G3 Insight - Kenya: Volatile Elections Ahead

by Darcie Allen

Kenya: Volatile Elections Ahead

Kenya is expected to hold its next general election on 8 August 2017. Despite largely peaceful elections in 2013, observers fear a possible repeat of the two-month crisis that followed disputed elections in 2007, which left more than 1,000 dead, almost half a million displaced, and the economy temporarily in tatters. Kenya is one of the most developed countries in Africa, however, it was quickly brought to the brink of civil war in 2007. International envoys brokered a truce, but the conflict was only frozen; the fundamental problems that make Kenya vulnerable to this type of crisis remain. The dynamics of 2017 are shaping up to look a lot like 2007. Only if the polls are transparently conducted, and the results accepted by the loser, will Kenya come through unscathed.


Kenya’s politics are ethnically driven; in the current configuration, the disparate elements have coalesced into two broad camps.

The ruling Jubilee Party draws support from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kikuyu community and the Kalenjin communities of the Rift Valley represented by deputy president, William Ruto. The main opposition parties have formed a multi-ethnic coalition called the National Super Alliance (NASA), made up of Luo and Luhya peoples and smaller groups from western Kenya, the Lake Victoria region, eastern and southern Kenya and the coast. These four tribes – Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo and Luhya – represent nearly 70 percent of Kenya’s population.

Veteran politician Raila Odinga, ethnic Luo leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), is expected to face Kenyatta in August on behalf of the NASA coalition (though his candidacy is not yet confirmed). Odinga was also the opposition candidate in 2007. His supporters accused the government of electoral fraud and rejected the results, leading to protests by both sides that spiralled out of control. Compromise was found in a power sharing agreement under which Odinga served as prime minister from 2008-2013 with Mwai Kibaki as president. Odinga then lost to Kenyatta in the presidential race in 2013 (in a largely peaceful, though badly flawed, poll).

Opposition-aligned Kenyans believe the 2013 elections were stolen, and they are determined not to allow it to happen again. Kenyatta and Ruto won by about 8,400 votes out of 12.3 million cast, which represented less than 1 percent. Considering the usual margin of vote-rigging and ballot-tampering, no one can be certain the result was valid. Odinga unsuccessfully contested the results in the Supreme Court and accepted the court’s ruling; this time he has pledged not to accept the result if there is any evidence of rigging.

Unresolved Problems

The dynamics that made the 2007-8 crisis possible were a widespread sense of ethnic-based economic exclusion, officially sanctioned corruption, and those in power acting with impunity. These problems have worsened since the 2013 elections.

First, no one has been held to account for the 2007-8 crisis or the deaths that resulted. Kenyatta’s Jubilee administration came to power on the back of an anti-Western campaign that corralled his and Ruto’s ethnic blocs into a coalition opposed to the two men’s 2010 indictments at the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2014, charges against Kenyatta were dropped for lack of evidence. In April 2016, the ICC dropped the case against Ruto after its key prosecution witness, Meshack Yebei, was murdered by unknown assailants.

Second, according to many local and expatriate contacts in Kenya, corruption has reached unprecedented levels since 2013. Kenyans refer to it as ‘system ya majambazi’ – ‘system of the thugs’ – after a popular hip-hop song. Well known former anti-corruption chief, John Githongo, said in October 2016 that the Jubilee government “is by far the most corrupt government in our history.”

Infrastructure projects are the source of much of the corrupt activity. For example, there are credible claims that the cost of the  US$4 billion Mombasa-Nairobi railway project was hugely inflated, with the excess being shared out by competing ‘tenderpreneurs’ allied to either Kenyatta or Ruto. The disappearance of more than US$1 billion from the US$2.8 billion Eurobond flotation in 2014 is still under investigation by the Auditor General, even as pressure to drop the case continues to be exerted on him by ruling party supporters.

A number of scandals have been made public, most of them involving key allies of the president or his deputy. One recent case involving Ministry of Health tenders, referred to as ‘Healthgate’, concerns KES5 billion (~US$47 million) allegedly misappropriated from the ministry budget in a series of unauthorised payments to Kenyatta’s sister and cousin. Another scandal involved the initial disappearance of KES791 million (~US$7.5 million) from the National Youth Service budget; investigators have extended their enquiries to payments totalling KES6.3 billion (~US$61 million) made through 28 financial institutions to 40 companies. The woman in change of the youth service at the time, Anne Waiguru, is a political protégée of Kenyatta’s.

Those responsible for the policing of corruption are equally compromised. Former Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) chairman Philip Kinisu resigned last year after a company linked to him was shown to have received a series of large payments from the National Youth Service.

Finally, the resentment created by ethnic favouritism has strengthened, as the majority of executive appointments and government contracts since 2013 have favoured either Kikuyu or Kalenjin elites. There is a strong tradition (on all sides) of Kenya’s rulers directing patronage exclusively to their allies, and the practice raises the stakes in every national contest. The particular combination of factors this year though makes the situation especially fraught.

Logistical Challenges

The Independent Election and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), seen by the opposition as lacking independence, will struggle to be prepared by the August election date. Its credibility is on the line: it badly bungled the 2007 elections and, with less severe consequences, the 2013 elections, whose results were in the end upheld by the Supreme Court. 

With five months to go, the IEBC needs to clean up its voter register. Evidence presented to the Supreme Court during the 2013 election petition revealed that the commission had used four different registers to run the elections, which together contained hundreds of thousands of ‘phantom voters’. In January, opposition pressure resulted in a court directive to have the consultancy firm KPMG appointed to complete a forensic audit of the register.

There are concerns this time around that at least 78,000 national IDs – the primary document used to produce an electronic voting document – have been used to replicate numerous fictitious identities on the voter’s register.

The IEBC is also yet to procure a new electronic voting system. The old system failed in 2013, with strong suspicions of sabotage. A tedious tendering process awaits, and one which will have to be rushed.

Considering the enormous task facing the IEBC, the election may very well be postponed (December 2017 has been suggested). This would increase uncertainty in the short term and might spark localised violence.

Likely Outcomes

Most credible polls put the Jubilee coalition in the lead with about 40% of the vote, followed by NASA with 32%, and 28% undecided. But despite the widely held view that Kenyatta has the advantage in these elections, the outcome is not a given.

For an opposition bloc to have a serious chance of ousting Jubilee, it will need to eat into the Kalenjin vote in the Rift Valley. The opposition, which until recently appeared both disorganised and politically adrift, has begun to capitalise on the Kenyatta administration’s failings. Efforts, so far successful, to unite its many factions under the NASA umbrella may create a formidable challenge to Kenyatta.

In addition, high voter registration in Kenyatta’s and Ruto’s strongholds was the key to their electoral success in 2013. But first-time voters appear to have stayed away this time around: while the IEBC had projected eight million new voters, only 3.7 million were registered when the process ended in mid-February this year. A low turnout could weaken Jubilee.

There is no doubt that the presidential elections will be closely fought, especially if as expected the opposition picks Odinga to run against Kenyatta. A small margin of error raises the risk that the results will be rejected. In December 2016, Kenyatta ordered amendments to the election bill so that, in the case that the electronic voting system failed, as it did in 2013, a manual system would be put in place. This would make rigging much easier.

In the event that the presidential elections go to court, Chief Justice David Maraga and his Supreme Court of Jubilee-leaning judges (four against a possible three for the opposition) will likely favour Kenyatta.


Despite the relatively peaceful elections in 2013, complacency this time around would be a mistake. All the ingredients that created the 2007 post-election crisis remain in place: real and perceived ethnic exclusion, an incumbent seeking re-election, a weak and compromised electoral commission, a judiciary not trusted by the people, and a political contest too close to call. If there is violence this time around, it will be more difficult to control. Hotspots are Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Meru, Kwale and Kilifi at the coast, Kakamega and Busia in Western Kenya, Migori in Nyanza, Muranga and Nyeri in Central Kenya, Mandera, Isiolo, Wajir and Marsabit in north-eastern Kenya and Kajiado and Narok in Rift Valley.

There are some potentially mitigating factors. The country got a new constitution in 2010, which created 47 county governments, funded through subventions from the treasury. So the symbolic and material importance of presidential elections has been somewhat reduced. However, senators and members of parliament, each with retinues of loyal youths, are vigorously contesting these governorships. How campaigning is conducted, both at county and national level, will be a crucial determinant of the risk of violence.

Second, external parties will not abandon Kenya, which is seen as the security and economic linchpin of the region.

Finally, and unusually for an election year, investor confidence in the economy remains high. The government has recently signed investment deals with the Chinese, Turks, Moroccans and French. Regional trade, especially in manufactured and processed products, has grown as economic integration within the East African Community has deepened. Mobile money, now channelling a full 30 percent of GDP, has helped unlock domestic trade and significantly lower the cost of doing business. If the 2017 elections pass without significant incident, Kenya will be in a strong position to promote further economic growth and diversification.



Darcie Allen
Darcie has extensive experience of working across Sub-Saharan Africa

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