As Kenya, the economic powerhouse of the East Africa region, prepares to hold its Presidential, legislative and gubernatorial elections in August, Neil Ford examines the about-turns and new alliances that are making this the country’s most unpredictable election for decades.
Kenya is set to gain a new President when elections are held on 9 August. Uhuru Kenyatta is to step down after completing the maximum two terms of office permitted under the constitution, with political heavyweight Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Deputy President William Ruto of the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) the main candidates to replace him.
Some of the factors that have shaped this year’s election go back to the 2007 polls, when post-election violence resulted in more than 1,200 deaths, and more than 600,000 people forced to flee their homes because of inter-ethnic violence. Mwai Kibaki was declared to have won his second term of office but his main challenger, Odinga, claimed victory for himself following widespread allegations of electoral fraud.
Foreign election observers declared the counting to have been flawed. Kenyatta and Ruto were both among those indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of orchestrating the violence but the charges were later dropped. The sheer number of fatalities seemed to push the country’s main political leaders into talks that produced a power sharing agreement and the re-creation of the post of Prime Minister, to be filled by Odinga.
The 2013 election brought Kenyatta to power as President, with Ruto as his deputy and the two men seemed to enjoy a close relationship during their first terms of office, as they sought to put the ICC investigations behind them.
There was no repeat of the 2007 electoral violence, although there was intense inter-ethnic fighting in 2012 and six policemen were killed by a gang near Mombasa during the election. Kenyatta won the Presidency, with 50.5% of the vote to Odinga’s 43.7%, although Odinga unsuccessfully contested the results at the Supreme Court.
Two dozen people were killed in the run-up to the 2017 polls amid allegations of vote-rigging in the primaries, alongside claims of ballot paper shortages, disputed results and several alleged kidnappings and assassination attempts. The published results declared Kenyatta the winner with 54.17% of the vote to Odinga’s 44.94%.
Odinga again appealed to the Supreme Court, which this time annulled the results and called for the election to be re-run in October. Odinga was convinced that this second election would not be free or fair and withdrew from the poll, asking his supporters to boycott it. Unsurprisingly, Kenyatta was duly elected.
Jockeying for position
The events of the following year surprised even the most experienced Kenyan political observers and explain the circumstances around the 2022 election. Despite the bitterness surrounding previous elections and the political rivalry between their families, which have dominated Kenyan politics since independence, Kenyatta quickly sought to build bridges in relations with Odinga.
Rapprochement between the two men culminated in the famous handshake photo opportunity in 2018 that stunned most commentators on Kenyan politics but surprised no-one more than Ruto, whose relationship with Kenyatta seemed to crumble in that moment.
It had widely been assumed that Ruto had agreed to back Kenyatta for two Presidential terms of office between 2013 and 2022 in return for the latter’s support for his own campaign in 2022 and hopefully beyond. The new Kenyatta-Odinga axis seems to have destroyed their relationship but Ruto did not resign, perhaps hoping for a change of political fortune or merely the opportunity to use the platform that the Vice-Presidency afforded him to support his own 2022 campaign.
In the long run-up to this year’s elections, it became increasingly clear than Kenyatta would back Odinga rather than his own deputy. This is exactly what has happened, annoying but probably not surprising Ruto.
After much political infighting, Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party finally followed the President’s lead in throwing its weight behind Odinga rather than Ruto.
Following the handshake, Odinga and Kenyatta launched their Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to investigate a wide range of issues including ethnic conflict, corruption and devolution.
Once the consultation programme was complete, a series of recommended changes to the Kenyan constitution was proposed, including making the cabinet smaller and more representative of all parts of the country, allocating a larger proportion of state spending to county governments and paying 5% of anything recovered in corruption investigations to whistleblowers, to encourage people to come forward.
However, another of the recommendations – reinstating the post of Prime Minister – had proved more controversial and it was speculated that the BBI exercise had been organised merely as a smokescreen around it. The post had been abolished in 2013 and it was rumoured that Kenyatta himself could be appointed to the position if Odinga wins this year’s election.
After 30 of the country’s 47 county assemblies agreed to a referendum on amending the constitution to incorporate the BBI recommendations, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission began to plan the referendum. However, the move was blocked by the High Court on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and that ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeal in August 2021 and the Supreme Court in March 2022.
Kenya’s electoral system
The President of Kenya is elected using a modified version of the two-round system: to win in the first round, a candidate must receive over 50% of the vote and at least 25% of the vote, in a minimum of 24 of the 47 counties.
The Parliament of Kenya consists of two houses: the Senate (upper house) and the National Assembly (lower house). The 337 members of the National Assembly are elected by two methods; 290 are elected in single-member constituencies by first-past-the-post voting. The remaining 47 are reserved for women and are elected from single-member constituencies based on the 47 counties, also using the first-past-the-post system.
The 67 members of the Senate are elected by four methods; 47 are elected in single-member constituencies based on the counties by first-past-the-post voting. Parties are then assigned a share of 16 seats for women, two for youth and two for disabled people, based on their seat share.
The elections for governors and deputies of the country’s 47 counties also takes place on the same day. Candidates can belong to parties or be independent. Among the qualification criteria, candidates must be in possession of a university degree.
All eyes will be on the battle for the Presidency but elections will also be held for the National Assembly, Senate and 47 governorships and county assemblies. The county assembly and governor elections have carried significant importance since the 2010 constitution brought substantial devolution, including allocating more state spending to the provinces.
Odinga’s ODM and Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party will form part of the Azimio la Umoja coalition, in opposition to Ruto’s UDA. The Jubilee Party held 140 out of 289 seats in the National Assembly following the 2017 election, ahead of the ODM with 62.
Many people still vote according to ethnicity and personality rather than policy. In parts of the country where one party overwhelmingly dominates because of ethnic allegiance, the primaries are generally considered more important than the actual election, as a chosen candidate associated with the local ethnic group is virtually guaranteed success. Both Odinga and Ruto have selected Kikuyu running mates in an effort to appeal to what is the largest ethnic group in the country.
A record 46 candidates, more than in 2017, submitted credentials to stand for the Presidency but the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) cleared only four: David Mwaure Waihiga (Agano Party), Prof. George Wajackoyah (Roots Party), Raila Odinga (Azimio Coalition Political Party) and William Ruto (United Democratic Alliance – UDA).
Some 7,000 people will be standing in the other elections (National Assembly, Senate and gubernatorial), which will take place on the same day. This could be seen as evidence of a healthy democracy. The high salaries on offer have attracted many candidates to the elections at all levels and are designed to make bribery less attractive, although it could also be argued that candidates are attracted by the remuneration on offer rather than a desire to do good.
Relatively little attention has been paid to the policies of the main candidates in the past but this campaign seems different, with somewhat more discussion of economic policies.
The Kenyan economy has grown relatively strongly over the 10 years that Kenyatta has been in power, averaging a healthy 5.3% a year from 2012 until the Covid pandemic, ahead of the continental average. This would usually indicate political success for the incumbent party but the jockeying for position of Odinga, Ruto and Kenyatta complicates its influence, as the ruling party is not fielding its own presidential candidate.
Challenges awaiting the winners
As ever the incoming Kenyan President and government will face numerous challenges but two stand out above all else: tackling corruption and continuing the economic progress that has been made over the past few years.
Despite problems in the global economy, there are good reasons to believe that solid economic progress can continue to be made, yet there is far less optimism over the battle against corruption.
As ever, the thorny issue of tackling corruption is a major talking point. A number of Ministers were forced to resign or sacked over allegations of financial irregularities during Uhuru Kenyatta’s time in power, while the country has consistently rated badly in international corruption assessments.
Kenya was ranked 128th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2021, a small improvement on 2016, just before the last election, when it came 145th out of 176 countries. Disillusionment with politics and perceived economic and electoral corruption saw just 2.5m new voter registrations by early May, far lower than the targeted 6m.
There is no doubt that corruption is a huge problem in the country and it has been one of the main issues in past elections, yet the situation has not improved. However, some initiatives have yielded results. In March, a deal was signed in London to ensure that millions of dollars stranded in the offshore tax haven of Jersey are returned to Kenya.
Perhaps surprisingly, the fight against corruption and improving governance seems to be slightly less of a feature in this campaign than in the past, perhaps because both sides have been implicated in scandals.
However, Odinga has spoken of his desire to stamp out corruption if he wins in the election, with the proceeds used to help finance his promised payment of KSh6,000 ($51) a month to poor households. “Do not be deceived that there’s no money in the government. I was the Prime Minister for six years and I know where there are loopholes of corruption. When we form the next government, we will seal all those loopholes and use the money to fund projects,” he said.
As part of the election process, politicians and public officials have been asked to declare their wealth as part of an anti-corruption audit. However, an anti-corruption umbrella group, the National Integrity Alliance (NIA), has asked the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to block 25 candidates from standing in the elections because of doubts over their integrity. The ‘red card’ list is made up largely of candidates from both the main parties.
The NIA is a coalition made up of Transparency International Kenya (TI-Kenya), Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi!, Mzalendo Trust, The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA), and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC). The IEBC however has said that it works on the presumption of innocence unless proved guilty.
Personal integrity, honesty and declaration of personal interests are all required of candidates under the constitution.
In terms of governance, it is good to see Kenyatta stepping down after two terms, unlike other African leaders who seek to change the constitution of their respective countries to hang on to power. While in office, Kenyatta became increasingly popular with ordinary Kenyans. Often outspoken about corruption, he sometimes pointed accusing fingers at named individuals; and his handling of the Odinga situation over election results, leading to the ‘historic handshake’ with his generational foe, thus diffusing what could have been an explosive situation, earned him kudos at home and abroad as a seasoned statesman.
He was also given to going walkabout among the people, especially in Mombasa, with few bodyguards if any, and popping into local eateries for an impromptu meal. He displayed a warm sense of humour in his speeches and had the reputation of ‘telling it like it is’. His relaxed style and easy rapport with people gave him the aura of great confidence and was in sharp contrast to an earlier age when, for example, Daniel arap Moi ruled through an atmosphere of fear. Uhuru Kenyatta will be a tough act to follow.
Whoever wins the 2022 elections will face a number of economic challenges, including high oil prices, which were generally low during Kenyatta’s time in office. They must also deal with the impact of strong currents in the global economy, such as food price inflation, the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and supply chain difficulties as trade volumes recover following the worst of the pandemic.
Perhaps most importantly, the new government will have to deal with mounting debt levels. According to the Central Bank of Kenya, public debt increased to KSh8.2trn ($69.7bn) at the end of 2021, divided roughly equally between domestic and external debt. That’s a big increase on the figure of KSh4.04trn ($40.4bn) recorded in March 2017, just before the last election.
While inflation is a growing problem globally, it is actually less of a problem in Kenya now than before the last election, at an annualised rate of 6.1% this April compared to 12% in 2017.
Unemployment rates are very difficult to calculate in Sub-Saharan Africa but youth employment and underemployment are widely regarded as significant problems and it is here that the two main Presidential candidates have promised to act.
Ruto has used his own background selling chickens at the roadside in his pledge to support poorer people in their efforts to earn a living at whatever level. While on the campaign trail, he has handed out wheelbarrows to young people to encourage them to start trading and has pledged to support the agriculture sector in which he has his own interests.
He has promised more rapid economic growth to improve living standards and to create employment for the more than 800,000 young people who enter the potential labour force every year. Many are disaffected because Kenya has one of the widest disparities between the rich and poor in Africa.
Odinga says that he will focus on the economy, smart agriculture, industrialisation and improved healthcare to create new jobs and improve living standards. He is particularly keen to create more competition in the power sector, which would most easily be achieved by encouraging more rapid wind and solar power development, given that most renewable energy projects are developed as independent power producers.
Both candidates have promised to support efficient agriculture, particularly through much greater use of irrigation, beyond the areas where it is traditionally found but progress has been slow. The issue carries political significance because it is central to efforts to improve food security and because shortages of basic foodstuffs are often attributed to corruption.
However, the new President and Ministers will also come to power at a time of growing opportunities for Kenyan businesses, as efforts to implement the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) are stepped up.
The Area came into force in January 2021 but it will take many years to erode tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Nevertheless, Kenyan firms are well placed to exploit rising levels of intra-African trade, particularly as they have great experience of the same process on a smaller scale, with the East African Community. Moreover, as one of the continent’s biggest trading nations, Kenya has more to gain from increased trade with other African countries.
The new government may also benefit from the development of the Lokichar oil project. Kenya has long been reliant on oil imports, so its economy was vulnerable to high prices, but the discovery of 2,850m barrels of oil on the Lokichar fields in the Turkana region held the prospect of ending that reliance, while also creating a new source of export revenue and economic diversification.
Nairobi is currently evaluating the final field development plan for Tullow Oil’s $3.4bn Lokichar oil project. Work on the venture was suspended because of low oil prices and the economic fallout from the pandemic but Tullow said that it submitted its new development plan to the government in December on behalf of itself and partners TotalEnergies and Africa Oil. The investment programme includes plans to increase the number of production wells, with oil production costs limited to $22 a barrel.
The planned 825km pipeline to the new port of Lamu will now be able to handle 130,000 b/d. It would be wise for whoever wins the election not to bank on income from Lokichar just yet: the first oil will not flow until 2025 at the earliest and further delays are possible. Moreover, relying on oil exports has all too often distracted other African governments in the same position, encouraging them to overlook the potential of other sectors.
Wider significance of the elections
It is important not only that this year’s elections are free and fair but that they are regarded as being so by Kenyans, as well as the rest of Africa and the world at large. Electoral irregularities have tarnished most previous elections, with major loss of life and the erosion of already low confidence in the political process. The political establishment needs to move past the point where both each election victory is challenged in the courts and defeated candidates feel the need to resort to legal challenges.
Kenya is seen by many in Africa as well as abroad as the African bell-weather in terms of the development of a healthy democratic system in which the interests of the majority supersede the ambitions of self-serving politicians who are in the game to rake in as much as possible for themselves. African youths throughout the continent have been very vocal on this and they will be watching the Kenyan elections closely – and hoping that they will provide a model for other countries to emulate.