How Raila, Ruto can ensure peaceful polls
Regional observers view Kenya’s forthcoming elections with considerable trepidation. Given the country’s position as East Africa’s main transport and commercial hub, violence tends to have a ripple effect across much of the region.
Days after elections-related ethnic violence broke out in January 2008, long queues formed at fuel stations in the capitals of landlocked Uganda and Rwanda, which depend on supplies from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which also relies on imports passing through Kenya, aid agencies reported running out of stock.
Amid civil war in Ethiopia and the entrenched political crisis in Sudan, the region can ill afford another unrest, much less one at the centre of the region’s economic and political life. Fortunately, Kenya may be well positioned to dodge this bullet. Crisis Group research over the past three years in various parts of the country has found little appetite for inter-communal violence. Society does not seem to be as on edge as it was in the months before the 2007 and 2013 elections.
For better or worse, the overall public mood is one of mixed indifference and resignation, particularly among young Kenyans, though the disposition among the latter is understandably sour.
Some polls show more younger voters expressing a preference for Deputy President William Ruto’s candidacy, but the overall mood is one of disillusionment verging on apathy.
“The youth are disappointed in the major candidates and fear that none can bring about the sort of quick change they need on a wide array of issues, including unemployment and the high cost of living,” Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, the director of Siasa Place, an organisation that promotes youth civic education and political participation, told Crisis Group.
Voter registration drives in 2021 and 2022 captured only 2.5 million new voters, well below the target of six million and one of the country’s worst scores since the reintroduction of multi-party elections in 1992.
Moreover, divisive, ethnically laced narratives are not as prevalent as in previous electoral cycles, with a few exceptions. Although national politicians continue to attack one another with barbed comments, they have shown a welcome reticence to use hateful rhetoric as a campaign tool. In January 2022, when Meru Senator and Ruto ally Mithika Linturi made inflammatory remarks that evoked the kind of ethnic slurs politicians used during the 2007-2008 crisis, leaders across the political divide, including Raila Odinga and Ruto, condemned his choice of words.
That there is no major Kikuyu candidate in the presidential race for the first time since 1992 may also be helping tamp down tensions. Among other things, it has helped dampen public perceptions of Kikuyu dominance in Kenyan politics and Kikuyu elite control of the economy, which President Uhuru Kenyatta’s opponents exploited to whip up grievance in prior elections.
In a welcome development, rather than appealing to ethnic allegiances, Odinga and Ruto appear to be banking on bagging cross-ethnic support – Odinga, by positioning himself as a mellowed father figure who could be a safe pair of hands, and Ruto, by branding himself as a champion of the downtrodden. Moreover, both candidates have chosen Kikuyu running mates, making it more difficult for either to play the anti-Kikuyu card against the other.
Another mitigating factor is the growing awareness on the part of the government, corporate and multilateral actors of the expanding role of social media in electoral politics and the potential for online platforms to catalyse violence. Politicians increasingly use platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to reach the over 12 million Kenyans who follow social media.
Social media campaigning has had some important benefits, enabling a bigger number of politicians to enhance their reach. For good or ill, it also creates a mechanism for the public, who increasingly mistrust the traditional press, to obtain information from what many see as a more reliable source.
Both official actors and their partners are also conscious that social media has expanded opportunities for spreading misinformation or inflammatory language and are working to manage the risks of violence.
What remains uncontested is that the next presidential election is likely to be one of Kenya’s most closely contested in recent history.
Ensuring that the vote unfolds peacefully will depend heavily, not just on the performance of government institutions and civil society, but also on the conduct of political elites that have dominated Kenya for decades and hold considerable sway over supporters.
Given the tensions in the Horn, it will be especially important for all involved to do their best to ensure the vote passes peacefully. In particular, Kenyatta, Odinga and Ruto and their close circles should publicly signal that they will accept the outcome of a fair vote – and avoid taking steps that might undermine the capacity of electoral institutions to deliver a free and credible election.
Odinga and Ruto should also commit that, whichever of them wins, he will treat the loser and his interests fairly. Finally, the authorities should invite international monitors as a further election integrity safeguard and the African Union should send a team led by a prominent regional statesperson who can also mediate disputes that arise.
—This is an extract from the International Crisis Group (ICG) report on August polls