Elephants in the Room
As Kenya Struggles to Recover from a Tumultuous Election, America Must Stand by Its Side
The democratic future of a key ally in East Africa is at stake.
This week marked yet another chapter in the saga of Kenya’s now three-month-long presidential election. With the Supreme Court’s unanimous rejection of petitions to invalidate the Oct. 26 “rerun,” it appears that the reelection of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta is all but confirmed. Although this may conclude the procedural drama of the election, the political crisis it has sparked shows no signs of abating.
The country was first thrown into turmoil after the presidential election held on August 8 was nullified by the Supreme Court for “irregularities and illegalities.” The rerun on October 26 was boycotted by National Super Alliance (NASA) leader Raila Odinga, delivering Kenyatta a victory tarnished by continued challenges to his legitimacy. In the weeks that followed, NASA launched a national resistance movement, petitions were filed with the Supreme Court seeking to overturn the presidential election results once again, and Odinga wrapped up a tour of Kenya’s most important ally, the United States.
After two presidential polls and a landmark court ruling that overturned Kenyatta’s reelection, the future of Kenyan democracy is even less clear than when the process began. The flawed elections have reopened well-worn fault lines within Kenyan society over explosive issues, including divisive ethnic politics, political marginalization, corruption, and a winner-take-all system in which a loss resonates well beyond the election result. Kenyans know this and therefore put everything they can into ensuring their side wins the presidency.
Yet what has Kenyatta really won? He is now at the helm of an even more geographically and ethnically divided country. The Oct. 26 rerun was boycotted by NASA and turnout was much lower than the Aug. 8 vote. Petitions calling for the invalidation of the vote were unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court on Monday. Kenyatta’s inauguration is scheduled for next Tuesday, but his critics will continue to question his electoral legitimacy. Given the enormous challenges facing the country, the Kenyan president needs all the legitimacy he can get.
An old African proverb says that “when two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers.” In this case, the two bulls are Kenyatta and his ruling Jubilee Party facing off against Odinga’s NASA coalition of opposition political parties. The grass, however, could be many things.
Some would say it is the Kenyan voter who has suffered the most from this political dispute. No matter which side they are on, this protracted electoral struggle has left citizens of one of East Africa’s richest nations fatigued and dispirited — feeding political apathy and blunting what should be a compelling sense of urgency to resolve the political impasse.
Another victim is Kenya’s democratic institutions, namely the Supreme Court and the electoral commission. No democracy wins when courts and election bodies lack the integrity and independence to do their jobs. Both institutions play critical constitutional roles, but throughout the messy election process each have faced a unique set of challenges that have undermined their performance.
The Supreme Court was applauded for taking action to address serious flaws in the electoral process, yet criticized by Kenyatta supporters who accused the justices of a gross overreach of judicial authority. The electoral commission, meanwhile, has been under siege since the last general election in 2013, when Odinga unsuccessfully challenged Kenyatta’s win in the Supreme Court. Corruption allegations, credibility questions, and political pressure were exposed during that trial and have dogged the commission’s work throughout the 2017 general elections.
Kenya’s relationships with its friends in the international community — including the United States — also took a blow in this fight. America played a key role not only supporting the technical aspects of the elections but also urging a peaceful and democratic vote and constructive political dialogue. Yet the Kenyan press has been unconstructive, accusing the United States of “meddling” and taking sides, while Western diplomats have been roasted by Kenyans on social media for their perceived interference.
Many in Washington are now concerned about the future path of a country that has long been a vital U.S. security and economic partner. Kenya is a gateway to the East African market and a close ally on counterterrorism. Al Qaeda bombed the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, one of the terrorist group’s first major attacks against a U.S. target. That shared experience bonds Americans and Kenyans together in solidarity in the global struggle against terrorism. The U.S.-Kenya partnership is today on display in Somalia, where both have military personnel working with the fragile Somali government to defeat al-Shabaab and prevent the Islamic State from making inroads in the region.
It’s worth noting that Kenya shares America’s democratic values, which is no small achievement in a region where countries are increasingly led by autocratic leaders, and political and civic space is closing rapidly. The Kenyan constitution is one of the most progressive on the continent and has created a devolved governance structure that empowers local communities — a development that should continue to be encouraged by Washington.
Devolution has played a constructive role in reducing the emphasis on national politics by transferring power to the local level, but what 2017’s election has shown is that the presidency remains the top prize. How can Kenya simultaneously have so many competitive polls for governor and other key county races with very little violence or political fallout alongside a presidential election that has fueled political instability and undermined the core institutions of its democracy?
The political crisis in Kenya today is not about an election, a rerun of an election, or any other technical exercise. It is about the failure to deliver on some of the core elements of a functioning democratic system: inclusion, security, the protection of minority interests, and the protection and promotion of fundamental rights.
In the end, the problem is a tale of two Kenyas. One half of society, mainly those allied with Jubilee, sees itself as a budding democracy and regional leader, providing opportunity and development for its people. The other Kenya, NASA’s core supporters, views itself as fundamentally disadvantaged, without a voice, and abandoned by their brethren.
Secessionist movements mooted by politicians in western Kenya are not the answer. Washington should make the case that the country’s diversity is, in fact, its greatest strength, provided all sides use the democratic system to resolve difficulties so that they can work together for a common purpose. Kenya’s long and complicated road out of this political crisis will require political will on both sides, and a common desire to move forward as one Kenya.
The United States can help by working with all actors to find sustainable solutions and advocate for reforms that bolster inclusive institutions and address long-standing societal grievances. As we know all too well, democracy is never perfect and its challenges often become more complicated over time. There may be additional bullfights ahead for Kenya, but America has a vital role to play in helping its friend and ally to ensure that the grass not only regrows, but grows stronger.