Unrest Following Kenya’s Redo Presidential Election

By: Caitlin Attaway

In the wake of Kenya’s October 26th “redo” presidential election, political tensions are at their highest in a decade. In August, claims of “procedural irregularities” in the original presidential election, where President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected to his second term, forced the Kenyan Supreme Court to mandate a redo election. This unprecedented action by the Kenyan Supreme Court has been heralded as proof of Kenya’s improving democratic institutions; however, others believe the judicial action will cause an upheaval of political relations between tribes. An increase in tensions during the campaign leading up to the second go-round of the presidential election have only further instigated tribal divides. Both Kenyatta and his main opponent, Raila Odinga, rallied their constituents based on age-old tribal allegiances, ramping up divides between their respective Kikuyu and Luo tribes.

The Kikuyu and Luo people have long been pinned against each other. These two tribes have been adversaries since the 1960’s when Jaramogi Odinga, Raila Odinga’s father and the first vice-president of Kenya, broke ties with President Jomo Kenyatta, father of Uhuru Kenyatta, due to divergent views on the direction Kenya should take in its initial steps as a nation.

During the 2017 campaign, Uhuru Kenyatta, the sitting president and incumbent, mobilized his Jubilee Party supporters with claims of building up the middle class and improving urban centers. He also mobilized his supporters with denigrating remarks about members of the Kenyan Supreme Court, whom he called wajuaji (know-it-alls). Such comments made by the President make the Court’s decision to institute a redo election seem illegitimate. These tactics have proven successful at convincing the Kikuyu people to remain loyal to President Kenyatta – who is of Kikuyu heritage – and the Jubilee Party as a whole.

Representing the coalition opposition movement is the leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), Raila Odinga. Along with other parties, the ODM elected Odinga to represent the National Super Alliance (NASA) in the 2017 presidential election. Supporters of NASA and the ODM are largely Luo. The Luo ethnic group in Kenya has historically been underrepresented in the Kenyan government since it gained its independence in 1963.

What is unclear is whether this divide between the Jubilee Party and NASA will give way to unrest similar to that which unfolded in 2007. In the aftermath of the 2007 election, then-President Mwai Kibaki was named victor by a slight margin over opposition leader Raila Odinga, among growing evidence of electoral fraud: vote-rigging, stuffed ballot boxes, and the tampering of election results by top officials.

Angered by these results, Odinga and other international actors, such as former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, began questioning the election’s legitimacy. This gave credibility to civilian claims that the election was in violation of Kenya’s democratic processes. The dispute resulted in bloodshed between President Kibaki’s Kikuyu supporters and Odinga’s Luo supporters.

During the violence succeeding the 2007 elections, current-President Uhuru Kenyatta was a strong supporter of then-President Kibaki. In an effort to support President Kibaki and the Kikuyu tribe, Kenyatta was alleged to have hired an armed gang, the Mungiki, to attack members of the Luo tribe.  

Reparations for victims of this conflict have yet to be fully fulfilled due to failings by both domestic courts and the International Criminal Court (ICC), which still has an ongoing investigation regarding the events of the 2007 election. In fact, tensions relating to that violence did not see a resolution until 2010 when Kenya rewrote and implemented a new constitution which aimed to pacify historical divides between ethnic groups by diverting power to local governments.

The question that must now be considered is whether or not the level of unrest seen in the 2007 elections could ensue following the 2017 elections, despite constitutional reforms.

Like in 2007, Odinga in 2017 has been making claims questioning the legitimacy of Kenya’s presidential election. On October 31st, Odinga said the redo election “must not stand … It will make a complete mockery of elections and might well be the end of the ballot as a means of instituting government in Kenya. It will completely destroy public confidence in the vote.”

These inflammatory statements could potentially serve as the spark needed for Odinga’s supporters to question the validity of President Kenyatta’s re-election. With redo election voter turnout only at 6.5 million compared to the 15 million that cast their vote in August, talk of President Kenyatta’s illegitimate victory among NASA voters would not be surprising.

Already, a lack of faith in newly re-elected Kenyatta has sparked deadly interaction between police and civilians protesting on the streets. On the day of the redo election, one opposition protester was left dead, and others were wounded after violent face-offs with police erupted in an opposition stronghold in the capital city of Nairobi. In addition, further skirmishes between police and protesters were reported in the Nairobi slum, Kibera, where the majority of the inhabitants are supporters of Odinga.

In response to these outbreaks of unrest, President Kenyatta in his acceptance speech asked his fellow Kenyans to remain peaceful: “I continue to appeal to Kenyans that your neighbour will remain your neighbour after these elections. Let us be our brothers’ keeper. Let us maintain peace.”

Amid this talk of “peace,” President Kenyatta has been attempting to find ways to undermine the ICC indictment against him for crimes against humanity committed in 2007. Reportedly, President Kenyatta has bribed witnesses with potentially incriminating evidence linking him and others to involvement with Mungiki, the gang which President Kenyatta allegedly hired back in 2007.

Will this message of peace be realized in the second term of Kenyatta’s presidency, or will President Kenyatta’s old tendency for instigating violence rear its head once again? The answer is yet to be seen.

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