Kenya 2022: Debt, corruption, and living costs top concerns as Kenyans go to polls

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Kenya 2022: Who will win the great race?

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Monday, 8 August 2022 14:27

A vendor sits by his newspapers for sale on a street in downtown Nairobi, Kenya Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. (AP Photo)

A mix of fear and hope hangs over Kenya as more than 22 million registered voters get the chance to elect the country’s next president on Tuesday.

Kenya is facing one of its toughest economic crises in its history, with the cost of living turning out to be a major concern for most voters, according to local opinion polls.

George Ngumi is looking forward to voting on 9 August in an election widely seen as one of the most competitive since Kenya’s independence in 1963.

In 2017, Ngumi did not vote because he was frustrated with politicians – those in the government and the opposition.

“I felt the country was moving in the wrong direction. I did not see hope in the ruling Jubilee party, nor did I see any in the [opposition] National Super Alliance [NASA] coalition,” he says. After courtroom battles and mass protests, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission [IEBC] declared that the Jubilee party and their flagbearer Uhuru Kenyatta won the 2017 election.

Opinion polls have shown that the two presidential contenders might fail to achieve the 50% plus one vote needed to be declared winner

This time around, Ngumi, 48, made a last minute decision to vote in his Kamukunji constituency in Nairobi after Azimio La Umoja coalition flag bearer Raila Odinga chose former Justice Minister Martha Karua as his running mate.

“I think Karua will be a good public servant if Azimio wins. Her track record is excellent,” says Ngumi.

Jackson Njoroge, Ngumi’s colleague, also lives in Kamukunji, but plans to vote for William Ruto, the Kenya Kwanza alliance presidential candidate. Ruto is at loggerheads with President Kenyatta who is backing the Odinga-Karua ticket. Njoroge says he is angry with the president for abandoning  his deputy “at the hour of need”.

“Ruto stood with the president when he needed his help. It is sad that Uhuru abandoned him for Raila,” says the 30-year-old boda boda (motorcycle) rider.

Apart from the presidency, 290 parliamentary seats, 47 governor seats, 47 senator seats, 47 women representative seats and 1450 county assembly seats are up for grabs on Tuesday. Over 5,000 candidates have been cleared by the IEBC to vie for the seats.

Ghost electoral officials

Like many Kenyans, Ngumi and Njoroge are unsure whether the elections will be credible ­– after several contests left the electoral commission with an egg on its face.

An audit conducted by KPMG International in June exposed many security loopholes in the IEBC’s security systems that could be exploited to manipulate Tuesday’s election.

Its report revealed weak password systems and log-in details of “ghost electoral officials “raising fears that hackers might access the database and delete voters’ names from the register or transfer them from their allocated polling stations, denying them the right to vote.

The IEBC insists that all the loopholes have been sealed, but not all Kenyans are convinced.

“The KPMG audit report is a pointer that all is not well. I fear there will be delays in the delivery of ballot boxes in some parts of the country and biometric voter registration machines malfunctioning, which will raise political tensions even further,” says Ngumi.

Given the narrow gap between the front-running candidates – Odinga and Ruto – in local polls, many analysts believe the outcome will be contested at the Supreme Court.

“Opinion polls have shown that the two presidential contenders might fail to achieve the 50% plus one vote needed to be declared winner hence there is a high chance the results will be contested,” says political analyst John Charo.

We have a team of top lawyers who are gathering evidence to either defend our win or challenge our loss at the Supreme Court

The two coalitions – Azimio and Kenya Kwanza – have already assembled their legal teams to back their case at the Supreme Court.

“We have a team of top lawyers who are gathering evidence to either defend our win or challenge our loss at the Supreme Court. We are leaving nothing to chance,” says a source in the Ruto-led Kenya Kwanza alliance who did not want to be named.

Security fears

Others worry about the possibility of clashes over a disputed result. Johnstone Okello, a mechanic who plans to vote in Nairobi’s Kasarani constituency wants the government to deal decisively with people threatening others with violence.

He cites media reports that leaflets were being circulated in Uasin Gishu warning communities perceived to be anti-Ruto to leave the county.

“I have friends in Uasin Gishu and they might be forced to leave the county –  that would deny them their right to vote,” says Okello.

The leaflets emerged after Ruto delivered a scathing attack on President Kenyatta at a campaign rally in Nandi county on 29 July, warning that he is ready to face him head on provided “you do not  harm my children”.

Ruto also accused Kenyatta’s government of planning to instigate ethnic violence in the volatile Rift Valley region and then blame it on Kenya Kwanza alliance leaders.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i denied the allegations, branding Ruto ‘a specialised fear monger’ and noting that the authors of  the leaflets have been apprehended and charged in court.

“We have apprehended eight individuals behind the circulation of the leaflets and none of them is a civil servant,” said Matiang’i after meeting security officers in Nakuru county on 2 August.

Uasin Gishu is one of the 23 counties identified by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) as a possible conflict hotspot.

‘Ready for an Odinga or Ruto presidency’

Not everyone shares this foreboding about the elections. David Kamau, a 60-year old dairy farmer in Kiambu county, reckons the country will move on quickly – whoever wins.

I don’t think any Kenyan would like to see a repeat of what happened in 2007

“I don’t think any Kenyan would like to see a repeat of what happened in 2007 when voters turned against each other because of a contested election. I believe there will be a lot of restraint and the government is well prepared to deal with the situation,” he says.

Happy to accept an Odinga or Ruto presidency, Kamau says: “Both Odinga or Ruto have good intentions. The presidential seat can only be occupied by one person hence Kenyans must accept the outcome. My sincere hope is that the results will reflect the will of the people.”

High cost of living

Opinion polls by Infotrak and Tifa research companies show that most Kenyans want the new president to tackle the high cost of living within his first 100 days in office.

The prolonged drought, the Covid-19 pandemic and the disruption of the global supply chain due to Russia’s war on Ukraine have all pushed up the cost of essential commodities – some of which have disappeared from the supermarket shelves.

Inflation hit a 62-month high of 8.3% last month, driven by hikes of food and drink prices.

“I want the next government to take the issue of cost of living very seriously. Putting food on the table for my five children is becoming difficult by the day,” says Chrispine Onyango, a fisherman in Kisumu County.

Both Ruto and Odinga have promised to lower the cost of living if they win, but economists warn Kenyans not to expect miracles.

“The next government will inherit empty coffers and a huge debt. The new president will also come into power at a time when the global economy is facing major headwinds hence it will be impossible to reduce the cost of living within 100 days,” says Githinji Kariuki, a tax expert.

The IMF has already raised Kenya’s risk of debt distress to high from moderate due to the national debt which stands at KSh8.56trn ($71.8bn).

Kariuki says the next government risks facing a backlash, warning that the top contenders have over-promised on the campaign trail.

Rising unemployment

Voters want the new president to deal with rising unemployment, an issue which successive governments have failed to deal with despite their promises.

According to a 2020 World Bank report, nine million Kenyans aged between 18 and 35 are forecast to join the labour market between 2015 and 2025. The Bank says Kenya has to create about 900,000 jobs each year.

Youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb

“I am a university graduate, but I have been looking for a job for three years without success. I hope the next president, be it Odinga or Ruto, will help create opportunities. Youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb,” says 28-year-old James Wamalwa, a resident of Kajiado county.

The Azimio and Kenya Kwanza coalitions both promise to create opportunities by launching programmes to help women and youth access cheap credit for small businesses.

Questions linger on the viability of these programmes given the weak economy and the poor performance of similar initiatives.

Affordable healthcare

George Theuri, whose father suffers from prostate cancer, hopes the new government will deliver on affordable healthcare, which is still a pipe dream for most Kenyans.

Theuri, who lives in Meru county, is excited about Kenya Kwanza’s proposal to establish a fund to help poor families meet the high cost of treating non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.

“It is the reason why I will be voting for Ruto on 9 August. My number one concern is the rising medical costs and I know better since my father is a cancer patient,” says the 36-year-old.

Corruption menace

Salim Hussein, a Mombasa resident, wants a president who will prioritise the fight against corruption at the national and county level.

“Kenya is a rich country, but we remain impoverished due to runaway corruption. All governments have failed to tackle the problem despite promises made on the campaign trail,” says the 24-year-old.

Hussein doubts whether an Odinga or Ruto administration will act decisively against corruption because some of their staunchest allies have been mentioned in mega scandals that have cost the country millions of shillings.

He refers to the recent ruling by the anti-corruption court, which ordered Ruto’s running mate Rigathi Gachagua to forfeit KSh200m ($1,677,852) to the state after he failed to explain its source, as proof that some politicians seeking powerful seats cannot be trusted to fight the vice.

“I don’t see the new president hauling his staunch allies to the courts to face corruption charges.”

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