This city’s traffic jams may be the stuff of legend, but it’s surprisingly easy to get around these days. Journeys that usually involve hours stuck at gridlocked roundabouts, with police officers facing down honking matatu buses, now take a snappy half-hour. Kenya’s capital is gearing up for elections on Tuesday and for many residents, that means getting out of town.
Ever since 2007-8, when more than 1,100 people died in election-related violence and the country hovered on the brink of civil war, this jittery exodus has become a routine. In the run-up to each ballot, the interwoven strands that make up this diverse nation’s ethnic fabric are carefully unpicked, and residents head for the safety of their ancestral homelands.
The price of tickets for buses going upcountry has doubled, in some cases tripled, as men help women and children aboard, while remaining behind in Nairobi to guard family properties. In the Rift Valley, ethnic Luos and Luhyas are heading further west. Kikuyus in Kisumu, a port city on Lake Victoria, are moving east. Members of the better-heeled elite have already taken more expensive precautions, making the most of Europe’s summer to book vacations abroad.
Since the country’s near-death experience a decade ago, Kenyans live in fear of their society’s capacity for violence. It’s a potential at odds with the nation’s often Disney-fied image as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most popular tourist destinations and most vibrant economies. The recent murder of Christopher Chege Musando, a senior manager of information technology for the national election commission, has dramatically ratcheted up anxiety levels, even though the public knew that a repeat of the largely peaceful 2013 elections could not be taken for granted.
“If the worst-case scenario comes to pass, we shall be hiding under our beds trembling, lights off, as election violence rages down the streets,” the columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo wrote recently in the Daily Nation.
The nation was shocked by the discovery of Mr. Musando’s strangled, beaten body on the outskirts of Nairobi last Monday, just as the various campaigns — for the presidency and vice presidency, the governorships, the county assemblies, the National Assembly and the Senate (including some seats set aside for women) — entered the final stretch.
But Mr. Musando was a not a politician. His job was to oversee a sophisticated — and costly — electoral system, in which 19.6 million voter IDs will be biometrically checked against a central register and the final vote count electronically transmitted to a tallying center. A similarly sophisticated system collapsed spectacularly during ballot counting in 2013. “Many Kenyans believe elements within or close to the State to be responsible for this murder,” the Kenya Human Rights Commission has stated, echoing speculation rife on social media and the lips of ordinary Kenyans.
Mr. Musando’s killing — and that of a female friend who was with him — inevitably lends credence to claims by Raila Odinga, the leader of the opposition National Super Alliance, known as NASA, that shadowy state agents bent on seeing President Uhuru Kenyatta returned to office plan to rig Tuesday’s election. Given the closeness of the race, the concerns expressed by Mr. Odinga — who is making his fourth and probably final bid for the presidency — boost the likelihood of opposition supporters hitting the streets, and then of an iron-fisted crackdown by security forces.
In 2013 Mr. Odinga challenged the election results in court but failed to have them invalidated, fueling the opposition’s cynicism toward the legal process. A NASA strategist has warned that the country will “burn” if Mr. Kenyatta is “declared winner in another sham election.” NASA’s announcement over the weekend that American and Canadian election experts working for the opposition had been deported further heightened tensions.
But Musando’s murder, which feels like a throwback to earlier eras, also poses questions of a deeper nature.
Back in the early 2000s, when I was researching a book about corruption in Kenya, the one element never in doubt was its title, “It’s Our Turn to Eat.” I had heard the phrase everywhere, used to justify the plundering of public resources by whichever tribe sat in pole position at any given institution — the key one being State House, the president’s office.
I came to loathe the phrase. Its knee-jerk use sounded like a clanging alarm bell, a warning of the approaching collapse of an entire nation-building project. When President Mwai Kibaki’s faithful among the Kikuyu, the Meru and the Embu were suspected of rigging the 2007 elections to prevent Mr. Odinga’s long-marginalized loyalists in Nairobi, the western part of the country and the coastline from “eating,” the scene was set for pitched battles along strictly ethnic lines.
The fighting that followed jerked Kenyans awake, at least temporarily. It prompted the International Criminal Court to open cases (later dismissed) for crimes against humanity against both Mr. Kenyatta and his vice president, William Ruto. A new Constitution was approved in 2010 that aimed to take the sting out of the contest between Kenya’s five major ethnic groups by diluting the drivers of patronage politics. Under a new devolved system, the powers of the presidency and Parliament were trimmed, and funds were reallocated to brand-new county assemblies and governors. With the state’s resources more widely spread, politicians also had less reason to vie for control of ministries and government departments, and turn them into ethnic fiefs.
And here’s the nub, one too easily missed these days as nerves fray: Devolution is starting to work.
“There’s more accountability, at more levels, than ever before in Kenya,” Nic Cheeseman, an expert on African democracy at the University of Birmingham, told me recently. “The experience of taking politics closer to the people has been transformative, particularly so in the areas farthest from Nairobi.”
In dusty towns in the nomadic north, torpid settlements along the coast and isolated villages in the west, packed rallies and blaring convoys reveal how communities that traditionally viewed government as corrupt, distant and irrelevant are now engaging.
Foreign reporters and Kenya’s Western donors fret over whether the presidential contest will go to a second round — a requirement if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote overall and 25 percent of the vote in at least half of Kenya’s 47 counties. But the local races have gotten voters equally impassioned.
Willy Mutunga, the former chief justice who oversaw the Supreme Court decision to uphold Mr. Kenyatta’s 2013 election victory, believes that devolution is deflating the nation’s obsession with the top executive office. “Why worry about who gets to be president when your governor is changing things at home?” he said. “I put a lot of emphasis on the members of the county assemblies. In the future, Parliament and the MPs won’t count for much.”
Mind-sets are still in the process of shifting, however. “Devolution has drawn some of the poison out of the system, but it hasn’t lanced it completely,” Kwamchetsi Makokha, a newspaper columnist and civil society activist, told me. “There are big appetites out there and not all of that hunger can be satisfied at the county level.”
Skeptics caution that corruption — which has reached new heights under Mr. Kenyatta’s government — has also devolved to the county level, where newly established institutions and an embryonic civil society are struggling to establish accountability. Whatever happens at the ballot box on Tuesday, the contest for one’s turn to eat probably won’t be eliminated so much as reincarnated.
Michela Wrong is the author of It’s Our Turn to Eat. The story of a Kenyan Whistleblower.