Kenya’s Enigma of the Ballot Box

by    /  November 14, 2017  / No comments

National Super Alliance (NASA) supporters at a barricade. Image via Nairobi News.

Kenya conducted a controversial repeat presidential election on October 26 after the Supreme Court invalidated the August 8th election result of incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party. Emboldened by the historic court verdict, the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) stepped up pressure on Kenyatta’s regime and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) by staging a series of “no reform, no election” protests, mostly in the country’s largest cities. Most of these protests turned deadly, as protesters clashed with the police.

In a strongly-worded joint report, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International claimed that more than fifty protesters have been killed since August by security forces, mainly in opposition-strongholds. Regardless, the government was categorically dismissive of the accusations that were seen by the opposition as a reaffirmation of their narrative of selective police brutality perpetrated against the Lou tribe (to which Raila Odinga belongs), the country’s second largest ethnic group.

Two weeks before the presidential rerun, Kenya found itself in uncharted and volatile waters. Raila Odinga pulled out of the race, citing lack of reforms at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Consequently, he also urged Kenyans to boycott what he called a “shambolic election” until a fresh election to be organized in ninety days. Odinga’s call fell on deaf ears however, as the Jubilee Party and the IEBC were opposed to the extension of the poll date determined by the Supreme Court verdict.

  1. Column_Tadesse
  2. This column’s topics will include literature, art, education, history, and political culture in Ethiopia, as well as society and politics in the Horn of Africa. Moreover, I will address the tribulations of journalists and the ill-fated constitutional right of freedom of expression under Ethiopia’s deceptive authoritarian regime. I will try to be the voice of the voiceless, be it persecuted journalists at home or exiled journalists abroad. These themes will make Ethiopia’s uniqueness and absurdities evident.
  3. Chalachew Tadesse is an Ethiopian journalist and columnist. He has previously worked as a full time journalist for The Reporter and The Sub-Saharan Informer English newspapers. He was also a columnist for the much-acclaimed Fact magazine, before the Ethiopian regime closed it in October 2014. A political science student by training, he works as a university lecturer and is known for his sociopolitical commentaries on the Ethiopian private press.

It is no doubt that there were concerns to be addressed before rushing for a repeat poll. Not even a single face-to-face talk took place between the two arch-rivals to resolve the standoff over the poll. In the lead up to the poll, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech became the order of the day, creating a tense political climate not conducive to election. In the middle of the game, the parliament, which is dominated by the ruling Jubilee Party, also passed a controversial bill of election amendment despite strong opposition from NASA and the international community.

Public confidence in the ability and integrity of the IEBC was also being eroded. Opposition allegations against the IEBC were especially vindicated when one of the IEBC commissioners fled to New York where she works as Under Secretary General of the United Nations. To the surprise of Kenyans, she cited death threats from politicians, impartiality, and deep divisions within the IEBC for her resignation. She also urged Kenyans to stand for the postponement of the rerun until politicians of both sides of the political divide sit for dialogue and resolve their differences amicably. In similar surprising twist of events, the commission’s top referee soon followed suit, admitting that IEBC was not in a position to deliver a free and credible election for the same reasons. In times of election, the electoral commission is always the subject of controversy, in spite of strict parliamentary vetting during the recruitment of poll officials.

In spite of the tense political climate, violent protests, and pending petitions, the IEBC didn’t requested the same Supreme Court to extend repeat poll. Notwithstanding this, it conducted the poll amid heavy security deployment and fear of violence. Despite his withdrawal, Raila Odinga was also included in the ballot. But millions of opposition supporters heeded his boycott call resulting in a controversial figure of low voter turnout. Despite killings by security forces, other opposition followers barricaded roads and managed to hinder voting from taking place. NASA politicians claim the low turnout that typically reflected the ethnic makeup of the country is a vote of no confidence against the President.

Nevertheless, the electoral commission declared President Uhuru Kenyatta winner of the uncontested election, which The Economist called “Kenyatta’s hollow victory.” According to the embattled IEBC figures, he garnered 98% of the votes. In essence, the result is therefore reminiscent of authoritarian countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, and my own country- Ethiopia.

Seasoned and astute as he is, Raila Odinga cut his political teeth in intrigues and last-minute-surprises. For this reason most Kenyans weren’t surprised when he unveiled the transformation of the opposition NASA party to a national resistance movement. Contrary to the government’s claim, however, he was quick to rule out the use of violent means, only employing civil disobedience, picketing, non-cooperation with state organs, and economic boycotts in order to fight against what he calls “a creeping electoral dictatorship” in hopes of ultimately forcing the government to step aside. In a defiant statement, he said, “If there is no justice for the people, let there be no peace for the government.”

That isn’t the end of the Odinga’s challenge to the incumbent. In a radical move, he announced the formation of a broad-based National People’s Assembly (akin to the 2011 Egyptian-style uprising), comprising of elected leaders, civil society groups, religious leaders, women, and workers. The raison d’être for such a scheme is to restore the democracy that his party says is being eroded by the incumbent. In effect, the People’s Assembly, as a de facto parallel authority, is essentially expected to enable the disenfranchised, ordinary Kenyans to directly exercise popular sovereign power, so to speak. As the government has already outlawed this move, the tension is likely to increase. Several pro-NASA provinces are already in the process of approving the People’s Assembly motion.

Idolized by many for his rejection of tribal politics, Odinga is a symbol of s relentless two-decades-long pro-democracy struggle. Kenyans are under no illusion about his crucial role in shaping the country’s politics. He also commands a fanatical following of half of the country’s population. Kenyans are under no illusion about his crucial role in shaping the country’s politics. Well before the August election, he therefore made a promise to his countrymen: No matter how difficult and long the journey might be, I will lead you to Canaan. Time will tell how the new political venture plays out to fulfill that promise. That said, those who think that Odinga’s crusade is withering are naïve.

Kenya is Africa’s economic powerhouse and a strategic hub to the west. It is also reputed for its independent judiciary, vibrant press, and strong civil society. Politicians of rival tribes however fight a zero sum game to grab the presidency, where they can reward their own tribe and close political clients. Thus, negative ethnicity, money, political intrigues, and extra-judicial killings are all the whole marks of this fierce battle. Despite the adoption of the progressive 2010 constitution that guarantees extensive devolution of power in a bid to address the problem of tribe-based historical injustices, the disaffection hasn’t faded away.

In a Nairobi speech three years ago, US President Barrack Obama warned the Kenyan leaders with the following prophetic phrases: “A politics that is based on solely on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that’s doomed to tear a country apart. It is a failure- a failure of imagination.” As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Inspired in part by the recent Catalan and Kurdish secession moves Kenya’s opposition politicians are currently galvanizing the demand for secession of disfranchised and marginalized provinces ultimately to declare an independent “People’s Republic of Kenya.” Alas, secession has never been a panacea for the ills of the troubled Horn of Africa region however. Look at the post-Cold War seceded nations of Eritrea and recently South Sudan. Eritrea has already been nicknamed “Africa’s North Korea” whereas South Sudan is a typical Hobessian state of nature where human life is “poor, nasty, brutish and short” so to speak.

As the political crisis deepens, ingenious proposals are also being proposed, including constitutional reform that will create an expanded executive to restore the prime ministerial portfolio previously occupied by Raila Odinga from 2007-2010. This will be a murky business, however, as both parties rejected it from the outset.True, Odinga is often accused by the incumbent for seeking nusu mkate (a Kiswahilli word for “coalition government”). His latest panacea to resolve the political crisis is different from power sharing however as he has now resolved for a six-month interim government composed of the governing and opposition parties until a new election is held in three months.

As the crises deepen the rhetoric of inclusive politics is increasingly gaining much traction. Political elites are now therefore left with a clear choice: to diagnose and address historical tribe-based exclusion through dialogue and constitutional reform, or to perpetuate the untenable status quo of exclusionary tribal politics and hence, most likely meet the nation’s violent disintegration. Lest political elites forget, the idea of secession is quickly gaining traction. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Where is Kenya- the country in which a judicial body invalidated the election result of a sitting president for the first time in Africa- heading to today? Only the political class can reverse the present current troubling trajectory. As I pen this column the Supreme Court is in a pre-trial hearing of petitions lodged against the declared victory of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the repeat poll. This has put the courageous court on the spotlight again. Will the court invalidate the repeat poll on constitutional grounds? Will Kenya come out of the enigma of the ballot box? Kenyans will have to wait for a few more days to know.

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