By Sam Were
The 2017 Kenyan general election was carried out on 8 August, 2017 in a tight presidential race that pitted the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee party against the National Super Alliance (NASA) candidate, Raila Odinga, a leading candidate and fourth-time contender for president of Kenya. These major candidates are the scions of the first president and vice president of Kenya, respectively. It is barely a decade since post-election violence left the country deeply wounded and divided along tribal lines. Surpringly, Kenyans seem to have quickly forgotten this turmoil, and if not cautious, might walk the same path of violence.
In the recent elections, Uhuru Kenyatta was announced the winner, having accrued 54% of votes, while Raila Odinga garnered 43% of the vote. The opposition coalition, NASA, challenged the elections results. They claimed the election was rigged and that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) committed several irregularities and illegalities in the transmission and tallying of results. The Supreme Court, in a bold move, nullified the re-election of the incumbent President Kenyatta on 1 September and ordered the IEBC to conduct a new and fair election within 60 days. For the first time in the history of African democracy, a Supreme Court invalidated the victory of the incumbent President.
However, in a swift turn of events, Raila Odinga has now withdrawn from the race claiming that the current makeup of the IEBC cannot be trusted to conduct free and fair elections. Consequently, NASA has called on their supporters to boycott the fresh vote scheduled for 26 October, 2017. Additionally, the opposition has sustained countrywide demonstrations calling for the resignation of IEBC staff who are alleged to have mishandled the polls. The government response to these protests has been brutal, with at least 23 dead and dozens more wounded and injured. The ruling coalition, Jubilee, has accused Raila Odinga of being afraid of elections and of purposely causing a constitutional crisis to strengthen his own position so that he can form a coalition government.
Discord and distrust run deep within the electoral agency and are the cause of many of its troubles. So far, one commissioner within the IEBC, Dr. Roselyn Akombe, who was chairing the Election Operation Committee, has resigned and warned that the elections as planned do not meet the basic expectations of credibility. In her resignation letter, she also reveals how intimidation and partisan political interests have continued to hamper attempts for free and fair polling. Given these revelations, the reforms made by the electoral body appear to fall far short of those mandated by the court.
As a result, it is no wonder Mr. Wafula Chebukati, the IEBC chair, and the national returning officer has told Kenyans that he cannot guarantee free and fair elections because of the current political situation. Following this troubling confession, it is puzzling that preparations are ongoing to conduct elections that are likely to be fraudulent. To complicate an already murky situation, the electoral body’s CEO, Mr. Ezra Chiloba has taken three weeks leave on the eve of the vote in what the opposition has alleged is a cheap political move to force them to participate in the polls, since the officer they accused of serving incumbent interests appears to be out of the picture.
With all of this going on, the political situation continues to deteriorate, with secessionist calls to redefine Kenyan territory to allow for the creation of two new countries; the People’s Republic of Kenya and the Central Republic of Kenya. These calls are gaining momentum. A bill has been introduced in parliament which could pave the way for this referendum if it is passed. The diplomatic community and civil society groups have observed that the county risks facing post-election violence worse than that witnessed in 2007-2008, considering the tribal animosity and tense political atmosphere.
The two political antagonists, President Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Odinga have declined calls for dialogue, and both maintain self-interested and hard-line stances. With uncertainty surrounding the new elections, attention is now focused on the Supreme Court. There is a case filed at the court by three petitioners seeking to stop the repeat polls on the 26th. The petitioners argue that the IEBC commissioners are divided and hence the commission cannot guarantee free and credible polls. Further, they claim that there is a real danger of disenfranchising more than six million voters of a leading candidate who has withdrawn from the race. Given the current climate and political situation, it is not just an election that hangs on this verdict. The future of democracy in Kenya is at stake.
Samwel Were is a political activist and the President of the Kenyatta University Student’s Association (KUSA).