A political standoff in Kenya increasingly appears to be a genuine political crisis. What once was proclaimed as a victory for the rule of law now looks to have been only a moment of hope for democrats. The consequences for Kenya could be severe; some even speak of the breakup of the state. Such ambitions must be thwarted. Redrawing its borders would have consequences throughout the entire continent.
Kenya has held two presidential elections in three months. The first was the regularly scheduled ballot that is to be held every five years. The vote, held Aug. 8, was won by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who claimed a second term with 55 percent of ballots cast, defeating Raila Odinga, who won the remaining 45 percent of votes. Odinga protested the results and Kenya’s Supreme Court agreed, ruling that procedural irregularities were sufficient to nullify the outcome.
Democrats in Kenya and throughout the world rejoiced at the decision: It was the first time that a court in Africa had overturned the results of an election and was thought to signal a degree of political and institutional maturity in a region where democracy is honored in words but rarely in practice.
Whatever euphoria greeted the Supreme Court’s call for a second vote within 60 days quickly evaporated. Kenyatta dismissed the ruling as a coup, and controversy surrounded the country’s election commission. An official who had left the country declared that the commission had been compromised and could not administer a fair vote. Another said that he would take a vacation during the time of the proposed election, leaving uncertain who would oversee the process.
That uncertainty and mounting violence against his supporters obliged Odinga to announce that he would boycott the second vote. The ballot proceeded nonetheless and Kenyatta took 98 percent of the votes, although turnout was just 39 percent, less than half that in the first round of voting. That result was challenged as well, but in its review of this vote, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that there was no reason to question the second vote and Kenyatta’s re-election was confirmed and he is scheduled to be sworn in for a second term next week.
Odinga, who had left the country for nearly two weeks but returned last weekend, dismissed the ruling as “a decision taken under duress.” His return was marked by clashes between his supporters and the police that left at least five people dead. Authorities insist the police were not responsible for the deaths, but the victims were shot and demonstrators were only throwing stones. The fear now is that violence is going to become the new normal for Kenya and that the country, once heralded as a democratic success, is sliding into chaos.
Odinga had called for a National Resistance Movement to protest the election and, after demanding another vote, he now wants Kenyatta to resign. Some of his more extreme supporters argue that the opposition is effectively marginalized in national politics and that it is time to secede. Sadly, there is some truth to their claim.
Kenya has had four presidents since winning independence in 1963: Three of them have been from the Kikuyu, the largest of the country’s more than 40 ethnic groups. (The fourth-largest community, the Kalenjin, is represented by Deputy President William Ruto.) Odinga is a member of the Luo, Kenya’s third-largest group; it and the Luhya, the second-largest community, have been excluded from high office. They, along with other groups, also complain that they have not enjoyed the fruits of Kenya’s economic development.
Political powers were devolved in 2013 to meet those complaints, but it has had only limited success and Odinga’s loss in the presidential election has given new life to claims of discrimination. The communities are geographically based, which makes secession a very real option. One lawmaker has introduced legislation to permit secession and “the creation of a new state to give effect to the aspirations of the people of Kenya.” The county governor of Mombasa, home of East Africa’s biggest port, said earlier this month that “it is no longer feasible for us as people to continue in a country that does not recognize our aspirations as legitimate.”
Odinga himself has warned that the country could be “torn apart” if demands of other communities are not met, but most experts believe this is only a bargaining tactic and he has no intention of dismembering the state. If that is his plan, it is still a dangerous strategy as it encourages those who may see it as a real option and compels the government to crack down to maintain the integrity of the state. This is a moment for all concerned to take a breath and then redouble their efforts to reach a genuine compromise.