Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Kenya’s Elections Will Come Down to the Wire
Kenya’s Elections Will Come Down to the Wire

Kenya’s Elections Will Come Down to the Wire

On August 9, 2022, Kenyans will cast their ballots for president, members of parliament, and members of the Kenyan senate. Incumbent ruling Jubilee Party President Uhuru Kenyatta, barred by the constitution from seeking a third term, has thrown his support behind opposition challenger, Raila Odinga, the prime minister who is a member of the Orange Democratic Movement, over his own deputy president, William Ruto, which has led to splits within the Jubilee Party. Odinga and Ruto are viewed as the leading candidates in a race featuring 40 candidates, which could result in a runoff.

Given the history of election violence in Kenya, this has many worried. While ethnic conflicts have often been the engine of conflict in the past, economic inequities caused by official corruption and the destabilizing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to be the main contentious issues in this year’s election, with the divide along class (rather than tribal) lines.

In public statements, Odinga has focused on reviving Kenya’s flagging economy. Kenyatta has also spoken out on reviving an economy battered by the pandemic. What impact either man will have on the economy is unknown at this point, but Africa and the world will be watching the process to see whether there will be truly positive change or more of the same old story of disputed outcomes and post-election violence.

With America’s own mid-term election turmoil bubbling over in 2022 and preoccupation with the situation in Ukraine, the United States will likely not be able to exert much real influence in the Kenyan electoral process. It will, therefore, be left to African actors, especially the African Union, the East African Community (EAC), and Kenyans themselves to maintain stability, whatever the election result.

Kenya’s Checkered Election Record 

Kenya’s first general election after it gained independence in 1963 was held on December 6, 1969. Kenya’s first post-independence president, Jomo Kenyatta, of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), which had won the pre-independence elections in May 1963, had established, in effect, a one-party state when he banned the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) on October 30, 1969.

Kenya remained a de facto one-party state under the control of KANU until 1991, with Kenyatta serving from 1964 until ins death in 1978, and Daniel Arap Moi holding the presidency from 1978 until he retired in 2002.

On October 28, 1992, five months before the end of his term, Moi dissolved the parliament in response to domestic protests and international pressure, causing a need for elections to fill all seats, and the first multiparty elections since independence and the first time that Kenyans had been able to vote directly for the president. Though there were claims of voter fraud, Moi won the elections in 1992 and 1997.

In the general elections of 2002, Mwai Kibaki of the National Rainbow Coalition defeated Uhuru Kenyatta of KANU for the presidency, marking the first time that KANU did not hold the presidency. This first multiparty election, however, occurred along ethnic/tribal lines and set a tone that has persisted in Kenyan politics to the present time.

There are 40 ethnic groups in Kenya, with the Kikuyu of the country’s central region being the largest, accounting for over 17 percent of the country’s population. The Kikuyu have long dominated Kenya’s economy and politics and make up the largest single voting bloc. The Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, and Kamba rank second to fifth, each with populations of over four million. Since 1992, politicians have played on tribal affiliation and resentments against economic inequities to fan inter-tribal conflict and all elections have been marred by violence.

Uhuru Kenyatta, the current president who was elected in 2013, is the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. He had been anointed by Moi in 2002 as his successor but lost out to Mwai Kibaki of the National Rainbow Coalition. In 2019, Kenyatta, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term, launched what he called his Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) in cooperation with the opposition leader, Raila Odinga. BBI grew out of a March 2018 handshake agreement between the two men that ended several months of post-election violence in which dozens of Kenyans were killed by police.

The agreement, however, ran into immediate opposition from minority parties and opposition figures who held that it permanently disadvantaged them by concentrating power in the hands of a small political elite. Five justices of the Kenyan Court of Appeals agreed with those opposing the law and struck it down in 2021 as unconstitutional. Kenyatta’s government appealed the decision but on March 31, 2022, the Kenyan Supreme Court upheld that portion of the lower court ruling blocking BBI. The Supreme Court did, however, overturn the lower court’s ruling that Kenyatta could be prosecuted as an individual for his actions in pushing BBI forward.

August Election Will Be Close

The demise of BBI leaves the field wide open for the August elections with current deputy president William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga considered the front runners in a filed of over 40 candidates.

Ruto, of the Jubilee Party, is a member of the Kalenjin ethnic group, the fourth largest in Kenya, and Odinga, of the center-left Orange Democratic Movement is a Luo, which is Kenya’s third-largest ethnic group. This marks the first time that a Kikuyu has not been the front runner in Kenya’s presidential elections. Both candidates, however, have chosen a Kikuyu running mate in order to appeal to the Kikuyu, the largest voting bloc in the nation, accounting for over 17 percent of the country’s population. Ruto’s running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, a wealthy businessman, is a first-term parliamentarian and veteran political campaigner, while Odinga chose Martha Karua, a former justice minister who served in parliament for two decades. If Odinga is elected, Karua would become the first woman elected to the office of deputy president.

The outcome of the August election is still uncertain, with Odinga ahead in some polls while Ruto leads in others.

In addition to the general expectation of election-related violence that has plagued Kenyan elections for decades, both candidates face an array of challenges. Ruto, who opposed Kenyatta in 2007 and 2008 before becoming his deputy president in 2013, once again finds himself on the opposite side of the fence. Kenyatta has thrown his support to Odinga in an obvious rebuke of his deputy and fellow party member. Ruto now portrays himself as a leader out to end the domination of political dynasties such as the Kenyatta and the Odinga families which have dominated Kenyan politics since the country’s independence. This state of affairs could very well lead to rifts within the Jubilee Party if some of its members decide not to follow Kenyatta’s lead and could lead to dissension within Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement with some in his party unhappy with his rapprochement with his former arch-rival.

Ruto, along with Kenyatta, was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in orchestrating post-election violence in 2007 that resulted in more than 1,000 people killed. The cases against the two collapsed, according to former chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, due to unrelenting victim and witness intimidation, which made a trial impossible.

The elections will also be plagued with the amplification of disinformation and hate speech which is already beginning on platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter. In the 2013 and 2017 elections, the current president used the services of Cambridge Analytica to rebrand his campaign, do public opinion polling, and even craft some of his campaign speeches, which some of his critics have described as divisive and contributing to ethnic conflict. Cambridge Analytica was criticized for its abuse of Facebook data in the 2016 U.S. elections.

While the prospect of ethnic-related violence still looms large over the upcoming elections, analysts predict that the main issue will be economic reforms. Ethnic violence and corruption remain important issues because they negatively affect economic performance, but corruption is not likely to arise in campaigns because both of the top candidates are tainted by allegations of corruption. Political analyst Bobby Mkangi told the BBC that “corruption is no longer an issue. It seems to be our way of life and it has become hard to show a strong leader who is not tainted by corruption.”  Odinga’s selection of Martha Karua as his running mate, given her record as a consistent public voice against corruption, could make it at least a minor issue, but Mkangi’s pessimistic view seems to be shared by many in the country.

Effects Will Be Felt Beyond Kenya’s Borders 

While the outcome of this year’s elections will be extremely important to Kenyans, regardless of the outcome, the effects will be felt far beyond the country’s borders. Tens of millions of Africans will be watching to see how the elections are conducted. Will it be a truly free, fair, and nonviolent process, or more of the same? At the moment, all one can do is wait and see. 

Jean Mensa, chair of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, who headed a US Agency for International Development-funded pre-election assessment mission co-sponsored by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, told the Ghana News Agency that the assessment indicated that “the 2022 general election had the potential to be a pivotal milestone for democratization in Kenya.” The purpose of the mission was to provide independent, impartial information and recommendations in advance of election day and to demonstrate international support for credible and peaceful elections. But achieving this requires the concerted efforts of all stakeholders, including political parties, security services, civil society, and the media.

Kenya, already suffering an economic decline from the pandemic, cannot afford the additional socio-economic disruption caused by post-election violence. As one of East Africa’s largest economies, if Kenya suffers, so will the rest of the region. There is also the demonstration effect that a poorly run Kenyan election will have on other countries on the continent. 

In addition to the Kenyan general elections, major elections are slated for Angola and Senegal, which are likely to influence the political trajectories in each country. In Kenya and Senegal, increased tensions and violence are likely. Other elections scheduled for 2022 are Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, The Gambia, Lesotho, Libya, Mali, Mauritius, Republic of Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Tunisia. Some of these elections, including Mali and Sierra Leone, were postponed in 2019 and 2020 due to the pandemic.

What Can the United States and Others Do to Ensure a Credible Process? 

With the turmoil surrounding America’s own 2022 mid-term elections, the United States is unlikely to be able to wield much influence in Kenya during its election season. Moreover, official Washington is preoccupied with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Except for some interest in Russian activities in Africa, it is doubtful if many in the Washington policy establishment are even paying much attention to Kenya at the moment, even though Kenya is a key American partner in the region.

Ruto was able to meet with the assistant secretary for Africa, Molly Phee, during an unofficial visit to the United States earlier this year. But other than the Kenyan press, no public mention was made of the visit on the official Department of State web site. The only recent official mention of Kenya, in fact, is a March 18, 2022 ‘Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet’ that outlines the general U.S. policy on Kenya, with emphasis on the U.S. strategic interest in Kenya’s security and stability and the bilateral partnership on regional and global security issues.. Regarding the 2022 elections, the second paragraph of the fact sheet reads:

Ethnic-based political divisions, interference in key institutions, corruption, and impunity have posed challenges to Kenya’s democracy. In the wake of widespread violence following the disputed 2007 presidential election, Kenyans adopted a new constitution in a national referendum in August 2010, which mandated the transfer of some federal political authority and funding to Kenya’s 47 counties. Kenya’s 2013 and 2017 elections were more peaceful, though concerns remain about the independence and credibility of democratic institutions and the government’s adherence to the rule of law. Kenya’s next election is scheduled for August 2022.

The only mentions of Kenya on the White House website are releases in 2021 concerning President Joe Biden’s meeting with Kenyatta during the latter’s visit to the United States.

Until the Clinton administration, the US-Africa relationship could be characterized as benign neglect, focused mainly in terms of countering Soviet efforts to gain influence on the continent. The Clinton,  Bush, and Obama administrations ushered in serious and sustained engagement which enjoyed remarkable bipartisan support in Congress. The Trump administration took office signaling a radical break with this consensus and a return to the pre-Clinton situation. While aid levels to countries in Africa remained relatively consistent during the first three years of Trump’s administration, the public and private rhetoric expressed skepticism about our programs in Africa. The administration embraced a short-term, transactional approach that signaled changes in how the United States would engage with Africa. Its Africa strategy, for example, mentioned China and Russia, but did not name one African country. In his speech on the strategy to the Heritage Foundation in December 2018, John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, stopped just short of saying that African countries would have to choose between the United States or China, reminding many of the Cold War “us or them” days.

The Biden administration came in with a promise to reverse the disdain and neglect of the previous administration, and usher in a policy of “solidarity, partnership, support, and mutual respect.” Former senior intelligence official Judd Devermont was hired in October 2021 to craft the administration’s Africa policy. As of March 2022, the policy document still had not been finalized. It is estimated that it will be completed before the US-Africa Leaders Summit, planned for some time after the middle of 2022.

Until the United States has an approved and implemented Africa strategy, it is left to organizations like the African Union to help countries conduct credible elections and prevent election-related violence. It can use the expertise and knowledge it has accumulated over many years of election observation to help maintain stability. As in many parts of the world over the past ten years, democracy in Africa is weakening, with entrenched autocrats attempting to hang onto power. In a country that, like the continent, is overwhelmingly young (approximately 42 percent of Kenya’s population is age 14 or younger), the failure to address pressing socio-economic and political issues is a recipe for further violence.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

Image: Xinhua (Photo by Fred Mutune)