Kenya goes to the polls – again

Friday, 1 September 2017
Richard Dowden

The cancellation of Kenya’s recent election shows that – so far – Kenya’s new constitution has held. The legitimacy of the election was called into question and the result was annulled by a panel of seven senior judges. What happens next is a test of the politicians. Will they accept the court ruling or resort to violence?  It is significant that one of the two judges who did not vote for a rerun is Luo – ethnic allegiances cannot be taken for granted even in Kenya’s deeply divided ethnicities. 

Kenya politics have always been rough and often murderous. In 2007, Kenya exploded in ethnic warfare. But it was only partly spontaneous. Much of the arming and killing was paid for by the political bosses. The biggest battles being between Kikuyu,  Kalenjin and Luo. Anyone in the “wrong” area was killed and their property seized. Thousands were forced to leave their homes. There has never been a formal casualty count. An international team headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan was brought in to hold an inquiry but witnesses were murdered or intimidated and process collapsed but before the inquiry was abandoned the names of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were cited. They refused to go to the International Criminal Court at The Hague and witnesses were hunted down and intimidated into renouncing their statements or going into hiding. It was agreed that they be tried in Kenya but the cases never came to court.

In this election Chris Msando, the senior technology manager of the new digital electoral machinery, was kidnaped and murdered just before the election in August. That was just the latest in a long series of Kenyan political murders. In 1969 Tom Mboya, a prominent politician was assassinated. In 1990 Robert Ouko, a minister who upset President Daniel arap Moi was abducted and murdered. There have been many others. Of course the politicians will not be violent themselves but almost all employ gangs of thugs to protect them and attack rivals.

Even if Kenya stays peaceful the cost will be astronomic. The election cost 50 billion Kenya shillings. The GDP is $70 Billion. There are no statutory spending limits of elections and Kenyan politics are massively monetised. They call it eating and sometimes that is exactly what it is. If you want to get into parliament you must demonstrate that you are rich and can feed your people. So they hold Nyama Choma meetings. It means “roasted meat”, huge gatherings were cows are slaughtered and cooked and local beer is provided. This proves to the electorate that you are rich and can bring resources to the constituency. Few Kenyans would vote for a poor man with only a bicycle. MPs are expected to give their voters something real and immediate. Many politicians travel round handing out bundles of shillings to their constituents.  

The system is exceedingly expensive so MPs have to recoup their outlay by stealing whatever they can from the state and voting in parliament for higher and higher expenses. Kenyan MP salaries are slightly lower than those in the UK but their overall income is far greater as they are given cars, houses and barely-checked cash expenses tax free. 

The Kenyan political system is also multi layered so Kenyans have to vote for five different candidates representing the political system from Presidency to village. The election rerun means the candidates will have to do this all over again and many will not be able to afford it. Whether this will make for a better, fairer election remains to be seen.