Close call

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 16 Aug 2022

Haitham Nouri reports on the Kenya presidential elections

Close call


On Monday evening, Kenya’s electoral commission declared the incumbent Vice President William Ruto the winner in the presidential election against Raila Odinga, a seasoned politician and wealthy businessman who had fielded himself for this office four times before. According to electoral law, the results had to be announced no later than Tuesday, 16 August. Ruto received 50.49 per cent of the vote while Odinga received 48.85 per cent, the electoral commission chairman said.

It has been a fraught wait to see which of the two would secure the highest office in the East African country of 56 million people. Local media were reporting a “head to head race”, as Ruto inched ahead at first and then Odinga took a slight lead. Some headlines, alluding to the ethnic and political tensions surrounding the elections, observed how the suspense has “charged the political climate” in Kenya. Various institutions and organisations have called on the people to remain calm. The Catholic Church, for example, urged Kenyans “be patient and act civilly” during the campaign, polling and tallying processes. Such calls were not without cause. Against the backdrop of the 2007 presidential elections between former president Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, ethnic violence erupted between the Kikuyu people, to which Kibaki and two other presidents belonged, and the Luo people, to which Odinga belongs.

In the last elections, Odinga challenged the results, accusing supporters of the outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the Kenyan independence hero and the country’s first president, of electoral tampering and fraud. The Supreme Court upheld the charge, declared the election invalid and ordered a new presidential election to take place within 60 days. Kenyatta won after Odinga boycotted the revote in protest.

But enemies of the past can be friends today. At the outset of the electoral campaigns in Kenya, which has been one of the most stable countries in Africa since its independence from Britain in 1964, Kenyatta came out in support for his former adversary, Odinga. The stance triggered a rift among the Kikuyu, which accounts for about 20 per cent of the Kenyan population. This ethnic group, from which emerged the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule, has long been a critical and influential voting bloc.

Although neither Odinga nor Ruto are affiliated with the Kikuyu, their running mates are. Odinga chose Martha Karua, a former member of parliament and former minister of justice, as his vice presidential candidate, and Ruto named Rigathi Gachagua, a prominent businessman and current member of parliament, as his. Both come from influential families and are influential in their own right, but they have strikingly different public personas. Karua has established a reputation as a fighter against rampant corruption while Gachagua has found himself on the receiving end of corruption investigations as a defendant in corruption cases.

Many Kikuyans were angered by Kenyatta’s decision. They felt the outgoing president had betrayed his friend, Ruto, who had helped defend him when he was named a suspect in an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the violence in 2007-2008. “The president would never have succeeded had it not been for Ruto,” said the Nairobi based journalist Kasim Tauber. Kenyatta and Ruto appeared separately before the ICC in 2013 on charges of murder, forced displacement and other crimes against humanity committed during the inter civil strife that erupted following the 2007 elections.

“Many here believe that the reason Kenyatta came out in support for Odinga has to do with the tacit but real mutual support between two rich, leading families in the country’s history,” Tauber said.

Kenyatta and Odinga are, themselves, extremely wealthy by African standards. The Pandora Papers revealed that several members of the Kenyatta family are linked to a network of secret offshore companies, one of which reportedly owns a portfolio of bonds and stocks worth over $30 billion.

Although Ruto is also very wealthy, he bills himself as a humble man who picked himself up by the bootstraps selling peanuts and chickens on the highway and therefore understands the suffering of the poor. The theme ran through his populist electoral campaign which promised a programme to distribute $50 million among poor families as mostly salaries.

Odinga pledged to establish a fund to support large-scale infrastructure and manufacturing projects in order to create jobs for the young. About 40 per cent of Kenyan youth are unemployed and 800,000 enter the labour market annually.

Until the electoral commission declared the winner, the results as they were coming in looked so close that, as Tauber put it, “just a few ballot boxes could tilt the outcome in the opposite direction.” He was worried that whoever lost would challenge the results for that very reason. “The ethnic tensions that were fuelled by previous elections could explode at any moment unless reason prevails on both sides.”

Existing ethnic and tribal tensions have been aggravated by the effects of climate change and water shortages in some areas. Severe drought in northeastern and central Kenya plus the sharply declining water level of Lake Turkana as a result of the Jebe III Dam that Ethiopia built on the Omo River have wrought havoc among communities dependent on fishing and herding for their livelihood. Tens of thousands of people have been driven towards the cities and the capital, in particular, generating a demographic time bomb.

In addition to the foregoing, tensions have been mounting for some time between Kenya and Somalia over maritime boundaries. Last year the International Court of Justice ruled in Somalia’s favour, but Kenya rejected the ruling. Then there are the problems with the Somalian Al-Shabaab terrorist group, which has attacked Kenya many times, and ongoing civil warfare in Ethiopia to the north, with its cross-border dimensions. Such factors lead observers to fear that, if domestic tensions spiral in Kenya as a result of the recent elections, they could propel towards border wars or spill over into neighbouring countries in complex and unpredictable ways.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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