Kenya’s next general elections are not scheduled to take place until 12 months from now in August 2022 – yet even a year ago the race to be the country’s next President was hotting up. The months leading up to, and after, elections have been the most violent periods in Kenya’s post-independence history, with thousands killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in election cycles since 2007. The advent of multi-party democracy in Kenya in 1992 led to the ethnicisation of politics, with parties coalescing around tribal power-brokers and an ever-changing political landscape as inter-ethnic alliances were formed and fell apart. This continues to characterise Kenya’s electoral landscape today. In the absence of parties based on a consistent political ideology, the instrumentalisation of tribal identities and manipulation of ethnic grievances remain the primary basis of political mobilisation, with the threat of violence – and often its use – hanging over every election cycle.
As Kenya prepares for the 2022 general elections, there are some signs that the ethnicised political discourse and its underlying drivers are changing. As in so many countries around the world, this has been driven in part by the experience of COVID and the restrictions on people’s lives that have come with the pandemic, which have exacerbated and highlighted inequalities among Kenya’s citizens. Whether this ushers in a new and less violent form of politics remains to be seen. It may be that the new political dynamics will prove just as divisive and destructive as what came before. Indeed, there are growing fears that, unless the current political discourse is toned down and the nature of electoral processes re-imagined, Kenya will once again descend into violence in the run-up to next year’s elections. This article summarises current political dynamics, and identifies conflict drivers and trends – old and new – as Kenya prepares to go to the polls in 2022 general election.
The handshake in March 2018 between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his political opponent and former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, was intended to signal an end to the acrimony which followed the 2017 presidential elections. It was hailed as a landmark in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which sought to lay the foundations for national healing, including pledges to end historical and electoral injustices and unite Kenya’s citizens. However, the outcome of the BBI process – a report launched in October 2020 that proposed to amend various aspects of the Kenyan constitution to address issues of political inclusivity and electoral injustice – received a mixed reaction from Kenyans.
Following the launch of the BBI report, the ‘handshake principals’, Kenyatta and Odinga, convened rallies across the country to popularise the document. Many of their supporters called for the proposed amendments to be voted on in a referendum. However, supporters of the Deputy President, William Ruto, regard the BBI proposals as a means of blocking his own run for the presidency in 2022. Ruto and his allies publicly criticised the BBI process, condemning it as designed to secure positions for current leaders in an expanded executive, rather than as a systematic reform to make the political system more inclusive. They also claim it will undermine the judiciary’s independence, and marginalise sparsely populated areas of the country. Ruto argues that Kenyans have a civic duty to interrogate the report, iron out contentious issues, and then hold a ’non-contested referendum’. Ruto’s supporters launched various petitions in relation to the legality and validity of the proposed amendments, and in May, Kenya’s high court overturned the President’s bid to amend the constitution.
In what has been lauded as a sign of judicial independence in Kenya, on 20 August 2021 the court of appeal upheld the High Court ruling following four separate appeals made by President Uhuru Kenyatta, Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) Leader Rt. Hon Raila Odinga, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the BBI national secretariat. In response, MPs aligned to the President are expected to take forward the constitutional amendment agenda to Parliament, having identified 52 clauses in the BBI proposals that they say do not require a referendum to effect. Odinga on the other hand has made public his acceptance of the Court of Appeal ruling. According to him, it is time to move on in pursuit of the bigger goal of addressing the issues facing the country. This statement aligns with recent political developments seen as aimed at laying the ground for Odinga’s Presidency, including recent political gatherings and the unveiling of a new slogan Umoja Inawezekana – Azimio La Muungano (Unity is Possible – Our desire to unite our people and the country). The big question now is: will the spirit behind the handshake and the Kenyatta–Odinga pact hold? Could this be the beginning of a new political movement and coalition?
The power struggle over the proposed constitutional amendments has ominous parallels with events prior to the 2007 elections, which set the scene for unprecedented election violence. The 2007 elections followed a divisive constitutional referendum in 2005, which played out as a contest between the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, and the then Opposition leader Raila Odinga, along with their respective ethnic bases. The currently proposed referendum is similarly seen as a forerunner of next year’s electoral contest between Odinga and Ruto (as current President Kenyatta is barred from running for a third term). The cost of a referendum – on top of the impacts of COVID, which has gutted major economic sectors, such as tourism, and increased Kenya’s debt burden – is seen as an unnecessary drain on the economy.
Communities for and against the BBI and a constitutional referendum can be found across the country. The President’s own Kikuyu ethnic group appears split, with many confused and suspicious of the current political friendship between Odinga and Kenyatta. In some places, such as Nairobi’s informal settlement of Kibera, inter-ethnic tensions and violent incidents between the historically antagonistic ethnic groups of Luo and Kikuyu have reduced since the ‘handshake’. This suggests that the BBI process may have contributed to a positive shift in the relationship between divided ethnic communities in certain areas. The rapprochement appears fragile, however. In recent Saferworld consultations about conflict concerns with communities in Nairobi and Kisumu, respondents expressed fears that should Kenyatta and Odinga fall out – and the ‘handshake’ is only a gentleman’s agreement rather than a binding commitment – there will likely be a resurgence of violence between ethnic groups.
At the same time, a new political dynamic seems to be emerging in Kenya, triggered by COVID and its impacts, but underpinned by decades of socio-economic inequality. It is based on the fact that successive Kenyan political leaders (whether in the State House or in Opposition) have come from a handful of families, and it re-frames the contest away from one of ethnic identities and alliances towards one of the downtrodden masses against the elites. It is often characterised as a contest between ‘hustlers’ – Kenya’s vast underclass typically working in the informal economy – and the ‘dynasties’ of the Kenyattas, Odingas and other political families.
Many analysts regard this new narrative about the political contest as a shrewd move by Deputy President Ruto to redefine identity politics in Kenya. The dynasties are deliberately conjoined in the public imagination with the far-reaching, all-powerful ‘Deep State’ – echoing rhetoric deployed, and fears evoked, by Trump in the US and populist leaders elsewhere. Given widespread poverty and entrenched socio-economic inequalities, this narrative of ‘hustlers v. dynasties’ resonates strongly with many Kenyans. Combined with the restrictions that have had such a damaging impact on the livelihoods of the many young people who depend on the informal sector, it speaks to growing discontent with the government. The corruption that permeates many aspects of Kenyan public life has also thrived during the pandemic, giving rise to the so-called ‘COVID millionaires’ and reinforcing the appeal of the hustler/dynasty narrative.
Meanwhile, for the first time in the history of Kenya, the president and his deputy are openly pulling in different directions. This has led to shifting loyalties and clear rifts within the ruling coalition, causing tensions in various parts of the country, notably at political rallies convened by the deputy president’s allies. In September 2020, a Kenyan court charged MP Oscar Sudi with two counts of hate speech and one of offensive conduct for remarks that the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) stated could have led to a breach of the peace. Sudi's comments echoed those made by his colleague, MP Johanna Ng'eno, who also faced hate speech and incitement charges. The arrests of these two leaders sparked public protests, especially in areas considered Ruto’s support bases. In apparent response to these incidents, the NCIC proposed a new law ahead of the 2022 general election that seeks to outlaw discrimination and incitement of Kenyans along ethnic, religious or racial lines and give the commission powers to bar politicians cited as ‘hate-mongers’ and individuals charged with incitement from contesting political positions.
Despite such initiatives to pre-empt inflammatory political behaviour, as well as ethical safeguards in the constitution, the political temperature continues to rise. Ruto’s incendiary rhetoric about the hustler nation v. the dynasty/Deep State taps into the need for a target for the months of pent-up fear and anger that have been simmering during the COVID era. The concern is that grievances about class inequalities are being instrumentalised to serve the interests of political leaders in much the same way that grievances based on ethnic identity have been mobilised in the past. Many Kenyans fear widespread class conflict fuelled by the hustler v. dynasty narrative. Bodaboda (motorcycle taxi) riders, for example, are seen as hustlers, while car-owners are associated with the ‘dynasty’. Thus a deputy Governor had his car torched by bodaboda riders following an accident that involved his vehicle and a motorcycle. In Kibera, Mathare and other informal settlements, business owners and those living in more accessible areas are also regarded as representatives of the dynasty. This rhetoric threatens to rekindle historic urban violence between tenants and landlords, which has had far-reaching consequences.
COVID has not only exposed Kenya’s socio-economic divides but also aggravated a range of other sources of insecurity and violence. As in so many other countries, there has been a sharp rise in sexual and gender-based violence, with Nairobi recording significantly higher case numbers than before the pandemic. The pandemic has increased the vulnerability of women dependent on the informal sector who are either not able to access these livelihood opportunities due to the restrictions in place, or whose contribution is no longer necessary due to work-from-home arrangements (for example washer-women). The decline of job and livelihood opportunities as a result of the pandemic has also led to an increase in petty crime. As the country experiences a ‘ffourth wave’ of the pandemic following a short period in which restrictions were eased, many are blaming the government, with fears that economic recovery will be impossible for people who have only just started re-engaging in livelihood activities.
Linked to this are the repercussions of the government initiative to cushion citizens from the economic impacts of COVID through the Kazi mtaani youth initiative. The initiative was designed to protect youth in informal settlements from the loss of livelihood opportunities. It sought to provide a form of social protection for workers whose prospects for daily or casual employment were disrupted by COVID restrictions. While the initiative was lauded for contributing to a state of calm and reduced criminality in parts of the country, there is considerable scepticism about the skills-training component. Many perceive it as a short-term pacification gesture targeted at unemployed youth but with little serious commitment to develop skills that will enable long-term employment. Furthermore, the dependable cash-flow it has provided for these young people ended in June, at a time of heightened political activity as Kenya is preparing for next year’s elections. This could have grave ramifications for peace and security as, without this economic safety net, unemployed youth will be all the more easily mobilised to violence.
As elsewhere in the world, the role of Kenya’s security sector has also been in the spotlight for repressive and sometimes violent behaviour to enforce lockdowns intended to halt the spread of COVID. Kenya’s police are reported to have used heavy-handed tactics, with the government’s own Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) receiving numerous complaints of police violence since the first curfew was imposed in March 2020. These include allegations of extra-judicial killings, shootings, assault, general harassment and sexual assault. There were also reports of police breaking into homes and businesses, and carrying out looting and extortion. The IPOA described 35 of these as ‘watertight’ cases of police brutality related to curfew enforcement, 15 of which resulted in death. According to a recent report entitled ‘The Brutal Pandemic’ published by the Kenyan organisation, Missing Voices, a total of 157 people were killed or ‘disappeared’ in 2020 against the backdrop of COVID enforcement measures.
Kenya has a long history of excessive and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officers. The experience of past elections has reinforced the view that the Kenyan police are instruments of political actors – utumishi kwa wanasiasa – as opposed to an impartial body that protects the rights of citizens and provides service to all Kenyans, as their utumishi kwa wote (‘service to all’) logo implies. The country is therefore preparing for elections in a context where there is deep distrust and high levels of animosity between the police and the public.
Distrust of Kenya’s police reflects a wider distrust of the state, especially among youth, and a profound sense of political disenfranchisement. This is compounded by persistent concerns about the credibility and political independence of Kenya’s electoral institutions and their capacity to manage the electoral process. The results of Kenya’s 2007 and 2017 elections were widely contested, leading to post-poll violence, and the role and conduct of the main electoral management body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), was criticised in both cases. The reforms proposed to restore public confidence in the integrity and legitimacy of the IEBC have still not been fully implemented, which raises serious concerns about a peaceful transition of power in next year’s election.
The IEBC is also centrally involved in another contentious political issue – and another long-standing source of conflict – namely the demarcation of constituency boundaries. The demarcation exercise, which is due to take place before the 2022 general election, is likely to cause further political fragmentation. It is expected that the IEBC will base the process on the 2019 national census results; however, some political leaders have disputed the accuracy of this census. The IEBC is empowered to merge or disband constituencies that do not meet the threshold of 170,000 people per constituency. This process, however, is likely to inflame tensions, especially in areas where boundaries are already in dispute – such as Mt. Elgon constituency in Bungoma county – and could be a trigger for violence during the election period.
Taken together, these political dynamics and conflict trends highlight that Kenya once again faces the prospect of violence in the run-up to, during or after the 2022 elections. 12 months out from the elections, there is still time to take measures to mitigate the risk of violence. Arguably the single biggest conflict driver in Kenya is socio-economic inequality, which has historically been mobilised along ethnic lines, but is increasingly being presented as an issue of inter-class conflict, powerfully evoked by the ‘hustler v. dynasty’ narrative. This narrative resonates with so many Kenyans because the reality of the class divide is undeniable. The challenge then, in order to prevent this political dynamic from generating violence, is not simply to dismiss the narrative, but to refashion it as a constructive and peaceful political agenda with the goal of social cohesion, not polarisation. At the same time, there must be concrete steps to address the causes of inequality in Kenya. It would be naive to pretend that decades of inequality can be redressed within 12 months; nevertheless, a demonstrable commitment to reducing inequality by political leaders rather than exploiting it for sectarian ambitions would help to turn down the pressure cooker that is the Kenyan electoral cycle. Meanwhile, Kenyan civil society should be supported to work with communities across ethnic and political divides to help foster a less divisive political culture. Saferworld and our Kenyan partners continue to work to reduce tensions and prevent violent conflict around elections. To read more about our work in Kenya, click here.
Photo: Boda boda riders discuss the infamous 'handshake'. Led and coordinated by youth, roadside dialogues in Kenya are an economical and easy way to bring together members of the community to discuss current affairs, conflict resolution and peace. (Credit: Ramon Sanchez Orense/Saferworld).