Despite claims of irregularity and the continuing risk of unrest, Kenya’s pivotal national and local elections on 8 August passed off in a largely peaceful manner. Millions of voters braved the elements and long queues, turning out to elect their representatives in an orderly fashion and, in so doing, demonstrating faith in their democratic system. This is an achievement that now must be protected and fortified.
The vote in one of Africa’s major democracies was fraught with danger, as Crisis Group has documented. A history of election-related violence, ethnic divisions and high stakes made for a potentially explosive combination. The world was watching closely, sending more than 5,000 foreign observers, drawn from all major regional and international organisations. In the end, all of these missions, including the African Union, the East African Community, the Carter Center, the European Union (EU), the National Democratic Institute and the Commonwealth expressed confidence in the electoral process and praised it as broadly credible. The expensive electronic system designed to curb cheating, which many feared would not hold up, appears to largely have functioned well.
There have been some violent incidents and the situation could still take a more dangerous turn. Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, claims the vote-counting system was hacked and manipulated; the opposition released its own vote tallies claiming Odinga had won by a wide margin. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has denied these charges. On 11 August, the commission released final tallies according to which incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta secured a second term with 8.4 million votes (54.27 percent) against Odinga’s 6.7 million (44.7 percent).
Following Odinga’s statements claiming vote rigging, protests erupted in parts of Nairobi and the western town of Kisumu, resulting in five deaths. There are fears tensions could rise now that authorities have announced the final official results.
Political leaders from both sides need to demonstrate restraint and responsibility. In particular, Odinga should take any challenge of the outcome to the courts –not the streets. He should urge his supporters to remain calm and firmly denounce any violence against security forces. For his part, Uhuru Kenyatta should be magnanimous in victory, reach out to opposition supporters and fulfill his pledge to run an inclusive government in his second term. Security forces should avoid escalating the situation and display conflict-sensitive policing aimed at defusing tensions.
The people of Kenya displayed remarkable patience and enthusiasm on voting day. This was a welcome endorsement of democracy at a time of discernible regression in other parts of the continent.
Yet this election is but one step on Kenya’s path to greater stability and democracy. Odinga’s rejection of the results, and the backing he received from his supporters, illustrates how deeply sceptical many Kenyans remain toward their public institutions. The electoral commission will need to build confidence in its systems, while ensuring that logistical and technical preparations as well as proper civic education take place well ahead of the next polls.
More broadly, the next government must address key drivers of electoral violence, especially the ethnic divisions that continue to bedevil Kenya and its politics. As the EU observer mission noted, too many politicians relied on identity politics to rally support. Fearing ethnic clashes, many Kenyans fled from urban areas before the election. Former U.S. President Barack Obama, in a statement issued on the eve of the vote, called on Kenyans to “reject a politics of tribe and ethnicity, and embrace the extraordinary potential of an inclusive democracy”. That is wise counsel. The country’s civil society, its vibrant independent media in particular, should seek ways to promote political activism without resorting to ethnic solidarity.
More should be done to promote gender equality as well. For the first time in Kenya’s history, three women were elected to lead governorates created under the 2010 constitution. Several women also were elected to parliament. That is a noteworthy advance. But the Kenyan constitution requires that at least a third of parliament members be women; the results fall far short of that. The previous parliament failed to pass laws to implement this rule. The new one should make it a priority.
Threats remain and the road ahead is certain to be bumpy. It remains unclear how Odinga’s supporters will react to his rejection of the results; sustained protests are possible if he refuses to concede. Still, this was an important election that could have gone very wrong. That it did not, at least for now, is cause for satisfaction. Now, the task before the Kenyan people is to work together, try to forge greater national unity and heal the divisions that the electoral process has once more laid bare.