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Elections in Kenya are characterised by elite corruption, electoral fraud, and repression of the people. They grow out of a politics of rapacious elites who concentrate their energies on looting state resources in well-nigh flagrant fashion, using violence and intimidation to avoid any possible accountability. This occurs from the highest levels of society. Both President Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy, William Ruto, were indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity (for organising and supporting the huge violence during elections in 2007-08) but the cases collapsed as witnesses declined to come forward or mysteriously died.
Impunity accompanies looting of the state and, according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, lies at the heart of Kenya’s governance. Impunity for politicians suspected of state plunder has become a “national tradition” which has not only raised the stakes but, since transgressors are not punished, also allows the uses of violence and murder to continue. Politicians who have been publicly named for their role in political violence have remained in parliament and were appointed to cabinet, among them, George Saitori and William Ole Ntimama in the cabinet of President Mwai Kibaki. Some of those named for fomenting violence through the 1990s and in 2002 continued in parliament in 2007-08.
Aside from supposed spontaneous tribalism, violence has taken three main forms. First is manipulation of the poor and unemployed. As Daniel Howden instanced in 2013, “political barons marshalled armies drawn from the young and unemployed” and set them against their rivals with guns and machetes. The Human Rights Watch reports that, in one district in Central province, politicians incited militias to attack supporters of rivals and populations unlikely to vote for them. Another method was assassination of prominent or key figures. Pio Gama Pinto and Tom Mboya were killed in the early years of independence and, at the end of July this year, Chris Msando was brutally tortured and murdered, together with a young woman, Carol Ngumbu, who was with him at the time, ten days before the August election. Msando was in charge of the electronic system for transmitting results from polling stations, and had reportedly been complaining to police of death threats for weeks before he was murdered. His gruesome fate was a clear warning to other such personnel to stay in line. Kenya is now ranked top in Africa for extrajudicial killings, with 122 out of 177 for the whole of Africa. Al Jazeera reports that both Great Britain and Israel train death squads in “how to eliminate”. Then there is arbitrary—creating a sense of total—violence. In 2013 police killed some 1,300 people when they targeted even individuals who had not been involved in demonstrations, and fired live rounds and gas canisters into the flimsy shacks of the poor at night, well after the unrest had ceased. Today, this premeditated, direct brutality is still being practised by police who killed at least 28 people just after the voting in August.
Revealingly, the costs of presidential elections in Kenya are outstandingly high. The country’s treasury estimated the polling in August would cost $480 million, in one of the most expensive elections ever held in Africa. In these conditions, wealth is almost a form of violence in itself. President Uhuru Kenyatta stands at the system’s pinnacle. He had acquired what was termed the fabulous wealth of his father, President Jomo Kenyatta, and regularly features on the lists of the wealthiest Africans. His family was said to own half a million acres of land, and has interests in banking, property, an airline and a television network.
After independence, the Kikuyu whistleblower and, from 2002 to 2005, President Mwai Kibaki’s anti-corruption tsar, John Githongo, documented how Jomo Kenyatta and his Kikuyu inner circle steadily plundered the country, ensuring that they and neighbouring communities, like the Meru and Embu, kept acquiring land. It was not just Kenyatta. One particular financial scam of the late 1990s, known as Anglo-Leasing “creamed-off some $750 million mainly by overcharging the state.” After his death in 1978 Jomo Kenyatta was followed by Daniel Arap Moi, who declared that his philosophy was walking in the “Footsteps”, so the big things remained in place. A system of “authorised looting” cost taxpayers approximately $10 billion.
The ruling elite protects its interests by extending the spoils system to all MPs. The 500 or so parliamentarians (National Assembly and Senate) are among the highest paid in the world, obtaining a monthly salary at the time of the last electoral cataclysm in 2013 of about $10,000, with generous perks and benefits on top of that (including the provision of an armed guard). For the employed at the time, average incomes in Kenya were below $2,000 a year.
Pork-barrelling, elitist tribalism, and electoral fraud are interlinked, and 2017 had its precursors. John Githongo reported that when, late in the 2007-08 election, which began at the end of December and stretched into the New Year, it seemed that Raila Odinga, a populist Luo candidate, was winning, the old guard around President Kibaki set about fiddling the result. By December 30 glaring disparities were evident in the voting figures released at constituency level and those presented by the electoral commission in Nairobi. Kibaki was declared winner by just 232,000 votes, and hastily sworn in. The group known as the Mount Kenya Mafia had, Githongo noted, a massive network of civil servants, intelligence agents, generals and police chiefs to do their bidding: the bidding of Kibaki then, and of Uhuru Kenyatta now.
The August presidential election of 2017 appeared to go well. Donors had spent some $24 million on an electronic vote-tallying system, intended to prevent interference. On August 11 the electoral commission announced that Kenyatta had won another five-year term with over 54 per cent of the vote. Various observer groups, including the Carter Center, led by former Secretary of State John Kerry, announced that they had no evidence of significant fraud. Congratulations poured in. Departing Kenya, Kerry praised the electoral commission for doing “an extraordinary job”, and even admonished the opposition to “get over it and move on.”
Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA), thought differently. On August 18 he submitted a petition asking the Supreme Court to annul the vote, claiming that nearly half of all votes cast had been tampered with; that secret, unofficial polling stations had transmitted false votes to Nairobi; and that NASA’s official observers had been expelled from polling stations in Kenyatta’s strongholds. On August 29, the registrar of the Supreme Court reported that some five million votes were not verified.
Shortly afterwards, in a four-two decision, the six-judge bench of the Supreme Court nullified the presidential election, ruling that the voting had been hacked and manipulated in favour of the incumbent. The commission had “failed or neglected or refused to conduct the presidential election in a manner consistent with the dictates of the constitution.” The electoral commission, in particular, had committed “illegalities and irregularities”. The election was therefore invalid and the judges ordered a new vote within 60 days.
Kenyatta said he “respect[ed]” the decision, but regretted that “six people have decided they will go against the will of the people”. Many noted that the courts in Kenya had long been subservient to the president. Odinga hailed an “exceptional example for all of Africa.” There were many “fundamental decisions” that now had to be made, including “who will conduct the next election?” It was clear that “the entire electoral commission is rotten.”
The Past and the Future
It will be difficult for Odinga, NASA and poor Kenyans to follow Kerry’s glib “time to move on”. The roots of the present conflict lie some 60 years deep in Kenyan society, going back to the ascendancy of the Kikuyu “Loyalist” landed elite in the last years of settler-colonial Kenya. From the 1940s to 1963, a rising rich peasantry and aspirant rural capitalist class were assisted by colonialism to act as a sociopolitical bulwark against a poor, landless peasantry in the central highlands. Not for the first or last time, colonialism badly misread the situation. By no means what the last governor histrionically called “the leader to darkness and death”, Jomo Kenyatta was far from leading but, rather, trying to fend off the poor peasant uprising he had correctly anticipated. In their deeply inequitable struggle for land and freedom they constituted the losing side in the undeclared civil war in the highlands.
The struggle became overt when the British declared a state of emergency in October 1952 and attacked the peasant freedom movement on various fronts. One was psychological, with the name Mau Mau, intended to besmirch and weaken the 20,000 men and women fighting wars against well-equipped colonial forces. Appeals to supposed civilised values were also intended to isolate the approximately 1.5 million people thought to have proclaimed allegiance to the movement, that is, nearly the entire Kikuyu population. The struggle also went on in a system of detention camps—or what Caroline Elkins calls “Britain’s Gulag”—where barbaric torture took place. Elkins estimates that “perhaps hundreds of thousands” were killed, for which, despite overwhelming evidence in the colonial documents themselves, she was lambasted by historians for committing “blood libels”·against Great Britain.
Jomo Kenyatta was released from banishment to become extremely rich, and his son Uhuru is now his inheritor. Oginga Odinga, the country’s first vice-president (and, incidentally, author of an autobiography called Not Yet Uhuru), was widely seen as his likely successor but the prize went instead, in an intense Cold War environment, to Moi. Nevertheless, memories of the Land and Freedom army remain: thousands of survivors are pressing claims for compensation from Britain. 5,000 of them were given 20 million British pounds in 2013, and 40,000 more are claiming some 200 million. Kenyatta and Odinga represent the poles in Kenya’s conflict. A lot more than a re-run of the August poll will be necessary to end the violence that has lasted so long and runs so deep.
Kenneth Good is professor of political studies, University of Botswana, 1990-2005, and honorary fellow, global studies, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.