How Kenya delivered its peaceful general elections


The Supreme Court of Kenya has been asked to rule on the validity of the outcome of Kenya’s 4 March 2013 general elections, but the fact remains that the elections were held successfully in a free and peaceful atmosphere. How did Kenya deliver these peaceful elections, defying observers’ warning of a recurrence of the 2007-08 violence?

The reforms undertaken within the framework of the 2010 Constitution played a major part. These reforms put in place the institutions and legal frameworks to ensure clean elections. Chief among these is an independent judiciary with a leadership determined to defend the Constitution and meet the expectations of the public.

Trust in the newly established legal processes was displayed even when Raila Odinga, the presidential candidate of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), rejected the results of the presidential polls. Odinga stated: ‘Let the Supreme Court decide and determine whether the result announced by [the] Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is lawful.’ He added: ‘We have a new independent judiciary in which we in CORD and most Kenyans have faith. It will uphold the rule of law, and we will abide by its decisions.’ It should be recalled that in 2007’08 the bias and partiality of the judiciary made meaningful recourse to legal processes and a peaceful resolution of the dispute difficult, with disastrous consequences.

Having taken many lessons of the 2007-08 post-election violence to heart, civil society organisations, as well as the Church and the media, played their part by mobilising public awareness for a peaceful electoral process. Both the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the police monitored the rhetoric of politicians and the media, with the result that hate speech and incitement of violence was limited. Admittedly, the message of peace dominated public discourse to such an extent that politicians avoided critical engagement with other important issues, leading some to coin the term ‘peace-ocracy’ to describe Kenya.

Many believe that the International Criminal Court (ICC) cases against President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto have been among the defining issues of the March polls. It is ironic that a process meant to establish accountability was used successfully by the duo for mobilising support in their election bid. First, the ICC process was a major factor in the ‘marriage’ between the two under the Jubilee Alliance, with the communities that Kenyatta and Ruto respectively represent as its core constituency. Had it not been for the ICC cases, it is unlikely that this alliance would have received the support of their respective communities, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, given the history of violence between the two groups. The alliance facilitated the formation of the largest voting block in the general elections. As Prof Makau Mutua explained in Kenya’s Daily Nation on 9 March 2013, with this Kenyatta ‘had the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin ‘ the largest and the third largest groups ‘ under his wing’.

Second, the ICC process offered Kenyatta ammunition in the form of perceived external attempts at influencing the outcome of the elections. In her New York Times piece ‘Indictee for President!’, Michela Wrong highlighted how the Kenyatta and Ruto camp exploited perceived Western attempts at pre-empting the outcome of the elections. Apart from bolstering Kenyatta’s campaign and the chances of his victory, the ICC process might also have had a bearing on the behaviour of political leaders in terms of both their utterances and actions, and so helped to prevent violence during the elections.

In addition to the reforms and the major issues that defined the opinions of voters, much of the credit for the peaceful elections goes to the voters themselves. Of the 14,3 million registered voters, just over 12 million cast their votes on 4 March 2013. This means that the voter turnout was a historic 87%, the highest since the reintroduction of the multiparty system in Kenyan politics in 1992. More significant than the voter turnout was how voters conducted themselves in casting their ballots. They peacefully joined long queues and waited for an average of three hours.

The security personnel deployed also made a difference. About 99 000 officers provided security at 33 000 polling stations. There were few notable incidents. Hours before voting started, an attack in Mombasa resulted in 17 deaths, but this did not affect voting. The media also played its part and the message of peace dominated Kenyan airwaves. As Magnus Taylor observed at on 10 March 2013, ‘[T]he media, in particular, took their responsibilities very seriously and made an effort to tone down their own rhetoric. For example, press conferences - were not broadcast live and excessive speculation on results was generally avoided.’

The IEBC was responsible for organising the elections. Despite the fact that it encountered major technical problems, the IEBC made an effort to deliver its part, albeit not always satisfactorily. Some of the challenges that reflected badly on the IEBC included ballot paper mix-ups, the failure of electronic voter identification devices, late starts at some polling stations, the failure of the electronic tallying system, the number of rejected ballots and the slow pace in the announcement of results. While its performance in some cases failed to meet expectations, the IEBC held regular press briefings explaining the challenges it faced and the measures it was taking to address these.

Unfortunately, despite its efforts, the work of the IEBC attracted legal proceedings. First, while the IEBC was processing the results, Kenyan civil society groups filed an application with the High Court asking for an injunction to stop the IEBC from processing and announcing results. The application was rejected. More significantly, on 16 March 2013 Odinga filed an application with the Supreme Court to have the election results and the process leading up to the 9 March announcement of the final results declared null and void.

One of the most important moments of the election was the declaration of the results by the IEBC. At that moment, the responsibility for the peaceful conclusion of the elections shifted from the IEBC to the candidates and their respective supporters. In this regard, credit is due to the leading candidates and their respective supporters. Odinga’s handling of the results deserves the most credit. By taking his dissatisfaction with the IEBC’s processing of the results to court rather than to the streets, Odinga displayed a dignified leadership. Significantly, he also urged his supporters that ‘violence is to be avoided at all costs’.

While the interplay of the above factors contributed to the peaceful conclusion of the elections, the process has not been problem-free. The politics surrounding the elections raised the question of whether in polarising voters along ethnic lines the elections perpetuated the politics of the old order and unwittingly undermined the ambitions of the 2010 Constitution. The problems encountered in the course of processing the results and the subsequent court application also mean that the last legal recourse in the electoral process ‘ the Supreme Court of Kenya ‘ must still confirm the finality of the elections.

Solomon Ayele Dersso, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa


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