For Kenyans Who Survived Post-Election Violence, U.S. Race Feels Like Déjà Vu

For Kenyans Who Survived Post-Election Violence, U.S. Race Feels Like Déjà Vu

NAIROBI — A firebrand populist positions himself as the savior of a marginalized segment of the electorate. He whips his supporters into a frenzy, implying that a loss at the polls would mean the destruction of democracy itself. Then he rejects the outcome of the election as rigged and acts surprised when some of his supporters resort to violence.

Could the story of Kenya’s disputed 2007 vote, which ignited a bloody melee that left more than 1,000 people dead, be a harbinger of America’s future on Election Day? The parallels are clear enough to have inspired a trending hashtag: #RailaAnotherTrump is a jab at Raila Odinga, who ran for president in 2007 and is still the leader of the political opposition. But it’s American voters who may find it the most painful to read.

“Raila and Trump, the presidential candidates who believe the media is rigged and elections will be rigged too,” writes one Twitter user.

“Trump inciting his poor & uneducated whites to bring fracas if he dose [sic] not win, just like Raila does with his minions!” writes another.

Kenya knows what it means to have its democratic process upended. And although the comparisons to this year’s fraught U.S. presidential campaign are imperfect — international observers said Kenya’s 2007 vote was actually “flawed” and politicians on all sides fueled the subsequent violence — there is a sense that Kenyans have seen this movie before.

Having promoted the idea of a vast global conspiracy aimed at denying him the White House, Donald Trump says he won’t necessarily accept the electoral result. Many in Trump Nation say they’re expecting a revolution in the event of a win by Hillary Clinton, and some right-wing militias have reportedly already begun to mobilize. Against this backdrop, it’s not difficult to imagine some overzealous supporters of the Republican nominee rejecting the outcome and vowing to install him as the “people’s president,” as Odinga’s supporters threatened in 2007.

“People saying, ‘I won’t accept the result, and maybe I’ll take up arms.’ That is very striking, it is very chilling, and it has a familiar ring,” says Murithi Mutiga, a columnist at the Daily Nation, Kenya’s most widely circulated newspaper. “The most dangerous parallel is preparing people for only one outcome: that we’ll either win or the outcome is rigged.”

Kenyan Sen. Naisula Lesuuda, a member of the ruling party, tells me that she also sees echoes of the traumatic 2007 election. “When you are telling people that the election will be rigged, you are preparing them psychologically to reject the result. You are preparing them for chaos. We have seen that here, and we have seen that in other African countries, but we, of course, don’t expect to see that in the U.S.,” she says.

There are more subtle parallels, as well. What Mutiga calls the “radical transparency” of the U.S. election, brought about by WikiLeaks and other high-profile leaks to the press, has exposed a seedy underside of American politics that feels very familiar in this part of the world.

“It’s a type of politics people recognize,” Mutiga says. “And the way you see them sharing news on Facebook is, ‘Oh, they are just like us. Their leaders are also compromised and on the take.’”

The filth seems to have repelled many Kenyans. Unlike the last two U.S. elections, when Barack Obama’s candidacy electrified his father’s ancestral homeland, the mood this time around has been more subdued. There are no minibuses emblazoned with the likenesses of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, although one still occasionally sees Obama-themed public transport.

The market for election-related merchandise is similarly barren. Whereas entire “Obama shops” dedicated to presidential swag popped up across Africa in 2008 and 2012, I’ve had trouble tracking down even a single Clinton- or Trump-themed trinket.

“You had Obama, and then you go to this. It’s a bit underwhelming,” is how my friend Jisas Lemasagarai, who works in finance in Nairobi, explains it. “So there is less interest in the U.S. election in that sense, though there’s interest just because people want to see what this crazy guy is going to do and whether the U.S. electorate is crazy enough to elect him.”

Gaddafi Abdullahi, who manages one of the larger bookstores in downtown Nairobi, tells me there has been no appreciable spike in sales of books by or about either American candidate. “There have been a few customers that came in asking, ‘Do you have any Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton books?’ But honestly not that many.”

In addition to Living History, Clinton’s 2003 memoir, Abdullahi carries three different titles by Trump, including Think Like a Billionaire and Trump: How to Get Rich. None is flying off the shelves. Since January, he tells me, he has sold a total of seven Trump books.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t staunch supporters of both candidates. Veteran trade unionist Francis Atwoli, who is famous for his ostentatious gold jewelry and watches, went on television recently dressed in a Trump shirt and pledged allegiance to the New York real estate mogul. Obama’s controversial half-brother Malik, now living in the United States, has also come out for Trump.

“I like Donald Trump because he speaks from the heart.… Make America Great Again is a great slogan,” Malik told the New York Post, adding that he was “very disappointed” in Obama’s presidency.

But most members of the Kenyan chattering classes I’ve spoken to are what I would describe as reluctant Clinton supporters. They recognize the enormous damage that a ban on Muslim immigration could do to the economy of a country that is between 10 and 20 percent Muslim and increasingly dependent on remittances. (Kenya’s diaspora, much of it in the United States, sent more than $1.5 billion back to Kenya in 2015.)

“Donald Trump wants to create an exclusive America,” says Thomas Leremore, who ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 2013 and will be a candidate for deputy governor of Samburu County next year. “That’s not good for the Kenyans in America, and it’s not good for the Kenyans in Kenya who depend on the money that is sent back.”

Trump’s isolationist impulses haven’t played well here either. “Beside his other unattractive attributes, Donald Trump has trumpeted his opposition to free trade,” Wallace Kantai, the business editor at the Kenyan television channel NTV, says via email. “This obviously imperils trade deals such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which have been beneficial to many African countries, as well as initiatives such as President Obama’s ‘Power Africa’ and ‘Trade Africa.’”

And Kenyans haven’t forgotten the “Birther” movement Trump helped spawn, which many viewed as racist. “It’s been very peculiar watching from a distance, seeing Kenya bandied around almost as a dirty word,” Mutiga says. “A lot of people took offense to the general Birther movement, at the attempts to ‘other’ Obama, at the efforts to color Kenya as this backward place.”

That’s not to say all Kenyans are turned off by Trump’s divisive rhetoric. The other side of the Birther coin, of course, is the belief that Obama is a secret Muslim. And as the Somali militant group al-Shabab has ramped up its attacks in Kenya, the country has experienced an attendant surge in American-style Islamophobia.

Earlier this year, I was in a jail in the town of Isiolo, a little less than 200 miles north of Nairobi, attempting to gain access to Ethiopian prisoners for a story I was writing on migration. Isiolo is majority Muslim, but one of the wardens told me he was Roman Catholic. He turned out to be an ardent Trump supporter: “You can’t trust Muslims. Most of them are terrorists or are helping the terrorists,” he told me. “Donald Trump understands this.”

Even those Kenyans who share Trump’s distrust of Muslims are not flocking to him in droves, however. And among the political class, his candidacy has been greeted largely with a sense of dread. What worries people most about Trump is the same thing that makes his campaign seem so familiar: his potential to divide people in destabilizing ways.

“It’s scary that Donald Trump can have 40 percent or 43 percent of people who support him,” Leremore says. “What kind of people are those? Is there a class of people who are ready for violence in America? I’ve never been to America, but I don’t want to believe it will go the Kenyan way.”
Top image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images