What ails Kenya’s elections? Thoughts on a way forward

Unfortunately, Kenya’s election is becoming a circus. We had elections on August 8th that were annulled by Supreme Court over irregularities and illegalities. So, we then had another election on October 26th that was boycotted by the leading opposition figure, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and his supporters. Before or immediately after the electoral commission announces the winner – depending on when vote tallying is concluded – the opposition will be making a major pronouncement.  The opposition may demand that fresh elections be held in 90 days.  The 26th October election was affected by some violent protests in opposition strongholds leading to the postponement of elections indefinitely in four of Kenya’s forty-seven counties.  The low turnout may have been affected by voter apathy in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s strongholds, and Raila Odinga’s supporters heeding his call for a boycott in his strongholds. Given that the turnout in repeat elections is generally low compared to the original election, I predict an even lower voter turnout should there be a third election. So what is the solution?

Voters queuing at a previous election in Kenya.

Voters queuing at a previous election in Kenya.

Ultimately, I think Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – and all Kenyans of good will – must begin to dialogue because the root cause of the problem is the belief by the opposition supporters that they are not fairly represented in the executive. Ironically, the Constitution – promulgated in 2010 – provided for the devolution of power as a means of eliminating a ‘winner takes all’ scenario. But, it was based upon the USA’s constitution and therefore locks out opposition leaders from parliament. So, it effectively renders experienced politicians jobless for five years, twiddling their thumbs, until another electoral cycle. Importantly, in the U.S, nationhood is not secondary to ethnic loyalties. The Kenyan Constitution is very progressive on other aspects such as the Bill of Rights and other democratic tenets. However, in terms of governance, the constitution limits the executive branch of Government to 22 ministries in a country with 44 ethnic groups (Kenyan Indians were recently declared the 44th).

Richard Chirchir has designed and built Management Information Systems for social protection programmes across Africa and Asia including the Social Assistance Grant for Empowerment MIS in Uganda, the MIS for Kenya’s four main SP programmes, and providing advice on Pakistan’s Benazir Income Support Programme.

Richard Chirchir has designed and built Management Information Systems for social protection programmes across Africa and Asia including the Social Assistance Grant for Empowerment MIS in Uganda, the MIS for Kenya’s four main SP programmes, and providing advice on Pakistan’s Benazir Income Support Programme.

Generally, government programmes are rolled out nationally, including the planned universal pension, Inua Jamii 70+. But, because Kenya is ethically divided – thanks to the European partition of Africa in 1800s which brought together different small nations into one country – the Kenyan nationhood is generally subservient to ethnic loyalties.  Of course, we cannot continue blaming the British and Europeans. We have had 50 years of independence but have been held back because politicians have found it easy to mobilise people along ethnic lines, a phenomenon President Barrack Obama characterised as ‘lack of imagination’! However, given the reality of Kenya at the present time, I personally think it is necessary for the vast majority of ethnic groups to be in Cabinet and feel part of government – as a form of representation of these multiple ‘small nations’ – instead of necessarily prioritising a lean and efficient cabinet.

Such an inclusive cabinet can avoid being unnecessarily bloated and unwieldy like the one formed after 2007/2008 post-election crisis.  There are international examples of countries that face the challenge of multiple ethnicities from which Kenya can learn. Belgium deals with multiple ethnicities by ensuring that losers in elections are rewarded with political positions. So, Belgium does not have a ‘winner takes all’ model. The Northern Ireland government has been set up to function as a coalition between Irish nationalists and British Unionists, as a means of ending a longstanding armed conflict. And, in national crises it is common for different political parties to join in governments of national unity, sharing out positions between themselves. Closer to home, Uganda has a broader national government outlook with a President, Vice President, First Prime Minister, Second Prime Minister, 26 Cabinet Secretaries and more importantly 50 state ministers (who are effectively ceremonial). That provides Uganda with a broad national face.

The sad thing is that both Uhuru and Raila supported the new Constitution when it was proposed despite it not addressing Kenya’s traditional socio-ethnic interests. I also thought it was transformative and progressive, so voted for it. So, elections – irrespective of the number of times we do them and however credible, transparent and fair – are just camouflaging a grievance on political exclusion. What is needed is a constructive national dialogue to deal with the issue of political exclusion and to build a pathway to a constitutional review.

Unfortunately, the current stand-off is deepening ethnic divisions, with an effect on the economy, and therefore livelihoods.

3 Responses to “What ails Kenya’s elections? Thoughts on a way forward”

  1. bdernd Schubert Reply

    Congratulations, Richard. You seem to constantly broaden your range of interest and proficiency. Your blog contains a lot of common sense and will hopefully be read by the right people. Maybe you should get involved in Politics.
    Regards, Bernd

  2. Hjordis Ogendo Reply

    Interesting article. I agree with your conclusion that Kenya needs a constructive dialogue to embrace political inclusiveness.

  3. Catherine Fitzgibbon Reply

    Really thoughtful and interesting assessment Richard – I hope someone in power is listening to you!

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