Elections in Kenya – The opportunity for change that nobody believes in

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Oskar Jönsson – The upcoming elections in Kenya once more divide the nation along ethnic borders and create tensions that might again erupt into violence. Meanwhile, people don’t think much will change, regardless of the outcome. 

Election posters everywhere, people in brightly coloured attires displaying their party affiliation, heated discussions among friends in the streets and shiny new vehicles of the campaigning parties racing from one rally to another. Kenya is at the peak of the campaigning season for its august 8th general election and the feelings are running high. While many candidates are running for the presidency, only two stand a real chance of winning: The incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta (whose father was the first president of Kenya) and his Jubilee party and his opponent Raila Odinga, who leads the opposition coalition National Super Alliance (NASA). The closer the election date is coming, the more the tension rises in society and foreigners are actively encouraged to leave the country during the time around the election. People fear that the outcome of the election will not be accepted by the supporters of the losing side and that post-election violence will erupt like after the 2007 general election, where at least 1’300 people were killed and over 600’000 displaced in clashes between the supporters of the two rivaling candidates and police forces trying to control the situation. While the politicians are calling for a peaceful election no matter the outcome, some of the drivers of the 2007 post-election violence are still around.

Ethnic divide

As in most African countries, tribal affiliation plays an important role in society. Therefore, it is not surprising that the more numerous tribes in the country, in this case the Kikuyu (largest tribe, represented by Kenyatta) and the Luo (4th largest tribe, represented by Odinga) dominate Kenyan politics, while the other tribes associate with the tribe/party to which they have traditionally friendly relations. This divide along ethnic borders regularly causes violence when the presidential candidates venture into “enemy territory” for campaigning rallies . Furthermore, the divide is seemingly that strong, that the incumbent president Kenyatta can stay away from the presidential debate, leaving Odinga with 90 primetime minutes on Kenyan television, praising his ideas for a changed Kenya. All because being elected is neither about taking the population seriously, nor about your ideas for the future of the country, but all about what tribes you are affiliated with.

Institutional Challenge

Another issue is connected to the formalities around the election. Kenya is a vast country with many sparsely and also nomadic populated areas, which makes the election a logistic nightmare, with more than 40’000 polling stations to be served. Because of past allegations of rigged elections, an Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has been established, in order to ensure transparency and fairness. Despite this noble mission, not all its undertakings have lived up to its name, namely in the voters registration and ballot procurement, where the incumbent government was seemingly favored. The opposition has accordingly not remained silent and filed many court cases against the IEBC, which, while some of them are certainly righteous, haven’t exactly enabled the IEBC in doing its job properly, risking a delay of the election date.

Corruption and Distrust

While distrust between government and opposition is more of a natural phenomenon, there is also a deeply rooted distrust for politicians. Talking to the people in the street about the elections, everybody refers to the widespread corruption in the country (which is also complained about by the politicians themselves) and argue that they don’t believe that much will change, regardless of election outcome. “It’s about choosing the lesser evil” most people say, which probably translates into voting for the candidate of the affiliated tribe, because this maximizes the likelihood that your hometown will soon be connected to the power grid.
Oskar is studying for a Master in Environmental Science at ETH Zurich and is a member of Foraus since this year. At the time of writing, he was attending asummerschool on Renewable Energy and Urban Mobility in Nairobi, organised by the Swiss Study Foundation and Aiducation International.

Picture: Wikipedia