Signs of violence ahead of Kenya's 2017 elections

2016-06-17

With just over a year to go before Kenya holds its next general elections, the political climate in the country seems to be reaching a peak.

The opposition’s so-called Firimbi Movement (spear-headed by Parliamentary whistle-blowers from the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, or CORD) has been conducting regular demonstrations in order to force the country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) out of office. CORD accuses the IEBC of being biased, inept and corrupt, saying that the body should no longer be trusted to administer the upcoming 2017 elections.

In response, IEBC proponents from the ruling Jubilee Coalition fiercely maintain that the body will remain in place unless the law for their removal is followed. The implicated IEBC officials have also dug in their heels, insisting that they are innocent and will not step down. This hardened political posturing has created an impasse, where the escalating drumbeats of political tension threaten to make the 2017 elections even more violent than those of 2007. Can political and electoral violence be averted? And by what means?

Just over a year before elections, the political climate in Kenya seems to be reaching a peak

The IEBC was created in 2011 through an act of Parliament, and is charged with the responsibility of conducting and supervising referenda and elections for any elective body established by the constitution.

An independent institution, the IEBC resulted from Kenya’s 2010 constitution, which was promulgated after the 2007/8-election violence. Blame for the election-related violence was largely pinned on the IEBC’s predecessor, the Electoral Commission of Kenya. Although there was high optimism when the 2010 constitution was promulgated, the IEBC has always been shrouded in an atmosphere of mistrust, and it would seem that a large section of the public no longer has confidence in it. 

Several events have led to these perceptions. The first is the process and outcome of the 2013 elections. These were the first elections to be managed and supervised by the IEBC, but the process and outcome led many to suspect the IEBC of being biased. According to CORD, the IEBC rigged these elections in favour of the ruling Jubilee Coalition. Although its petition at the Supreme Court was lost and they accepted the verdict, CORD maintains that it was robbed of victory.

The second is the uncovering of the multi-million shilling ‘Chickengate scandal.’ The scandal involved senior IEBC officials, who had allegedly been bribed to award a printing tender for elections materials to United Kingdom (UK) firm Smith and Ouzman. This further tarnished the IEBC’s integrity and image. Whereas the UK has since jailed the implicated officials of the firm, Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EAAC) is yet to complete its investigation. This has created a perception that the IEBC officials are enjoying protection from the government and the EAAC.

Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has always been shrouded in mistrust

Third, is IEBC’s handling of CORD’s Okoa Kenya (meaning ‘save Kenya’) initiative, which called for a referendum to amend the 2010 constitution and, among other things, to increase revenue allocation to county governments and push for institutional reforms. Following a process that was closed to independent observers, the IEBC rejected CORD’s petition – saying it lacked sufficient valid signatures. This compounded the perception that the IEBC has been colluding with the Jubilee government to frustrate CORD.

The fourth factor is the prospect of a long-term rule by the Jubilee Coalition. This fear is sparked by the controversy of the 2013 elections, along with the collapse of the criminal cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy at the International Criminal Court, and the controversial recent electoral victory for the Jubilee Coalition in the Kericho County senatorial by-election.

Despite the IEBC’s efforts to strengthen electoral processes, perceptions remain that it would not be able to guarantee free and fair elections next year. Whether these perceptions are substantiated is not known, but the fact remains that the IEBC’s integrity, credibility, independence and public stature have been seriously eroded. Confidence in the IEBC is sharply divided along the CORD and Jubilee coalitions, and the ethnic communities that support the two political camps.

CORD is relying on the factors outlined above to push for politically negotiated electoral reforms. This is the main push for CORD’s countrywide demonstrations, which are increasingly marked with violence given government’s hardened position and the brutal crackdown by police.

Government's clampdown on demonstrators has led to political fear and uncertainty

According to the Kenyan constitution, the procedure in such a situation is to petition Parliament for debate. If approved, it goes to the president for consideration, and again, if approved, a tribunal is set up to hear and determine the matters.

Apparently, a similar petition filed by two activists to disband the IEBC on allegations of mismanagement of the 2013 polls, among others, was dismissed by a parliamentary committee on justice and legal affairs for lack of merit. CORD has thus argued that parliamentary processes, particularly those related to politically sensitive matters, cannot pass because the Jubilee Coalition enjoys a parliamentary majority.

The legality of CORD’s countrywide anti-IEBC demonstrations remains controversial. The court had initially issued interim restraining orders, but later allowed CORD to picket peacefully. This prompted the government to ban the demonstrations on security grounds – a move that CORD has challenged as illegal.

Overall, CORD’s relentlessness and the government’s deadly clampdown on demonstrators have led to an atmosphere of extreme political fear and uncertainty, similar to what was experienced before the 2007 elections. Subsequently, many stakeholders – especially the religious, business and diplomatic community, and liberal-minded parliamentarians – have appealed to government and opposition to agree to dialogue over the IEBC stalemate. This now seems to be in the offing. Government has agreed to the formation of a joint parliamentary select committee, which CORD is yet to fully embrace.

It should be acknowledged that Kenya’s political circumstances involve extreme political and ethnic polarisation, which require not only technical and legal solutions, but also a politically nuanced pact.

Political and electoral stakeholders in Kenya would have to take this into account if they are to ensure a win-win situation for the Kenyan people. This would consolidate Kenya’s fragile democracy, and generate the public confidence needed for sustainable peace and stability, cohesion and nation-building.

Peter Aling’o, Office Director and Senior Researcher; Hawa Noor, Research Consultant, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Nairobi

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