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December 10, 2018

The tyranny of Kenya’s elections

Voters at a polling station in Starehe constituency. /Victor Imboto
Voters at a polling station in Starehe constituency. /Victor Imboto

A survey conducted by the East African Institute in 2014 revealed that Kenyan youth have positive views about politics and democracy. Moreover, 90 per cent of youth believed it was important to vote. Over 70 per cent believed their vote could make a difference.

These young people and those older than them were among the 79 per cent of Kenyans who turned up to vote last week. In a process that has been lauded by President Uhuru Kenyatta and observer missions as free and fair, Kenyans made their voices heard.

The election was fought hard and long on many dimensions; personal, ethnic as well as substantive policy and development priorities. But the people’s agenda, the personal struggles of ordinary citizens were swept aside by the Tsunami of big money and the attendant razzmatazz of the campaigns.

The campaigns are over. The votes have been counted and Uhuru was declared the winner and he will serve his second and final term as President of the Republic of Kenya.

But his main challenger, Raila Odinga, has refused to concede, describing the election as a sham and promised to present compelling evidence to prove that the electoral commission falsified the results.

Elections must not just be about bellicose political competition, often energised by innuendo, falsehood, personal attacks and, in our context, ethnic jingoism.

Elections should be a candid evaluation or interrogation of the scale of our ambition, the power of our collective capacity to re-imagine our future and our place in the commonwealth of sovereign nations.

Since the repeal of Section 2A of Kenya’s Independence Constitution, the six successive elections held have been an unsmiling, ruthless audit of the integrity of our institutions: The electoral commission, the Executive and the most important office in a democracy, the citizens.

Consistently, every election in which an incumbent is on the ballot bends to near-breaking point our crumbly, flimsy sense of nationhood. Ethnic vitriol flows fast, furious and without restraint on social media. I have been insulted and called names for urging civility and for denouncing ethnic bigotry and ill-formed ideological arguments.

Gripped by fear of a post-election conflagration, ordinary Kenyans scrambled for supplies as supermarket shelves emptied. Thousands fled to the safety of their rural homes. The Mombasa highway, which is eternally clogged by cargo trucks, has been free and easy.

One of my domestic staff, Kinyua, who runs a small shop in Kitengela, has not made any sales in the past week and is worried about how he will pay his rent and school fees for his son Peter when schools reopen. It is sorely disheartening.

Why are elections a matter of life or death? Are elections a fierce contest about alternative ideas about education, economic, industrial, agricultural or educational policies?

Is the rancorous, divisive politics about providing training, skills and jobs for the tens of millions of unemployed youth? Is the contest about Project Kenya, how we build a just and fair society for all?


Dr Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University



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