Time to move on in Kenya

I was away last week and didn’t get a chance to preview Kenya’s presidential election, held on Tuesday. But the result is quite clear-cut: with counting virtually complete (99% reporting), incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta leads by more than 1.4 million votes. He has 54.3% against 44.8% for his challenger, Raila Odinga, making his fourth unsuccessful attempt at the presidency. Six minor candidates collected the remaining 0.9% between them.

Kenya is the fifth-largest economy and sixth most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa. But it occupies a larger place in western consciousness than those figures suggest; it was the site of significant colonial settlement from Britain, and then a violent struggle for independence in the 1950s. Since the advent of democracy in the 1990s it has had a generally positive record of stability and economic growth, interrupted by the large-scale violence surrounding the disputed election of 2007.

So the following election, in 2012, was a vital test of whether Kenya had overcome that crisis. It appeared to pass that test; although Kenyatta won only narrowly, voting was peaceful and the result was widely accepted. (You can read my preview of that election and subsequent report on the result.) Charges against the new president at the International Criminal Court, in relation to the 2007 violence, were dropped in 2015.

In office, Kenyatta has attracted criticism for authoritarianism, and his attitude to the media carries echoes of Donald Trump. Corruption and inequality remain major problems, and fears were raised immediately prior to the election when the head of IT for the electoral commission was abducted and murdered.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Odinga and his supporters have claimed fraud and refused so far to accept the result. There has been sporadic violence as a result and apparently a number of deaths in clashes between police and protesters. But international observers have given positive assessments; the head of the EU observer mission remarked (according to the BBC) that “Candidates and their supporters must accept that not winning is a natural part of a democratic competition.”

Nor is there anything implausible in the idea that a reasonably successful president, now with the advantage of incumbency, would win re-election with a slightly increased margin.

Broadly speaking, Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party is centre-right while the opposition National Super Alliance represents the centre-left. But party loyalty is also largely driven by ethnicity, and the rivalry between Kenyatta and Odinga is dynastic: their fathers were both leaders of the independence movement but fell out in the 1960s.

Kenya is certainly not the only country whose politics is shaped by personal conflicts that are half a century old (or more). But since this is presumably the last contest between the two – Odinga is 72 and Kenyatta is prevented by term limits from running again – it’s to be hoped that Kenya’s next leadership generation will find a way of overcoming some of the old divisions.


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