Six months ago, a landslide re-election victory for President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017 seemed likely. Not any more.
Over the last couple of weeks, opposition parties in Kenya have staged public protests across the country demanding personnel changes at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Kenya’s electoral management body (EMB). This Monday’s demonstrations turned violent in some towns and cities, with at least four people reported dead at the hands of anti-riot police.
The organisers of the protests have vowed to keep at it every Monday until the current IEBC commissioners resign.
Here are the five things you should know about the protests:
1) A plurality of Kenyans have lost faith in the IEBC
In the run up to the 2013 election, several members of the commission (then known as IIEC) and its secretariat were implicated in what became known as the chickengate scandal involving a number of British companies. Representatives of these UK companies were found guilty in British courts, and court documents explicitly mentioned the Kenyans that were bribed by these individuals. Yet a number of those Kenyans named continue to remain in office — including the chairman of the commission, Issack Hassan. It is partially for this reason that a plurality of Kenyans (including politicians on both sides of the political divide) have lost faith in the IEBC.
2) Opposition politicians believe the IEBC favours Uhuru Kenyatta and the Jubilee Alliance
The opposition coalition CORD (in my view, erroneously) maintains that the IEBC was used to rig the 2013 election in favour of President Uhuru Kenyatta. The opposition party KANU has recently accused the same body of rigging the Kericho senatorial by-election in favour of the Jubilee candidate. CORD has also argued that its failure to meet the threshold for a popular referendum (dubbed Okoa Kenya) — whose main objective was a change in Kenya’s electoral laws — was a result of bias within the electoral commission.
CORD wants the IEBC reconstituted and the new commission to have proportional representation of parliamentary political parties. Although the constitution lays out the procedure for removing commissioners of an independent entity like the IEBC — namely, through Parliament — CORD is wary of this option due to its minority status in the legislature. It therefore initially pinned its hopes on a popular referendum. But when that failed it resorted to mass action in a bid to strategically influence any eventual institutional reform of the IEBC. In my view this outcome can partially be blamed on the failure of the Jubilee leadership of the National Assembly.
3) The Kenyatta administration is caught between a rock and a hard place
On the one hand, it is hard for the administration to defend an obviously tainted electoral commission. This would also go against its continued claim that the IEBC is an independent body. But at the same time, the administration needs a reform path that will not embolden the opposition.
The thinking within the Jubilee Alliance appears to be that if they give in to CORD on IEBC, what will the opposition demand next? The contention that any and all reforms touching on the IEBC should follow constitutionally stipulated channels is partly motivated by this fear. Therefore, if CORD is genuine about its demands for surgical reforms specifically targeting the IEBC, its leadership should perhaps think of a way to signal to the Kenyatta Administration that their reform agenda is limited in scope. From a purely political standpoint, President Kenyatta has reason to be cautious about the possibility of opening a Pandora’s Box of constitutional reforms.
4) Police brutality is still common
One of the goals of Kenya’s new political dispensation following the adoption of a new constitution in 2010 was police reform; the majority of the 1,300 killed in the post-election violence of 2007-8 were shot by police. The institution even changed the name of the Police Force to Police Service, and an independent oversight authority was created to democratise the institution through civilian oversight.
But Kenya’s experiences since 2013 has shown that these attempts at reform have not yielded any tangible results. The Police Service is still as corrupt as ever and has little consideration for constitutional limits to its use of force. This means that more Kenyans will be killed at the hands of the police if the Monday protests continue.
5) The 2017 presidential contest be more competitive than most think
Six months ago I would have predicted a landslide re-election victory for President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017. Not any more.
President Kenyatta is still the favourite to win because of incumbency advantage, but the jostling over control of the IEBC and the Supreme Court are tell-tale signs that the political class is expecting a close contest that will likely be disputed. It says a lot that despite being the incumbent, Kenyatta’s poll numbers have stubbornly stuck in the low 40s, for which he can thank mind-blowing corruption and general incompetence.
This means that unless we see a drastic shift in regional alliances, next year’s election will most likely go to a run-off contest between Kenyatta and former prime minister Raila Odinga — which will be close. All the more reason to have credible institutions in the form of a trusted IEBC and a Supreme Court beyond reproach.
What does this say about overall political stability in Kenya? At this point in time, I am a lot more worried about county-level electoral violence than a 2007-08 style national disaster. That said, there is reason to fear that continued police brutality, especially that targeting opposition supporters, may trigger wider civilian violence against presumed Jubilee supporters.
It is a little too early to talk specifics about next year’s presidential election. But what is clear is that Kenyatta’s re-election battle will not be a walk in the park.
This article was originally published on An Africanist Perspective.
Ken Opalo is an Assistant Professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he is a faculty member of the African Studies Program and an affiliate of the Georgetown University Initiative on Innovation, Development, and Evaluation.