Electoral contests in Kenya have been heated affairs since the end of one-party rule two decades ago. The losing candidate has rarely conceded defeat. Some elections were, of course, blatantly rigged, resulting in widespread violence. However, the presidential election held in the second week of August this year were the fairest held so far in the country if reports from independent election observers are to be believed.
According to the results put out by Kenya’s election commission, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), veteran politician Raila Odinga, leading the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), lost the election by around 2,30,000 votes. Of the 14 million votes cast, his rival, William Ruto, who is the serving Vice President and represents the United Democratic Alliance, just managed to cross the 50 per cent threshold of votes required to prevent a second-round run-off.
Odinga refused to accept the electoral verdict even before the result was formally announced. It took more than a week for the vote count to be completed as Kenyans held their breath. Stating that the counting process was “opaque”, four of the seven members of the election commission resigned as Wafula Chebukati, IEBC Chairman, was preparing to announce the results. Uhuru Kenyatta, the outgoing President, had appointed the commissioners who resigned.
Odinga claimed that “there is neither a legally or validly declared winner nor a President-elect”. He has once again gone to Kenya’s Supreme Court for redress, as he did five years ago after the last election. But this time he urged his supporters to not take to the streets. Speaking to the media in late August, Odinga said he still believed he had won the election but pledged to abide by the court’s ruling, which will be given before September 5.
Election observers and the international community acknowledged that the IEBC went the extra mile to ensure a clean vote. A day after voting ended, it started showing the results regularly from almost all the 46,000 polling stations spread across the country. In his statement to the Supreme Court, Chebukati said the election was “free, fair and credible”. Ruto, the President-elect, said the resignation of the four election commissioners was “a sideshow”. He stressed that under the country’s electoral laws, only the IEBC Chairperson had the authority to declare the winner. “Legally, constitutionally, the four commissioners pose no threat at all to the legality of the declaration,” Ruto said in his victory speech.
Voter apathy, especially among the youth, was a major factor responsible for Odinga’s surprise defeat. Only 40 per cent of Kenyans under 40 bothered to put their names on the voters’ list; 35 per cent of the 21.5 million registered voters did not bother to vote. In previous elections, the turnout used to touch reach up to 80 per cent. And also, for the first time, many Kenyans did not give priority to the politics of ethnicity and voted for candidates on the basis of their programmes.
A large section of voters who had unfailingly voted for Odinga in previous elections failed to turn up or voted for the opposition. Around 4,00,000 registered voters from Odinga’s home base, where the Luo ethnic group dominates, failed to exercise their franchise. In previous elections, they had voted almost en masse for Odinga. The low turnout generally throughout the country, according to Kenyan commentators, was a reflection of the the voters’ disillusionment with the discredited political elite.
- William Ruto, the present Vice President of Kenya, wins the presidential election by a margin of around 2,30,000 votes.
- Raila Odinga, the candidate endorsed by the present President, Uhuru Kenyatta, disputes the results and takes the matter to the Supreme Court.
- This is his fifth attempt at the presidency.
- Unlike in past elections, voter turnout was low: only 40 per cent of Kenyans under 40 bothered to put their names on the voters’ list and 35 per cent of the 21.5 million registered voters did not bother to vote.
- Kenyatta and Odinga represent two of the most prominent ethnic groups in the country, the Kikuyu and the Luo respectively. The other major ethnic group is the Kalenjin, who are Ruto’s kinsmen.
- So far, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin have monopolised the presidency, and this election was expected to change that fact, which many Kenyans view as a historical injustice.
Many of Odinga’s close political associates, including his former campaign manager, Eliud Owalo, deserted him to join Ruto’s campaign. Many of Kenyatta’s close associates, including his influential first cousin Kung’u Muigai, switched sides. Ruto’s running mate was Rigathi Gachagua, a Kikuyu lawmaker and Kenyatta’s former personal assistant. Voters in Mount Kenya and other parts of Kenya, including in Kenyatta’s hometown, where the Kikuyu ethnic group is in a majority, voted for Ruto. Many voters, especially among the dominant Kikuyus, had apparently not taken kindly to the historic “handshake” and reconciliation between the two traditional rivals. Two-thirds of Ruto’s votes, according to an analysis done by the Kenyan media, came from the Mount Kenya region and the Rift Valley, which is populated predominantly by the Kalenjin, Ruto’s kinsmen.
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Odinga’s authoritarian ways within his party came in for criticism. The old guard had blocked the path of the younger generation to leadership posts. The reconciliation between Kenyatta and Odinga was viewed as an arrangement between the elites to monopolise power. Odinga in their eyes was now the “establishment” candidate. Odinga, who still likes to occasionally flaunt his old left-wing credentials, is otherwise no different from other Kenyan political leaders. His personal wealth is estimated to be at more than $3 billion though he claims the estimate is vastly exaggerated and that . He said that he is worth only has property worth $20 million.
‘Man of the people’
Although Ruto is very much part of the so-called “corrupt elite” that has been in power since independence, he has managed to cast himself as a “man of the people”. After entering politics, Ruto became rich and owns thousands of acres of land, a big poultry-processing plant, and a luxury hotel. A Kenyan court had ruled against him in a case of “landgrabbing”. But he managed to project his “rags-to-riches” story as one for Kenyans to emulate. He cast himself as an outsider and a champion of Kenya’s “hustler nation”, fighting against the country’s long-established dynastic politics. On the campaign trail, he rarely failed to mention the fact that as a boy he walked barefoot to sell chickens on a busy highway to feed his family.
He cashed in on the resentment many Kenyans feel about the high-profile Chinese-aided projects in the country that were put in place during the 10 years of the Kenyatta presidency. Ruto pledged to publish details of contracts signed with Chinese companies. He promised to send undocumented Chinese workers home, claiming they were “roasting maize and selling mobile phones” on the streets of Kenyan cities.
China bashing is popular in some African countries during election time to win votes. But once in power, leaders critical of Chinese infrastructure investments in infrastructural projects sing a different tune. Odinga too tried to incite anti-Chinese feelings to divert the attention of the masses from the dismal state of the economy. Inflation and high unemployment rates have risen dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s tourism sector, which contributes substantially to the economy, has been badly hit. Odinga pledged to renegotiate Kenya’s debt to China, which has gone up $75 billion and amounts to 67 per cent of the country’s GDP. Kenya’s debt was just $16.7 billion when Kenyatta first took office.
Ruto has been in politics since 1992, starting his career as a youth leader in the service of Kenya’s second President, Daniel Arap Moi. Moi succeeded Jomo Kenyatta, the present President’s father, and ruled Kenya from 1978 to 2001 with an iron hand, imprisoning and torturing left-wing activists while implementing draconian IMF structural reforms. Along the way Moi amassed a personal fortune exceeding $3 billion. After the introduction of multiparty democracy, Ruto was a close associate of Odinga for many years and co-founded the ODM party with him. He defected to the ruling party after he was offered the post of Vice President.
Odinga’s fifth attempt
This was the 77-year-old Odinga’s fifth attempt to win the presidency since he first ran 30 years ago. He lost narrowly in two previous disputed elections. Before that he spent many years in detention fighting for the return of multiparty democracy. In 1982, he was sentenced to six years in prison without trial on charges of masterminding a military coup against the dictatorial rule of Moi. He later did an about-turn and ended up joining Moi’s Cabinet in 2001. Odinga has shown a propensity for ideological flexibility in his dealings from his early days in politics. In fact, the two leading candidates in this year’s election have similar views on most issues. On foreign policy, Kenya continues to be a major ally of the West. It continues to play a key role in the US-led counterinsurgency programme in the Horn of Africa. The Americans and the British have military bases in Kenya. Odinga’s father, Oginga Odinga, was vehemently against Kenya’s pro-imperialist foreign policy.
In the run-up to the election this year, pollsters expected Odinga to finally achieve his long-cherished dream. Opinion polls showed him to be ahead of Ruto. For the first time, Odinga, affectionately called “Baba” (father) by his supporters, ostensibly received the backing of the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group. Uhuru Kenyatta, who was Odinga’s bitter political rival until the last presidential election, had in a surprising move backed Odinga’s candidacy over that of his serving Vice President. Kenyatta had defeated Odinga in two previous presidential elections.
“Voter apathy, especially among the youth, was a major factor responsible for Odinga’s surprise defeat.”
In the last election, Odinga refused to acknowledge Kenyatta’s victory, and his supporters had conducted an “oath-taking” ceremony proclaiming him the “People’s President”. Kenya’s Supreme Court had actually ruled that the 2017 election was flawed and ordered a re-election. Odinga, however, realising that the electoral odds were stacked against him, chose not to participate in the second round ordered by the Supreme Court.
The dramatic reconciliation of Kenyatta and Odinga in 2018, following a “handshake”, after decades of acrimony, therefore came as a surprise to Kenyans. Soon after the handshake, differences between Kenyatta and Vice President Ruto spilled out into the open. It was an acrimonious fall out.
The Kenyatta and Odinga families have been locked in a bitter political struggle since soon after the country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga were the two major leaders of Kenya’s independence struggle. In the first government formed in independent Kenya, the senior Odinga served briefly as Vice President under Jomo Kenyatta. But soon serious policy differences started to emerge, especially on land reforms. Odinga was a left-wing radical while Kenyatta abandoned his radicalism after becoming President and adopted a pro-Western policy. Kenyatta and Odinga represented two of the most prominent ethnic groups in the country, the Kikuyu and the Luo respectively. The other major ethnic group is the Kalenjin. So far, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin have monopolised the presidency. It was expected that this time the electorate would finally rectify what many Kenyans view as a historical injustice.