Violence-Free Vote in Kenya is Just One Hurdle on Long Road

Posted on March 11, 2013


Originally published in The National

After five days on tenterhooks, Kenyans breathed a collective sigh of relief on Saturday at the official announcement that Uhuru Kenyatta had won the presidency. Much of that relief stemmed from one simple fact: the country had made it through its first elections since 2007 without a return to violence.

To be sure, the lack of civil unrest is a significant accomplishment. But it is far from sufficient. Kenya is East Africa’s anchor state, and to maintain economic and political dominance, it will need to overcome numerous challenges in the next year.

The first of these challenges will unfold in the coming weeks, as presidential candidate Raila Odinga challenges the election results in court. Mr Kenyatta’s margin of victory was slim – less than 10,000 votes above the majority he needed to prevent a run-off election.

Mr Odinga’s party told the Financial Times that it had found a 170,000-vote discrepancy between tallies at the constituency level and the national level. Kenya’s electoral body, the IEBC, has yet to explain this and other anomalies that emerged in the days following the polls. Most notably, the electronic system for transmitting and tallying votes failed on the evening of March 4.

Despite the numerous irregularities with the elections, there does seem to be public sentiment behind moving forward with the current results, even among some supporters of Mr Odinga. It’s unclear at this stage whether he has a viable case to present to the courts, or if he’ll be able to marshal the evidence for one within the required seven-day period.

If the presidential results survive the Kenyan courts, there is still the International Criminal Court to contend with. Both Mr Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, are indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity for their roles in the 2008 post-election violence that killed over 1,100 people. Their trials were originally scheduled for April, but have now been postponed until May (for Mr Ruto) and July (for Mr Kenyatta). Some speculated that if elected, both men would refuse to attend their trials. Such a scenario could pose serious consequences for Kenya, including potential suspensions of development aid and foreign investment.

While instinct might be to shun the court, it will be in their interests to attend their trials, and do their jobs well at home. “Kenyatta would have every reason to govern Kenya well,” argues Africa expert Bronwyn Bruton in Foreign Affairs. “Popularity is his best defence against The Hague.”

Unfortunately, spending a lot of time at The Hague will affect the new leaders’ abilities to carry out their responsibilities as president and vice-president. Most ICC trials last at least three years. It’s highly unlikely that either man would step down from office for the trial period, which will coincide with a particularly important time of political change in Kenya, as power devolves to newly established counties.

In fact, setting the ICC aside, devolution is the single most important challenge that the Kenyan government will face in the next five years. This election brings the new governmental structure into place, with power shifting from the national level down to 47 counties. Each county has an elected governor and assembly; they will receive a minimum of 15 per cent of all revenue collected by the national government, and have the authority to allocate that funding as they see fit. Counties will also have the ability to raise their own revenue through taxes or permits.

This year, much of the business of government will continue to be shaped at the national level. But over time, counties will seek to establish their authority, and there will likely be power struggles between the national government and the counties.

Right now, the counties do not have much technical expertise in policymaking or programme implementation. Sectors such as health and agriculture might see a range of divergent policies passed at the county level. Local businesses, foreign investors, nonprofits and donor governments will all need to adjust to the new operating environment.

The political challenges posed by devolution, and the uncertainty of how the ICC trials will affect Kenya diplomatically, are real and should not be minimised. But perhaps the most important trend in Kenya right now is an economic one, and that trend is overwhelmingly positive.

The IMF predicts 5.8 per cent growth in Kenya’s GDP this year. Recently, people have started to call Nairobi the “Silicon Savannah”, a reference to its burgeoning status as a regional tech and innovation hub. IBM opened its first research lab in Africa in Nairobi in September 2012, and private equity firms continue to open up shop as well. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi has another terminal under construction to accommodate its growth in flights and passenger traffic.

This week, as millions of Kenyans waited for presidential election results and international observers feared the worst, Kenyans on Twitter were talking about the delay’s effect on the economy, and how much they wanted to go back to work. Meanwhile, the stock of mobile operator Safaricom hit a 52-week high.

The international community might think of Kenya as a country led by someone indicted by the ICC. But Kenyans see themselves quite differently: They are a country of farmers, tech innovators, entrepreneurs and civil servants who just made it through a peaceful election, and are ready to go back to work.

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Posted in: The National