai Kibaki (a Kikuyu) and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (a Luo). The opposition lost to Moi, an outcome attributed to the fact that the Kikuyus denied the elderly Odinga a chance to face Moi alone. This scenario was to repeat itself again in 1997 when the main challengers to Moi were Kibaki and Raila Odinga. In 2007, the presidential contest was again between current president Kibaki and Raila. The 2013 election mirrors the previous contests with a Kikuyu and a Luo as the main contestants— this time with the same family rivalries as the 1960s.

Because of a constitutional provision requiring the winning candidate to receive over 50 percent of all votes cast, all the candidates have reached out beyond their ethnic bases and traditional alliances, bringing longstanding rivals together: Raila and his running mate, Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, were arch rivals for long time while Uhuru and his running mate William Ruto were in opposite camps during the 2007 election.

The new alliances, which are to a large extent formed around ethnic groups, are key to winning the election. One unfortunate outcome of the new constitutional provision is that rather than reducing the role of ethnicity in the elections, it has created the need for new alliances that have tended to balkanize Kenya into tribal blocs. Although the candidates have formulated impressive issue-based manifestos, voting is likely to be based not on issues but on primarily ethnic alignments.

In addition to the old ethnic rivalries and new alliances, the next election is also fueled by the involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has indicted Uhuru and his running mate, William Ruto, in connection to the post-election violence. The ICC process has also galvanized ethnic communities in support of the accused as they see the indictments as victimization of their communities. Thus, while indications are that there is likely to be much fewer incidences of violence, Kenya is much more fractured and will remain so after the elections.

Johnnie Carson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, recently issued a statement stressing that there would be consequences if Kenyans elect those indicted by ICC.

On top of the ICC indictments, the international community has become heavily involved in the Kenyan elections. Johnnie Carson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, recently issued a statement stressing that there would be consequences if Kenyans elect those indicted by ICC. The assistant secretary’s statement has been widely criticized by Uhuru’s supporters who feel that it contradicts a statement issued by President Obama, which declared that the U.S. government would work with any person elected through a fair and free election in Kenya. European governments have also issued statements warning Kenyans that the country would be subjected to sanctions if they elected those indicted by the ICC.

Unfortunately, it does appear that the comments by foreign governments have had the effect of increasing the ethnic divisions in Kenya. Those in support of Uhuru see this as yet another way that Western nations are imposing specific leaders on Kenyans and have branded their statements and intervention as imperialistic. Some have even compared the stance of these western countries to the treatment they imparted on Uhuru’s father during the anti-colonial rebellion.

However, supporters of other candidates see these comments by the international community as fair given the gravity of the matter. One valid concern relates to how Uhuru would lead the country while fighting the charges at the Hague. This is a particularly serious matter because Uhuru’s running mate is also facing charges in front of the ICC.

Notwithstanding, it is almost certain that the next president will be either Raila or Uhuru. But it is highly unlikely that any of them will attain the necessary votes for a first round win. Therefore, the support of other candidates will be crucial in determining the winner. As a result, Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi, who is also in the race, may end up being the “kingmaker.”

After the election, Kenya will likely face many challenges. Although the presidential candidates have promised to focus on the economy, especially job creation and other aspects of development, it is probably the task of building a united Kenya and breaking down the tribal rivalries that will be most daunting. The ethnic divisions remain a key barrier to Kenya’s economic takeoff.

Regardless of which ticket wins the presidency, the country is bound to be challenged by the intervention of the ICC and also by the bad blood created by the intervention of foreign governments. The new leaders must deal with these issues cautiously to avoid exacerbating the already severe ethnic divisions.

The ICC must also trend carefully, especially now that some witnesses have recanted the evidence which seems to radically weaken the case against some of the accused. It is critical that the ICC process not be seen as a political one and must remain strictly judicial.

Leaders of some of the ethnic groups must also seek ways to bury old rivalries that continue to divide the country and act as a constraint to the country’s development.

Leaders of some of the ethnic groups must also seek ways to bury old rivalries that continue to divide the country and act as a constraint to the country’s development. Solutions will not come from foreign governments and intervention by foreign governments only makes divisions more severe. Political leaders are also unlikely to solve the problem because their political capital is based on ethnic cleavages. This task is therefore best left to elders of the respective communities. Thus, elders from the Luo and Kikuyu communities for example should come together and chart a way forward that unites the two communities. After all, these two groups do not have longstanding land disputes between them, which have often been the source of conflict between other ethnic groups.

The election also holds many opportunities. Unlike in the 2007 election, Kenya has a reformed its judiciary and has set up new independent electoral institutions. These institutions will ensure a free and fair election thus minimizing the probability of electoral violence. A violence free election will go a long way of erasing the bad memories of 2007.

But with all the attention focused on the Odinga-Uhuru contest and its implications on ethnic divisions, a crucial aspect is missing—the gubernatorial elections of county leaders. Kenya’s new constitution established 47 county governments and these governments will be new centers of power where citizens will be able to more effectively exercise their political voice. The devolved system of government holds great potential of improving local service delivery which has been a major problem under the current governance system.