Kenya’s growing commercialisation of politics, despite IEBC’s capped spending

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Friday, 4 March 2022 14:15, updated on Monday, 20 June 2022 11:20

Kenyan opposition leader Odinga to unveil 2022 presidential race candidature in Nairobi
A supporter of Kenya's Opposition leader Raila Odinga walks past his election posters before the Azimio la Umoja rally in Kasarani, Nairobi, Kenya December 10, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Kenya's legislators eyeing re-election opened the floodgates to money in politics last year when they nullified restrictions on campaign financing. With the August poll fast approaching, many are wondering if their fateful decision will subvert free and fair elections that so many voters are pining for.

Migori County representative Pamela Odhiambo remembers with nostalgia election campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s when politics was less toxic and candidates focused on issues.

“When I was a young girl, politicians used to come to our village during the campaign period and even go to the farms to talk to our parents about their agenda and humbly ask for votes,” says Odhiambo.

At that time, the country was riding high after gaining independence from the British colonialists in 1963. The spirit of nationalism permeated everything and politics was dominated by former freedom fighters who were held in  high esteem by voters.

Much has changed since then. Modern-day politics has become commercialised and is often seen as a preserve for the wealthy or a springboard for get-rich-quick schemers.

Commercialisation of politics

Human rights activists have raised concerns about the current trend, arguing that it is locking out of public service many Kenyans — especially women and youth — who genuinely want to serve their country.

Take Odhiambo, for example. The legislator believes it would have been very difficult to win her seat without forking over the KSh25m ($220,000) she spent on her campaign in 2017.

“I am lucky that I used to do some research projects which I was paid for. And also friends and family contributed to my campaign kitty,” she says.

Likewise, the member of parliament for Belgut, Nelson Koech, spent more than KSh30m ($260,000) , with a chunk going to logistics.

“The money came from my personal contribution and from friends and relatives,” says Koech, who will be defending his seat in this year’s elections. “One has to spend if you are seeking a political office.”

Like his two colleagues, Ndindi Nyoro also spent millions of shillings campaigning for the Kiharu seat, which was one of the most competitive in Muranga county.

The IEBC cannot just wake up and come up with regulations [when] they know very well that the law on campaign financing has to be in place 12 months before election date.

“It would be very difficult for a person to be elected without a budget of around KSh15m ($130,000),” Nyoro says. “New entrants seeking to unseat a sitting member of parliament can even spend upwards of KSh60m ($520,000).”

Failed reforms

In a bid to ensure a level playing field and curb corruption, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) published campaign financing regulations in August 2021 that capped spending for various elective seats.

Under the regulations, political parties were allowed to raise up to KSh17.7bn ($160m) in contributions. Presidential candidates were permitted to spend at most KSh4.4bn ($39m) for the entire campaign period, with maximum individual contributions pegged at KSh880m ($7.73m).

Candidates eyeing gubernatorial, senatorial and parliamentary seats reserved for women were allowed to spend between KSh21m ($180,000) and KSh123m ($1.08m), depending on the county they were vying in. Regular candidates for parliament were capped at between KSh10m ($88,000) and Sh94m ($830,000).

The regulations however required parliamentary approval and were nullified by legislators who accused the IEBC of rushing the rules.

“The IEBC cannot just wake up and come up with regulations [when] they know very well that the law on campaign financing has to be in place 12 months before election date,” says Maoka Maore. a member of parliament from Igembe North who is also the National Assembly’s deputy majority whip.

Maore accuses the commissioners of copy-pasting US campaign financing law instead of coming up with regulations that reflect Kenya’s unique needs.

This year’s election will be highly competitive…It will not only be won by how good your manifesto is, but also how much you can spend on the campaign trail.

His colleague, Godfrey Osotsi, concurs, saying the commission’s decision to publish the regulations without approval was aimed at passing the buck and make parliament look bad in the eyes of the public.

“The regulations should have first gone through the committee of delegated legislation to verify a number of issues among them — whether there was public participation, the constitutionality of the regulations — and then write a report which would have been discussed  in the plenary,” says Osotsi. “That takes time.”

Politicians push back

So why are politicians uncomfortable with capping  campaign spending?

“Kenyan politics has become too commercialised, to the extent that some candidates win seats just because of their spending power,” says an aide to a top politician. “Hence many politicians prefer to be left alone to spend as much as they can.”

In fact, analysts predict that campaign spending will skyrocket this year due to the battle to succeed the term-limited President Uhuru Kenyatta.

“This year’s election will be highly competitive,” says political analyst John Charo. “It will not only be won by how good your manifesto is, but also how much you can spend on the campaign trail.”

According to Joseph Kiptoo, the speaker for the County Assembly of Nandi, voters do not take seriously candidates who lack resources.

“When a young man for example shows up and has zero resources for logistics, which is normally the bare minimum, potential voters will immediately dismiss him,” says the youthful Kiptoo, who is eyeing the Nandi gubernatorial seat.

Candidates also need cash to pay individuals to attend their meetings and rallies. Since crowd size is often associated with candidates’ popularity, politicians spend millions of shillings to ensure their meetings are well attended and vibrant.

“Mobilisation takes a huge chunk of the campaign budget because crowds are a good selling point,” says Charo. “The bigger the crowd, the more seriously potential voters consider one’s candidature.”

Mobilisation takes a huge chunk of the campaign budget because crowds are a good selling point.

Urban battleground

In more cosmopolitan cities and towns where a candidate has to win the support of different ethnic groups and classes, campaign spending is normally higher than in rural areas dominated by one tribe.

The Nairobi gubernatorial seat, for instance, tops the list in terms of campaign spending at the county level, due to the power and influence that comes with the office. Political parties consider it the second-most important seat after the presidency and always fight fiercely to capture it.

“Being the wealthiest county in terms of revenue generation, political parties fight tooth and nail to control the capital city by having one of their own as a governor,” says Charo. “To mount  a serious campaign for the seat (a candidate) should have a budget of at least Sh100 m ($880,000).”

Koech warns that the situation will only get worse if Kenyans can’t agree on how to handle the thorny issue of campaign spending, which he believes is getting out of hand.

“We have a population out there that strongly believes that a member of parliament should always have money and be ready to give,” says the legislator. He attributes the problem to demographic growth and runaway unemployment.

Odhiambo, the Migori County representative, agrees. She says the elephant in the room is how to make voters understand that leaders are there to provide ideas and guidance, not distribute handouts.

Egalitarian approach

For lawyer Steve Ogolla, Kenya needs an egalitarian approach when it comes to campaign spending as opposed to the libertarian one followed by some developed countries.

“In Kenya, there is a legitimate public need to regulate what is spent because we are a poor country,” he says. “Parliament should support the implementation of the spending limit.”

However, he concedes that regulations can only make an impact if voters understand that the core functions of a member of parliament are representation and legislation.

“This community service is a new experience that is unique to Africa and poor countries. It is making leadership expensive,” he says. “We have to reduce the financial burden we impose on our leaders. It is creating a terrible compulsion for corruption.”

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