As Kenya voted, the East Africa region watched in awe, desperation

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

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Friday, 12 August 2022 20:08, updated on Saturday, 13 August 2022 11:32

A man reads a newspaper to follow the election vote-tallying in Nairobi, Kenya, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)/

The East African region has been watching Kenya's recent elections unfold. In Uganda, the election evoked recollections of last year's election, which were characterised by violence meted out on opposition politicians. In South Sudan, one of the countries where Kenyans in the diaspora voted, its citizens wondered when their country will hold its first election. Meanwhile, many Tanzanians praised the maturity of Kenya’s democracy.

Kenyans went to the polls on Tuesday 9 August in an election that pits veteran opposition politician Raila Odinga against deputy president William Ruto. The election is being watched across the world, but much more in Kenya’s neighbouring countries. The campaigns were largely peaceful, except for a few incidents, and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) provided polling stations results forms on its public portal early for each camp to start computing its scores.

Kenya scores fairly better in the region in terms of democracy and freedom indexes. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2021, the country scored 5.05 out of 10. Tanzania’s 5.1 score is slightly higher. Uganda scored 4.48, Rwanda 3.01 and Burundi 2.13.

As per the 2021 Freedom House index, Kenya scored 48 and is in the partly free category. Tanzania scored 34 and is also in the partly free group. Uganda with 34, Rwanda with 22 and Burundi with 4 are in the not free group.

Despite Kenya being steps ahead of its neighbours in the democratisation process, stakes were high this year because it is a transition election, in which the country is electing Uhuru Kenyatta’s successor. Kenyatta fell out with Ruto, who backed him in 2013 and 2017. On the campaign trail, Ruto complained of ‘deep state’ scheming to rig the election in favour of Odinga.

And weeks before election day, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), a government agency, sounded a warning. It said people should avoid Facebook on election day for failing to tackle hate speech. The country’s information minister was quick to dismiss the call.

Ugandans bewildered

From the East African Community (EAC) to political parties and civil society organisations, neighbouring countries sent election observers. Uganda’s main opposition figures Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, who was a presidential candidate in last year’s election, and Kizza Besigye, a four-time presidential candidate, were among the team from Uganda.

Lewis Rubongoya, secretary general of National Unity Platform, part of the team led by Bobi Wine tells The Africa Report that Ugandans must fight as Kenyans did in the 1980s and 1990s during the era of Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya from 1978 to 2002.

“I think Kenya teaches Ugandans to fight for this space that Kenyans have. Kenyans did not come here by mistake. They had to work so hard to be where they are now,” he said.

“I think Uganda is where Kenya was in the 1980s and early 1990s under Daniel arap Moi. It had to take a lot of protests. It had to take a lot of sacrifices,” Rubongoya said. “I think that is what Ugandans need to do because very sadly, dictators are never willing to give you this space.”

Contrasting Uganda’s and Kenya’s elections, Rubongoya said there were no arrests of opposition politicians, refusal to accredit observers, denying candidates media space and rigging like in Uganda last year.

“You remember in our elections, Museveni blocked European Union observers, American observers, foreign journalists were deported and NGOs closed,” he said.

There was an internet blackout in Uganda during the 2016 and 2021 presidential elections. Facebook is still shut, as the government demands it re-open accounts of its employees that were deleted for engaging in inauthentic coordinated behaviour of pushing government propaganda during election season. But many Ugandans now access the platform through virtual private networks.

Tanzania: too good

Many Tanzanians who were in Kenya observing the election were full of praise for Kenya. “Kenyans should be proud of their grit, determination and spirit,” Fatma Karume, a Tanzanian lawyer tweeted. “The transparency we witnessed during these elections is a testament to Kenyans’ perseverance. East Africans have a lot to learn from Kenyans.”

Zitto Kabwe, the leader of Alliance for Change and Transparency, Tanzania’s third-largest political party, noted: “I am a prouder African seeing how our sisters and brothers in an EAC country conduct such a professional election.” He was also part of the team  from Tanzania who observed the election.

Tanzania has been ruled by the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party since independence. It last had an election in 2020, which was won by late president John Pombe Magufuli. During Magufuli’s presidency (2015-2021), there was a wide crackdown on opposition politicians. Tundu Lissu, a fierce critic of Magufuli survived an assassination attempt in 2017 and has been living in exile since the 2020 election.

Samia Suluhu Hassan became president after Magufuli’s death in 2021. Despite arrests of some opposition figures, such as Freeman Mbowe of Chadema, the main opposition party, there has been a marked change in policies under Suluhu. She has loosened restrictions that her predecessor slapped on political parties and media. Suluhu also met Lissu in Belgium early this year, a sign of her attempt to reconcile with the opposition.

Opposition figures have long pushed for a change of the country’s constitution, which was last reviewed in 1997. Fatma Karume argues Tanzania should learn lessons from Kenya, which wrote a new constitution in 2010 following the 2007 election violence.

“Kenyans learnt the lessons, amended their constitution and have kept protecting their democracy. CCM will take Tanzania to the wire. We will see no constitutional changes until CCM is forced out,” she tweeted.

South Sudan: when us?

For the world’s youngest country – it became independent in 2011 – many of its citizens wondered when it will host its first election. “How will I explain to my kids that Kenya has conducted more elections in South Sudan than South Sudan itself,” Malual Madel Yolo, a South Sudanese tweeted on 9 August.

The tweet was accompanied by a photo of Kenyans queuing to vote at the country’s embassy in Juba.

At independence, South Sudan had a clear timeline of when elections were supposed to be held, but they never took place because of power struggles between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar since 2013.

First, elections were supposed to be held in 2015, they were pushed to 2018, then 2021. The current timeline is 2023. There is little hope that South Sudan will fulfil the 2023 timeline because of the slow implementation of the peace deal signed by rival parties in 2018.

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