JOHANNESBURG, September 30 – Kenya’s 2017 election is a confounding vote because it has carried the country and Africa into uncharted positive territory while simultaneously bringing it back onto familiar, dangerous political ground.
What is new is that Kenya’s Supreme Court took the step — unprecedented in Africa — of nullifying the August 8 poll that had put President Uhuru Kenyatta back into power, after a challenge by losing candidate Raila Odinga.
That’s the first time in Kenya’s post-independence history that the country’s judiciary has thrown out a presidential election, and more importantly, the first time an African court has nullified an incumbent’s election.
The Supreme Court found that there were irregularities in the transmission of election results, and ordered a new vote within 60 days. The re-run is set for October 26.
What’s old, though, is the reaction of Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party, as well as Odinga and his National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition, since the court’s September 1 ruling.
Both sides have in short order pulled out nearly every African election trope there is. That has started to cloud a bright picture painted by the largely peaceful running of the poll and the remarkable judicial ruling.
Since Kenya is one of Africa’s most stable, diverse and developed democracies, the country is a model for the continent writ large.
A FAMILIAR PLAYBOOK
Although Kenyatta has from the start called for calm and said he respects the court’s ruling, he has since threatened the judges, called them crooks and, in a national address, declared their decision a coup.
On top of that, the Jubilee party in Parliament has signaled its intention to change the election laws prior to the re-run, ostensibly to make manual ballots superior to electronic poll tallies.
Odinga has gone back to a familiar playbook he’s followed faithfully after his three successive election losses – claim fraud, threaten or deliver street protests and refuse to follow the law or participate in negotiations when those have not suited his goals.
The latest iteration of that has been street protests and clashes with police by university students in the capital Nairobi this week, as well as NASA’s September 28 decision to walk out of talks on how to manage the rerun election, brokered by the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
The coalition said it had no choice but to leave the talks after the ruling party said it would change the election law and the IEBC’s powers. NASA wants the election officials in charge of the last poll to step down and is also threatening street protests starting October 2 until it gets what it wants.
That Kenya has reverted to this point is surprising given how well things started in this year’s election, despite the usual Western media prognostications of election violence and corruption.
Those fears are not entirely unfounded, since Kenya’s 2007 election spilled into months of bloodshed that killed at least 1,200 people, displaced 600,000 and wrecked the economy after Odinga lost and claimed election fraud.
VICTORY FOR AFRICA?
This time, there was sporadic violence, including the chilling murder of the man in charge of the electronic vote-tallying system, Chris Msando, barely a week before the poll. But in terms of Kenya’s baseline for election violence, this one was a smooth operation that won accolades from election observers including the European Union and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
He and other Western diplomats were quick to urge Odinga to take his case to the courts and to respect the law. That it worked and the court asserted its constitutional powers elicited appropriate shock from the many Kenyans and external observers whose expectations of Kenya’s judiciary are low.
While the jockeying and strong words from both sides during the interregnum before the rerun are to be expected, it would be a mistake to underestimate the possibility that the present situation could devolve into either a political crisis or, worse, a spasm of violence.
Although in the last two elections in 2013 and 2017, Kenyans have chosen peace over political violence, the memories of 2007 are still fresh in their minds.
What is all but certain is that government will ensure the election goes ahead on October 26, with or without the participation of Odinga’s coalition, which has threatened to stay on the sidelines and take its case to the streets.
That has rarely turned out well for Kenya, or for Odinga and his supporters.
Kenya’s 2017 election cycle started out on a good foot, producing a historic decision for the nation and Africa. Now, the actions of Kenya’s politicians will decide whether this election ends up in the history books as a victory for the continent and country, and not just for those who will win the right to rule the East African nation.
— Bryson Hull is a correspondent for News-Decoder. He covered the 2007 and 2013 Kenyan elections during two stints as a journalist based out of Nairobi. He worked first for Reuters as the deputy chief correspondent, East Africa, from 2004-2008, and later as an editor for Bloomberg from 2012-13.