Kenyans took to social media in the last days before their election to criticise foreign journalists and NGOs for talking up the potential for violence. There were multiple fairly scathing comments on twitter with the hashtag #TellCNN because of what was perceived to be a sensationalist and ill informed report. There continued to be barbed comments about foreign journalists looking for violence to report and cliches to use.
It is therefore with some trepidation that I write down some reflections as a mzungu who flew in for only a few days. However, I did have the privilege of meeting and discussing with a diverse group of Kenyan human rights defenders as well as of talking to an eclectic mix of people at polling stations and in some of the villages which bore the brunt of the 2007 post-election violence.
The first reflection is that it was about much more than a Presidential election. John, a retired teacher in Kangundu told us he had voted for Raila and his wife had voted for Uhuru, but that he was not so worried about which won. For him the key development had been the opportunities and guarantees provided by the new constitution including a more independent judiciary and devolution of powers to the county level. He was looking forward to some of the old guard of corrupt politicians being swept away and for the election of people at the local level who would make a difference for their communities. And there was certainly evidence of many experienced politicians losing elections for the parliament, senate, governorships and county assemblies. Another person said that devolution meant that being on the losing side of the Presidential election would not mean a community losing everything.
Everyone we spoke with shared frustration that the voting was overwhelmingly on the basis of ethnic groups. As the votes came in there was discussion of which political leaders had delivered their ethnic group for which candidate. And of course this links to fears of political violence. A Kikuyu village elder who had been speaking about improved communications and interaction with their Kalenjin neighbours, in a rural area that had seen many killings in 2007, smiled warily when I asked whether the election would have been so peaceful in their area if Uhuru and Ruto had not been on the same side this time.
What we saw at the level of polling stations was impressive. In both rural and urban polling stations there was clear evidence of efforts to make the process free and fair. Looking at the biometric testing that was part of the process of getting a ballot paper I had to reflect on the challenges we have faced in Ireland and Scotland.
Although there were many reports of the system failing in different parts of the country the back-up register with photos alongside voter names provided a degree of reassurance alongside the universal presence of election observers and representatives of the different parties. A common feature of polling day were extremely long queues and some friends had waited nine hours to vote in Nairobi. In Embakasi we spoke with some voters at the front of the queue who said they had been waiting seven hours to vote. When I asked them if any people had become discouraged and left without voting they said no, and said the people around them were those who had been there from the beginning. It was one of several moments during the day when I felt humble to be in the presence of people displaying such a calm determination not to have their democracy taken away from them.
The risk of course is that they may have had the election stolen somewhere between the counting inside the polling stations immediately after the polls closed and the tallying of votes at constituency and national levels. We spent time on Wednesday at the Bomas where the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) were coordinating the delayed announcement of election results. The electronic system to register these results centrally for them to be announced was said to have failed. Nobody wanted to speak publicly about rumours the actual problem had been deliberate hacking of the system to manipulate results. The IEBC announced it would resort to manually compiling them with returning officers travelling to Nairobi in person with the signed documents. On Thursday the CORD coalition of Raila Odinga called for that process to be suspended because of alleged irregularities including constituency results that showed more votes than registered voters.
Given the violence that was sparked by allegations of rigging in 2007 everyone was very nervous about the delays. It was also worrying to read a statement from the Jubilee Coalition of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, candidates for President and Vice-President respectively, that included an attack on human rights defender Maina Kiai
“The Jubilee Coalition is however, deeply concerned about the shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement of the British High Commissioner to Kenya Dr Christian Turner in Kenya’s 2013 General Election. The British High Commissioner, in cahoots with one Maina Kiai have been canvassing to have rejected votes tallied in an attempt to deny the Jubilee Coalition outright victory as indeed all indicators are showing at the moment.”
The statement was particularly worrying given that Maina Kiai was one of the human rights defenders who was threatened in the context of the post-election violence in 2007. Maina responded by calling an impromptu press conference on the floor of the election centre with dozens of journalists and camera crews. He rejected the allegations and insisted that all he had done was read out publicly the relevant section of the Kenyan constitution that specifies the rules for the election of the President. Maina insisted that he was proud to defend the Kenyan constitution for which people had died.
It has been interesting to hear different perspectives on the impact of the ICC charges against Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. Some feel strongly that it is to their discredit that they would try to use the elections to avoid justice. But even some who do not support their candidacy feel that the ICC issue has galvanised support for them in their own communities. We spoke to village elders who said that the ICC process was unfair because there were no charges against Raila Odinga or anyone from the Luo community. There were also many who argued that the fact of the ICC charges had had a positive impact on the rhetoric of the campaign and that it would hopefully help in preventing a recurrence of political violence.
In the end Uhuru and Ruto were announced to have won the election with a sizeable majority but a wafer thin margin above 50%. Raila and Cord are contesting the outcome in the courts. A nervous calm has so far prevailed.
In discussions before I left Nairobi one well informed civil society activist said that she felt that Raila had been too complacent. He had been obviously ill-prepared for the first televised debate whereas Uhuru had performed well. This had given Uhuru enough momentum to puncture Raila’s inevitability strategy. Criticism of the ICC resonated in spite of the previous popularity of the ICC. The comments of Western Governments were almost certainly counter-productive. Cord failed to articulate a coherent message on the subject of the ICC or impunity.
One suspects that even if Raila was successful in his legal action and won the right to a run off that the momentum is so much with Uhuru that he would still win. The most important issue is that all sides perceive the legal process to be objective and accept the outcome. We heard different views on whether a run-off would risk more confrontation with some arguing that it could work like a pressure valve.
If Uhuru and Ruto are eventually confirmed as the winners it will provide a number of challenges. They have insisted that they will defend themselves at the ICC but it is difficult to see how this will work. One human rights defender in Nakuru suggested the best option would be the revival of the idea of a national process of accountability that would not only focus on the supposed national ring-leaders but would also include the leading perpetrators in local areas. Whatever the political outcome there has been little justice for the victims and as the latest news from the ICC attests continued threats against witnesses.
It will also be a real test of the new constitution having a Presidency led by those who opposed the new constitution. But there was at least some optimism in Kenya that away from the Presidential election there were positive signs in the defeat of many incumbents, the election of many new faces and the relatively peaceful process. It is difficult though to see how a Uhuru Presidency is going to consolidate democracy and the rule of law. Or how the heir to a corrupt fortune will be effective in fighting corruption. In an ideal Kenya we might see an election in 2017 that was free from the shadow of violence and more focused on issues than ethnic alliances, but that looks a long way off at this moment.
Let me conclude with the comments of Kenyan blogger Patrick Gathara:
“What maturity is this that trembles at the first sign of disagreement or challenge? What peace lives in the perpetual shadow of a self-annihilating violence?
Cowards die many times before their deaths and we have been granted a new lease of life. However, if we carry on as we have done over the last five years, if we continue to lack the courage to exhume the bodies and clean out the foundations of our nationhood, we shouldn’t be surprised if in 2017 we are still terrified by the monsters under the house.”