Five reasons why Kenya is unlikely to repeat 2007’s post-election violence


Everywhere you look, especially in the U.S. and European media, coverage of Monday’s Kenyan election is superseded by one central question.kenya

Will Kenya resort to the kind of ethnic-based political violence that occurred after the last election in 2007?

Of course, the presidential race is tight — the candidate of the ‘Jubilee’ alliance, Uhuru Kenyatta (the son of Kenya’s first president), is essentially tied with the candidate of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) alliance, Raila Odinga (Kenya’s prime minister and the son of Kenya’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga).

Furthermore, the two major coalitions — Jubilee and CORD — are loose patchwork alliances of Kenyan ethnic groups, some of whom were allied in 2007 and some of whom were not, and they pit Kenyatta’s Kikuyu ethnic group against Odinga’s Luo ethnic group.

But it’s still unlikely that Kenya will repeat anything like the 2007-08 violence, which led to the deaths of over 1,000 Kenyans and displaced nearly 200,000 more after incumbent Mwai Kibaki was widely seen to have used vote-buying, vote-tampering and, ultimately, fraudulent vote counting, to retain the presidency against the challenge from Odinga.  Two months of harrowing fighting followed before Kibaki agreed to share power with Odinga, who subsequently became prime minister.

Kenya remains on alert, of course, but scenes like those pictured above — a peace concert last week in Nairobi designed to promote Kenyan unity throughout the campaign and its aftermath — tell us more about the narrative of this year’s Kenyan election.

There’s really no reason to believe that there’s a likelier chance of violence today than there was after the August 2010 constitutional referendum, which came and went without significant tumult.

So while the world (especially Western policymakers and media) holds its collective breath waiting for more turmoil, here are five reasons why it’s a smarter bet that Kenya won’t repeat its 2007-08 experience. 

1.  It’s the economy, stupid.

The violence last time around gave Kenya a head-start on the economic maelstrom that would engulf the rest of the world later that year in the global economic crisis — its GDP dropped nearly 4% in the first quarter of 2008 and Kenya managed only around 1.5% growth in 2008.  Growth has bounced back since then, but The Economist has cited a Harvard study that finds Kenyan economic growth has only returned to around 4%, far less than the 7% growth Kenya was posting before the 2007 election — and should be posting today.

All of the key players in the upcoming election from all of Kenya’s major ethnic groups, including not just Odinga (Luo) and Kenyatta (Kikuyu), but also Kenyatta’s running mate William Ruto (Kalenjin), Odinga’s running mate Kalonzo Musyoka (Kamba), and another candidate, deputy prime minister Musalia Mudavadi (Luhya), have all been involved intimately in Kenya’s political system throughout the past decade.  They remember the damage that the last election caused, and none of them are enthusiastic about dealing themselves and Kenya’s finances yet another a self-inflicted blow.

2.  The whole world’s eyes are on Kenya.

Precisely because of the 2007 election’s aftermath, the whole world is watching Kenya, for all the reasons you’d expect — it’s a key regional U.S. ally, Nairobi is the hub for international affairs throughout east Africa, and discord in Kenya would distract perilously from plenty of regional instability in Somalia, Congo, South Sudan, Uganda and elsewhere.

Furthermore, with Kenyatta and Ruto both indicted for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (despite doubts about whether prosecutors can win and doubts about whether Kenyatta and Ruto intend to fully cooperate with the court), they will certainly not want to be seen promoting further violence.  Indeed, throughout the campaign, Kenyatta has condemned the relatively rare bursts of violence directed from his camp toward Odinga’s supporters.

3.  Constitutional reforms have vastly reduced the key catalysts of the 2007 violence. 

In August 2010, Kenya adopted a new constitution that goes a long way in addressing many of the issues that made the 2007 election such a tinderbox (aside from the fact of ethnic rivalry), including electoral reforms to strengthen Kenyan democracy,  discernible progress on land reform, and a new settlement in the relationship between the centralized Kenyan government and Kenya’s eight provinces.

Under the new constitution, if no presidential candidate wins both at least 50% of the vote and at least 25% of the vote in 24 out of 47 Kenyan counties, the top two contenders will face a runoff.  Although it’s possible that either Kenyatta or Odinga could win outright on March 4, it seems likelier that the race will progress to a Kenyatta-Odinga showdown.  That would provide a bit of a pressure valve after the initial election.

The newly created Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission under Kenya’s constitution was designed to create an independent agency to prosecute elections as cleanly, fairly and freely as possible — it controls voter rolls, candidate registration, and the monitoring of national elections.  That will, hopefully, go a long way in ameliorating the electoral fraud of the 2007 vote that served as the immediate catalyst for post-election protests.

The constitution also created an independent National Land Commission, which has been tasked with sorting out how to adjudicate land with no clear title — or many clear titles, and otherwise to recommend how to develop a land policy that prioritizes the most effective and efficient use of land currently tied up in legal battles.  The commission has been slow getting to business — Kibaki named the members of the commission only earlier in February after quite a bit of wrangling within Kenya’s judiciary.

Furthermore, some of the fiercest fighting of the 2007-08 violence stemmed from tensions over land, in particular, between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin groups.  Ironically, Kenyatta and Ruto, who both face ICC charges today stemming from violence between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin (who were on different sides in the 2007 election battle), are now running mates in the 2013 election.  The advent of the land commission, along with the resumption of the Kikuyu-Kalenjin alliance, means that another one of the key catalysts of violence won’t be nearly as volatile.

Finally, the constitution created 47 counties and has delivered unprecedented devolution of power to county government — that gives, for example, local control to the Mijikenda people and Muslims on Kenya’s coast after years of resentment against a mostly Kikuyu-led and Christian federal government in Nairobi.  To the extent Kenyans from the coast to the Rift Valley have more control over decision-making in their own provinces and counties, it makes the presidential election less of a zero-sum proposition with respect to local government.

4.  The election dynamics in 2013 are much different.

In 2007, Odinga was challenging an incumbent, Kibaki, amid ever greater disillusion, as new details emerged about the Goldenberg scandal from the arap Moi years (a corruption scheme whereby his government subsidized gold exports, diverting huge amounts of public funds to Goldenberg International) and newer scandals, such as Anglo Leasing (top Kibaki officials simply made up a company — Anglo Leasing — and doled out make-believe government contracts with public funds that weren’t make-believe).

This time around, with Kibaki stepping down, so the election of either Odinga or Kenyatta will provide an opportunity for rupture from the current administration.

But the transfer of power from Kibaki to either candidate will also be a more symbolic passing of the torch, given that Kibaki is the third and last president of Kenya’s independence generation.  Remember that Kibaki was there alongside Jomo Kenyatta as Kenya transformed from a British colony into an independent African nation in 1963 — he helped draft Kenya’s initial constitution, and he served as the longtime finance minister from 1969 to 1982.

Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga are both tied in obvious ways to the independence generation because of their fathers, and they are both tied to the current administration — Odinga as prime minister since 2008 and Kenyatta as Kenya’s finance minister from 2009-12.  So while they both represent continuity, both are also part of a new generation of Kenyan leadership that also includes Mudavadi and Ruto.

No matter which candidate wins the election, it will also mark the transfer of power from the independence generation to the new guard.

Furthermore, the 2010 constitutional reforms, as regards elections, and the return of Kikuyu-Kalenjin unity in 2013, has empowered further strides in deepening Kenyan civil society — not only did Kenya host two spirited presidential debates, a first for east African democracy, Kenyatta was essentially shamed into rethinking his decision to duck the final debate.

5. Ethnic tensions in Kenya didn’t emerge out of nowhere in 2007.

The Christian Science Monitor dutifully reports that Kenya has been ‘for decades a bastion of stability and trust in an unpredictable region,’ but that’s hardly the case.

Ethnic tensions were present at the time of independence, they played a huge role in the early years of Kenya’s post-independence government — dominated by Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta and a mostly Kikuyu political elite.  Ethnic tensions again flared in the aftermath of the assassination of Tom Mboya, the minister of economic planning and development (and potential successor to Kenyatta) in 1969.  Furthermore, Daniel arap Moi, who presided over one-party rule in Kenya from 1978 to 2002, skillfully exploited ethnic rivalries to remain in power for a quarter-century.

The Christian Science Monitor also notes that ‘in Kenya, this is not supposed to happen…. It is supposed to be mature, peaceful, a model rule-of-law democracy.’

Again, when in the past half-century was Kenya ever a mature, model rule-of-law democracy?  In the authoritarian arap Moi years? Or in the following decade, when political parties have really just been hastily assembled alliances of ethnic groups? That doesn’t sound much like a model democracy at all.

I don’t mean to pick on The Christian Science Monitor in particular, because the meme has been repeated time after time throughout much of the campaign coverage outside Kenya.  But to report on the 2007-08 violence as an anomaly is to fail to place the post-election violence into the context of Kenyan’s post-independence political history.

Ethnic tension is an enduring feature of the past 50 years of Kenyan nationhood — it wasn’t triggered for the first time out of the blue in 2007.  In the short-term, that means there’s no reason to believe that next Monday’s election will necessarily trigger any new violence.

In the long run, however, Kenya’s past suggests that the country could well face ethnic-based conflict in the future, especially if Kenya’s leaders fail to see through land reforms suggested by the new commission and if they fail to provide economic opportunities for Kenya’s exploding population.

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