Kenya is one of the most politically and economically developed countries in Africa and on Tuesday conducted its second presidential election since a political unrest in 2007-8 over disputed election results. Since this instability powers have been devolved away from Nairobi and the country has embarked on some measures of electoral reform in order to tackle corruption and defend the integrity of the country’s elections. The elections were predicted to be a flashpoint for violence but so far there only been a few examples of tensions boiling over into physical confrontations, and nothing on the scale of the 2007-8 political crisis.
The results of the election have yet to be certified by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) however as I write incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta has won approximately 54% of the vote in comparison with his nearest rival Raila Odinga has has taken around 45%. With fewer than 1,000 polling stations left to report, and with Kenyatta holding a 1.4 million vote lead, it is safe to say that Kenyatta will come out with the most votes, although it is unclear as to whether Odinga’s tally will rise sufficiently to avoid a second-round contest.
Upon hearing the early lead of Kenyatta in the provisional results, Raila Odinga claimed that there was hacking of the election systems and this has prompted some stand-offs between citizens and the police, particularly in opposition strongholds. All claims of vote tampering should be considered because any democratic exercise that is manipulated confers no political legitimacy on the winner. There are international observers from the EU and the African Union and they have implored those who are skeptical of the provisional results to go through the “legally provided channels of dispute resolution in case of any dissatisfaction with the process”.
What is important to note is that, at the time of writing, over 395,000 votes have been rejected and around 5,000 have been formally disputed. Considering that around 15,000,000 people turned out to vote, this equates to around 2.6% of votes cast being rejected. I would argue that this figure is too high, not necessarily from vote tampering, but from a failure by the government to adequately explain how to correctly mark ballot papers. Whilst it is possible that some Kenyans deliberately spoiled their ballots, I sincerely doubt that this was the overwhelming majority of those whose votes have been discounted.
Although all claims of electoral fraud should be evaluated, it’s worth pointing out that the Kenya’s Chief Electoral Officer Ezra Chiloba has said that “our elections management system is secure. There was no external or internal interference to the system at any point before, during, or after the voting”. Additionally, Odinga made similar claims after the 2013 presidential election which prompted a court case. The Kenyan Supreme Court ruled unanimously (7-0) that although there were some irregularities the result would remain the same if these votes were discounted.
At time of this case, Ahmednasir Abdullahi, a lawyer for the Kenyan electoral commission said, in comments to The Observer, that Odinga’s 2013 claims were not supported by sufficient evidence: “you can’t invalidate a presidential election, where 12 million people voted, on speculation”. Consequently, Odinga conceded defeat and George Oraro, Odinga’s lawyer, praised the court’s decision: “it is a historical moment for Kenyan society and we ought to take it as a development in our constitutional process”. I’m not saying that Odinga’s claims have no validity but I will say that I shall not be surprised if there is another court case and the Supreme Court once again rules that his claims are based in pure conjecture.
Irrespective of who eventually wins the election, Kenya has a series of pressing issues that the government will have to address. Some of the most important of these include securing reliable energy sources for future development, access to education especially in rural areas, transport infrastructure connecting urban centres to the countryside and stabilising food prices.
But above all else there is one issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Although I mentioned above that measures have been enacted to reform the political system in Kenya, corruption is widely regarded as widespread. Allegations have been made of financial payments being made to friends of President Kenyatta and journalistic opacity is commonplace in the country. Whilst there is a relatively free press in Kenya, unlike in other parts of the world, in many cases government figures, especially at the local level, are unwilling to allow journalists to investigate their operations. This has fed fears among many Kenyans that the devolution of powers away Nairobi has merely moved corruption from the capital to regional government centres.
The newly elected President needs to begin a massive drive to improve the democratic culture of the country by protecting civil society institutions and journalists with freedom of information requests so that politicians can be held to account. Kenya, as one of the richest countries in East Africa, has a unique opportunity to use these material resources to invest in strengthening its electoral procedures. Failure to do so would be a missed chance to expunge corruption at the heart of Kenyan democracy.