Not just a re-run

8th Aug.
BTP Advisers

With even the final two polls split, one showing incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta edging ahead, while the other placing his rival Raila Odinga in the lead - the Kenyan election is too close to call. Either way, with no serious third-party candidate in the race, there should be a clear winner in the first round. As polling day ends in Kenya, read BTP's take on today's vote.

6 Mins (1533 Words)

Tensions in Kenya are rising – last week a senior electoral commission member was murdered. Accusations of a plot to rig the elections and claims of bias among the military and judiciary have filled the airwaves. Meanwhile both the governing Jubilee Party and the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) have been lawyering up ahead of what seems increasingly likely to be contested results.

On the surface the 2017 election looks like a re-run of those held in 2013, with voting split along ethnic and regional lines. However, there are important differences that should not be overlooked. 

Perhaps the most notable of these is that Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party has been in office for four years, and it now has a track record that it must defend. Furthermore, this time around there is no galvanising issue of foreign interference hanging over the elections to mobilise core ethnic blocks.

The Background

Kenyan politics has historically been dominated by ethnic divisions, which are often exploited by those seeking to emerge as ethnic and regional champions. These divisions are compounded by a long-running family feud between two great political dynasties – the Kenyattas and the Odingas.

Traditionally, the main ethnic divide has been between the two biggest tribes – the Kikuyu farmers from the Mt Kenya region and the pastoralist Kalenjin who reside in the Rift Valley. Tensions between the two are based around land ownership and access rights to traditional grazing pastures – land that the British colonisers seized from the Kalenjin, then sold onto a group of Kikuyu farmers at independence.

Though the Kikuyu – led by Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta – formed the country’s economic and political elite under the one-party rule of KANU, ethnic tensions were largely suppressed. However, in the 1990s, with the restoration of multi-party democracy, ethnic-based politics returned – with the Kikuyu and Kalenjin on opposing sides.

This long-running historic dispute was the undercurrent behind the tragic events of 2007/08, which saw violence erupt over bitterly contested election results. Some 1500 people were killed and another 300,000 internally displaced.

The ICC & the 2013 Realignment

2013 saw something of political realignment triggered by prosecutions at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the previous election’s violence. It was a tortuous process, marred by untrustworthy witnesses and flawed evidence, and all but two of the cases collapsed. Only the leaders of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities – Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto – were left facing the prospect of jail time. With Raila Odinga seen as the main advocate for the ICC cases, the two leaders came together in their opposition to foreign-imposed trials and an unlikely electoral alliance was formed: Kenyatta as standard-bearer and Ruto his running mate.

The ICC prosecutions turned Kenyatta and Ruto into political martyrs for their communities. Voter turnout from the two largest tribes was massively boosted, over 90% of which went to Jubilee. This “tyranny of numbers” as it came to be known, handed the Presidency to Uhuru.

The Family Feud

Intermingled with these grand ethnic rivalries was also a much more personal one: Uhuru Kenyatta is the son of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s independence hero and first President. Raila Odinga is the son of Jaramogi Odinga, the country’s first Vice President who was sacked by Uhuru’s father in the 1960s.

This is Uhuru’s third Presidential race. In 2001, he was chosen as KANU’s candidate by former president Daniel Arap Moi, which caused Raila – who had joined KANU in the hope of being chosen as Moi’s successor – to bolt back to the opposition. Kenyatta lost that election to the candidate that Raila supported – Mwai Kibaki. Uhuru and Raila finally faced each other in the race to succeed Kibaki in 2013.

An Issue Driven Campaign?

For both Kenya’s growing urban middle class and slum-dwelling urban poor, day-to-day economic issues are the driving factor in the election, especially in Nairobi. Policy has played a real role this time around, just as it did in 2013. 

With an estimated 51% of the electorate under 35 years old and youth unemployment at over 20%, poverty and joblessness are dominant issues. Kenyatta has run his campaign based on his record of successfully delivering major infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway from Nairobi to Mombasa, rural electrification as well as free maternal care and digital education. However, while he is generally recognised as having delivered on many of the big signature projects he promised, most Kenyans are yet to feel the benefits. Indeed, the failure to solve the stubborn problem of high unemployment may be his undoing.

In contrast, Odinga has traditionally run his various campaigns around the constitution and corruption, often misreading the public mood. Now he seems to have learnt from his previous failed efforts and appears focused much more on bread and butter issues. His NASA coalition has argued that Jubilee’s mega-projects, rampant corruption, plus the ever rising cost of life, have emptied the treasury and prevented ordinary Kenyans benefiting from economic growth.

Today’s Battlegrounds

Ethnic group is a key demographic target in Kenya, much like other interests group such as women, unemployed youth or farmers. Though messaging may be tailored to reach a specific ethnicity, this does not necessarily mean that the message is tribalist – though this is a fine line which has often been crossed in Kenyan politics.

Broadly speaking, the 2017 race is seeing the same ethnic building blocks for the main camps as in 2013. However, both the government and the opposition have seen some wear-and-tear in their support bases. A look at the candidates’ itineraries for the final week of campaigning reveals three main electoral battlegrounds outside Nairobi. These are the Northern Rift, Nyanza and Ukambani.

Looking at each in turn helps explain today’s tight race:

North Rift Valley – In 2013 the ICC prosecution enabled William Ruto to emerge as the undisputed leader of the Kalenjin, winning around 90% of the Kalenjin vote. But Ruto always had rivals for that leadership, especially Governor Isaac Ruto of Bomet County, and Senator Gideon Moi of Baringo county, son of the former KANU President Daniel Arap Moi.

Although originally elected in 2013 on a Jubilee ticket, Governor Ruto has since set up his own party and joined Raila’s NASA coalition. Moi on the other hand was never part of Jubilee and instead led the remnants of KANU. He surprised most observers by eventually rejecting Raila’s overtures and, with an eye to eclipsing both Rutos and gaining Kikuyu support in the 2022 race, endorsed Kenyatta for President earlier this year.

Nyanza – Nyanza Province, which borders Lake Victoria is the home province of Raila Odinga’s Luo tribe, which make up around 70% of the local population, while the main minority tribe in the area are the Gusii.

In 2013, the Gusii were reliable votes for Raila’s ODM party, which is the largest party in NASA. However, since then Jubilee has recruited several high profile Gusii leaders including local Governors and MPs, led by Education CS Fred Matiang’i (who is now also acting Interior CS) in an attempt to make electoral headway in Raila’s political backyard.

Ukambani – Lower Eastern Province is home of the Kamba ethnic group. For nearly two decades Kalonzo Musyoka has been their undisputed political leader, serving first as Vice President to Mwai Kibaki from 2001-2013, then running mate to Raila Odinga in both 2013 and 2017. The voters here generally follow his lead in deciding where to cast their votes.

However, just as Ruto has seen rivals to his supremacy in Rift Valley, so does Kalonzo now face a challenge in Ukambani. Alfred Mutua, the Governor of Machakos County has seen a growth in popularity. Originally elected under Kalonzo’s “Wiper Democratic Movement” banner he, like Isaac Ruto in the Rift, has since founded his own party. In a reverse move, he has now endorsed Uhuru over Raila and threatens to split the previously solidly pro-opposition Kamba vote away from NASA.

The Jubilee leadership’s somewhat surprising pleas to Kalonzo to ditch the opposition and join them in Government were less aimed at him than they were at Kamba voters. This dog-whistle approach is intended to show that Jubilee is not a tribalist party, and that there is no need for Kamba voters to exclude themselves from power again by backing Raila.

Conclusion: What about the Maize Shortage?

Though as always in a Kenyan election ethnicity will play a key role in the outcome of the polls, the issues, such as development, unemployment and corruption as well as the effectiveness of the key campaign messages that each party has developed to address them, will also be a decisive factor in determining the victor.

In fact, if Raila Odinga does finally succeed in winning the Presidency, then to a large extent it will likely not have been as a result of his own campaigning efforts, so much as the unexpected electoral gift of a 3-month-long maize shortage. This staple of most Kenyan diets has soared in price and disappeared from shelves in recent weeks. It has not gone unnoticed by the electorate.

Despite the undoubted progress of the last four and half years, no incumbent could be confident of re-election when unemployment remains so high and the supermarkets are empty. Whether Kenyans prioritise long-term infrastructure development over day-to-day economic welfare is going to be the real issue driving the outcome.

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