Unity the biggest lesson past elections taught us

Only when opposition leaders united were they able to defeat Moi

In Summary

• Egos, gender bias and uneasy lieutenants ensured past unity dreams were thwarted

As we head into election season proper, I thought I’d take a look at some elections from the past and the lessons, if any, they taught.

Flashback to January 1993. The dust was just settling after Kenya’s first multi-party election since back in the 1960s.

A hopelessly divided opposition had just handed President Daniel arap Moi and the Kanu party victory, even though they only had 36.3 per cent of the vote, against their combined 62 per cent.

There were allegations that Kanu and Moi had rigged the election, and they had, to some extent. 

There were well-founded claims of large-scale intimidation of opponents, harassment of election officials, ballot-box stuffing and targeted ethnic violence in the Rift Valley Province.

None of the rigging mechanisms were necessary; the opposition had gone into the election already divided. 

However, I guess the thinking on the Kanu side, as it is in any such situation where an authoritarian ruling party wants to stay in power by hook or by crook, was: Why take chances?

It was only after the results were declared that the so-called big three, Kenneth Matiba (Ford-Asili), Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (Ford-Kenya) and Mwai Kibaki (DP) saw the light and came together to object to the election results.

However, it was too little too late, and they finally admitted this over a shared cup of tea in Parliament, when they decided to call off their boycott and instead form some sort of united opposition.

In the run-up to the election, poor Prof Wangari Maathai had been shuttling between the big three with her Middle Ground Group organisation, trying to get them to see reason and come together under one leader to take on Kanu and Moi.

But their egos would not allow it and the fact that it was a woman trying to tell them what to do, just did not sit well with the three men. 

That said, even if the three had listened to Maathai, the nature of Kenyan politics is such that squabbling and jockeying for power takes precedence over cool calm-headedness. 

Sure enough, even as the big three attempted to present a united front, their lieutenants, who had seen their powers and influence possibly being diluted if the three parties united, were busy scheming to ensure that talk of unity would remain just that, talk.

I remember the DP’s John Keen and Ford-Asili’s George Nthenge in particular, being adamant that the parties would remain separate and could not really unite as they all had such different visions of Kenya and how it should be governed.

It would take a similar loss in 1997 and the threat of a third loss this time to Moi’s then-controversial handpicked successor in 2002, for the opposition to come together and win a convincing victory at the polls as the National Rainbow Coalition.

In 1997, the elections were marred by lost ballot boxes and an insufficient number of ballots at many polling stations, which the Electoral Commission put down to “logistical problems”. 

Even before the election, candidates were crying foul. Kibaki, for instance, called a press conference saying the electoral commission had been infiltrated by Kanu agents, who were going to manipulate the election in Kanu’s favour.

But by the first week of January 1998, Samuel Kivuitu was declaring that Moi had once again won enough votes to claim the presidency.

By that election, Jaramogi had died and been replaced in leadership terms by Raila Odinga. Matiba was a spent political force and had been overshadowed by Kibaki, and Moi was looking at his final term.

The results of the election had Moi with 40 per cent of the vote. His closest challenger, Kibaki, had 31 per cent, and Raila came in third with 10.9 per cent.

By 2002, when the lessons of unity were finally learned, the opposition won with 62 per cent of the vote, pretty much the same percentage they had when Moi won a decade earlier.