In the run up to an election, Nairobi is a sensory overload. From the sight of posters of election hopefuls on every billboard, tree and lamp post, to the sound of blaring megaphones and afropop music pumping from rallies, avoiding politics is simply not an option. But as the day draws closer, the sprawling city has begun to empty out. While some have simply gone to vote in their home villages, others have left the capital amidst fears of Kenya’s all-too recent history repeating itself.
Since the country’s return to democracy in 1992, elections have been characterised by ethnic tensions and often by civil unrest. In 2007 and 2008, Kenya made international headlines when a disputed election result led to swathes of violence across the country — including hotspots in poorer areas of Nairobi — which left around 1,500 dead and 600,000 displaced. This year the murders of several politically affiliated Kenyans, including Electoral Commission official Chris Msando and the three small children of a candidate in Eldoret, have increased concerns about violence after the result has been announced.
In recent months the election has become a close contest between old rivals President Uhuru Kenyatta and the long-standing opposition leader Ralia Odinga, although it is expected the incumbent will once again be successful. Both from historic political dynasties, the two men’s fathers fought alongside each other for independence from British colonial rule. Typical of the communal nature of Kenya’s politics, they represent two of the nation’s largest ethnic groups: Kikuyu and Luo.
But too much focus on old tribal loyalties and the risk of violence distracts from more pressing issues at hand. As respected Kenyan economist Kwame Owino told The Guardian last month: “I’m tired of this idea, will the elections be peaceful or not? That’s not the only result that we expect. We have a very ambitious constitution, so to simply say that we have a result and we have no violence, that’s setting a very low bar for ourselves”. Another goal he expects the country achieve, he said, was a parliament with one third of the positions held by women — a provision in Kenya’s constitution which has not yet been realised.
Beyond the election itself, what can we expect from the prospective candidates? The economy has been a major talking point throughout the campaign. Although Kenya’s economy grew at an average of 5.6% between 2011 and 2016, this has begun to stagnate. Add to this nearly 40% unemployment, and the huge monthly salaries and allowances paid out to Kenyan MPs (this often amounts to $10,000) — and it’s easy to see why questions are being raised about who is really benefitting from the country’s wealth.
Yet Kenyatta has pointed to the large scale infrastructure projects he has overseen (and hopes to complete), including a road network, renewable energy plants and most impressively, a $3.2bn railway line funded by China.
But an array of grand corruption scandals under his administration have damaged Kenyatta’s reputation, including the alleged looting of 5 billion Kenyan shillings (nearly 50 million dollars) from the Ministry of Health. Odinga has been quick to capitalize on this: his National Super Alliance (NASA) party has pledged to ensure transparency around the financial interests of cabinet ministers, and to establish a department dedicated to corruption surveillance.
The outcome of Kenya’s election has implications in the wider East Africa region, where it is a strategically important country, and beyond. One example is Kenyatta’s competitive relationship with Tanzania’s ‘bulldozer’ President John Magufuli, which is seen by some as deterring the economic advancement of the East African Community (EAC). By contrast Odinga is a friend of Magufuli’s; a factor which could be a game changer were he elected.
Even more pressing is Odinga’s vow to remove Kenyan soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), currently stationed as a buffer against militant Islamic group al-Shabab which has been staging attacks in Kenya since 2011. Odinga’s also supports a breakaway Somaliland, which Somalia has already expressed anger over. Kenyatta, alternatively, continues to put pressure on African and Western governments to deploy more troops to Somalia.
It’s clear that Kenya’s old habit of electing members of the same two families will prevail this week. But whether other habits — vote rigging, electoral violence, voting communally — will die hard remains to be seen.
This article has been edited to amend a factual inaccuracy.