This week Kenyans are going through a replay of their disastrous 2007 election, only in super-slow motion. A decade ago, the country endured a disputed election in which the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was running for re-election against opposition leader Raila Odinga. Under intense pressure from the state and surrounded by armed paramilitary police, the head of the electoral commission declared Kibaki the president-elect. (The commissioner would later say that he did not know who had won.)
Within half an hour, as the sun was setting and darkness fell over the grounds of State House, Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in. “With the election now behind us,” he declared, “it’s time for healing and reconciliation.” Rather than healing, his inauguration sparked weeks of violent protests and tit-for-tat ethnic killings that left over 1,300 people dead. The bloodletting ended only when Kibaki and Raila agreed on an arrangement to share power.
On Tuesday, Kenyatta, too, was clearly in a hurry to get the ceremony behind him as soon as he could. He had, after all, been declared the official winner of a hastily arranged repeat election, rammed through despite the expressed reservations of the chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and unseemly pressure on Supreme Court Justices.
The opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition has refused to recognize Kenyatta’s two election victories – the first of which was annulled by the Supreme Court in September, and the second, in October, which was marred by a NASA boycott that undermined its legitimacy. Now the opposition is threatening to swear in its own candidate, none other than Odinga, as President in December.
The Oct. 26 repeat election was a rushed affair, carried out without any reform of the IEBC, whose handling of the earlier election was dismissed by the Supreme Court as riddled with illegalities and irregularities. On the contrary, Kenyatta’s allies in Parliament passed amendments to the Elections Act which were designed to legalize the IEBC’s illegal conduct and to make it impossible for the Supreme Court to annul another presidential election.
It was under these circumstances that Odinga called for a boycott of the election. Kenyatta was then effectively re-elected – even though, according to the IEBC, six out of 10 Kenyan voters had stayed away from the polls. Once again, the outcome was appealed to the Supreme Court but thrown out after the petitioners were denied rights to access the election commission’s servers (which were a huge bone of contention in the successful challenge in August). With the cases out of the way, the path to the inauguration was clear.
Why the rush? Why not negotiate and implement a minimum reforms package before the elections, thus ensuring the result would have a broader base of support among the electorate? After all, this is what ex-dictator Daniel Arap Moi chose to do in 1997 when faced with a similar threat of an opposition boycott of elections.
The reason is simple. Like Kibaki in 2007, Kenyatta wants to conduct talks as president, not as a candidate. Basically, he wants to present Odinga and the Kenyan people with a fait accompli. Any negotiations will no longer be about who gets to sit on the throne. He said as much in his speech when he declared, like Kibaki before him: “Today’s inauguration, therefore, marks the end, and I repeat, the end, of our electoral process. The elections are now firmly behind us.”
The question is now whether the gambit will work. Odinga has blown hot and cold, initially refusing to be sworn in by his supporters and later changing his mind. Among many Kenyans there is genuine fatigue with the economic disruption and the everyday inconveniences caused by the long stand-off. At the same time, there is also a perceptible hardening, militancy even, among Odinga’s supporters. He may be the figurehead, but more and more it feels like the opposition leader is just a passenger carried along on a wave of pent-up anger after a half a century of electoral injustice and marginalization.
It is this simmering rage and disaffection, rather than the more visible political scheming, that poses the greatest risk to the country. While unlikely to explode into the open ethnic violence of 2008, at least in the short term, the resentment will continue to poison the political atmosphere and slowly strangle the nation. And it is this that Kenyatta has consistently failed to acknowledge. The only reference to it on Tuesday was an appeal “to muster the courage to embrace the future by freeing ourselves from the baggage of past grievances.”
“Accept and move on” is how most Kenyans would understand his words. Yet ignoring “the baggage of past grievances” is what Kenya has been trying to do for the last 54 years, and it has not brought the “permanent peace” Kenyatta spoke of in his first inauguration four and a half years ago. But Kenyatta will almost certainly fail to address why our elections are so divisive, why politics is so fragmented along ethnic lines and why the state appears to be built on a logic of exclusion and oppression. To do so would require that Kenyatta confront the very system that has put him where he is, making him the richest man in the land along the way. And this, he has shown time and again, he is unwilling to do.
Sadly, this only stores up worse trouble for Kenya’s future.
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.