Kenya: The election beyond belief

By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi and Patrick Smith in Mount Kenya
Posted on Friday, 1 March 2013 18:41

It was a brilliantly choreographed piece of political theatre.

As the cannon fired a torrent of confetti over the heads of the Jubilee Coalition’s ‘big four’, a 5,000-strong crowd jubilated around them in the amphitheatre in Nairobi and presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta raised his party’s manifesto in the air.

The manifesto unveiling was broadcast live on Kenya’s many private television channels, streamed live on the internet to the diaspora and relayed via social media by eager and youthful internauts.

“The promise of uhuru [freedom in Kiswahili] has been deferred for far too long. It can no longer wait,” pronounced Kenyatta, punning on his first name. Just a month before polling day, every part of the manifesto launch was designed to convey Kenyatta’s presidential ambitions.

Political razzmatazz on the big stage blended with power point ruminations of the Jubilee Coalition’s agenda.

It ranged from free milk and solar-powered laptops for primary school children to free maternity care for expectant mothers and included interest-free bank loans for the youth, livestock insurance for pastoralists and a pledge of double-digit economic growth within five years coupled with a plan to eradicate poverty altogether.

At face value, the Jubilee Coalition’s manifesto was seductive but significantly free of any costings or timescales.

When The Africa Report asked candidate Kenyatta how the country could afford such programmes at a time of spiralling budget deficits, he responded: “What we need to focus on is the software […] those are not necessarily cash outlays or major projects, we just need to create an enabling environment for businesses that will create jobs. I’m looking at government being a facilitator.”


Such nuances were drowned amid the grandiose promises. The four-hour manifesto launch was pulled off with pinpoint efficiency by an army of volunteers clad in red and black, the party colours of The National Alliance (TNA), the party Kenyatta launched barely seven months previously to run his presidential campaign.

“We have what it takes to take this country to the next level,” said William Ruto, Kenyatta’s running mate.

Among the crowd, Ruto’s supporters could be identified by the yellow and black baseball caps of his United Republican Party, which had merged with the TNA to form the Jubilee Coalition.

Together with the two other members of the ‘big four’, National Rainbow Coalition leader Charity Ngilu and Najib Balala of the Republican Congress Party, they aimed to create a movement to represent much of Kenya.

That Kenyatta’s message was crafted by a British lobbying firm is somewhat ironic

After the event, as Kenyatta moved from one live interview to another on the media balcony, patiently explaining the finer aspects of Jubilee’s manifesto, it was clear that the mission had been accomplished.

Hardly a single question touched on his and Ruto’s impending trials at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of organising killings after the 2007 elections.

When we asked Kenyatta how he would respond – if elected president – to the West’s threat to avoid all dealings with him because of the ICC charges, he responded with a practised equanimity: “We have no problem with them. They are free to take their own decisions. Kenya is an independent country. We will work with those that want to work with us, but we will also establish new friendships. For me, it is Kenya first!”

Within 24 hours of the manifesto launch, three opinion polls, all of which had previously shown Kenyatta trailing behind frontrunner prime minister Raila Odinga, judged the presidential race to be a statistical dead heat.

Behind Jubilee’s political success is a group of young volunteers that has campaigned across the country.

There is, too, the expertise of the foreign political lobbying firms that both the leading candidates have hired.

Kenyatta’s team picked London-based BTP Advisers after his nephew and chief of staff, Jomo, attended a dinner with Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

Both Clegg and finance minister George Osborne extolled the virtues of BTP.

Part of BTP’s role was to advise on how to manage foreign criticism of Kenyatta’s decision to stand while facing charges at the ICC.

Accordingly, BTP has tapped into a scepticism about the court. Kenyatta and Ruto paint the court, based in The Hague, as the last hurrah of European colonialism.

The irony that this message is crafted by a British lobbying firm is lost in translation.


On 10 and 11 April, Ruto and Kenyatta will begin their trials at The Hague.

They are charged with offences including organising mass murder, rape and civilian evictions during Kenya’s post-election violence in January and February 2008.

Should the presidential elections on 4 March go into a second round of voting, the two candidates may be called to The Hague as Kenyans again troop to the polling booths.

Land is at the centre of the campaigns again, and some see this as a return to violence

“This election is about the ICC. Full stop. It’s not about development. It’s not about the future,” says political analyst Peter Kagwanja, a one-time key Kenyatta supporter who now styles himself as an independent analyst.

He continues: “The strategy for the Jubilee Coalition is winning power, not win- ning the country. They [Kenyatta and Ruto] imagine themselves to be on the warpath. That’s the mentality.”

Kenyatta sees things differently.

Explaining why he chose to run for president, he said: “I think the most important thing is recognising the need for national reconciliation and healing and knowing that our ability to move forward as a country is predicated on this.

“My relationship with [Ruto] has grown out of that. We believe that Kenya is not going to achieve its full potential if we keep the issue of ethnic reconciliation off the table.”


The success of Jubilee’s efforts at reconciliation in the Rift Valley is difficult to gauge.

But Jubilee’s popularity in the Rift has benefited from months of joint Uhuru-Ruto campaigns and a sense that Prime Minister Odinga abandoned the Kalenjin community after the 2008 peace deal.

There is, too, the mutual sense of victimhood among the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu.

“Uniting the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin [on the Jubilee ticket] was a smart move because it is a guarantee that there will likely be no violence in the Rift Valley during or after the elections,” predicts Kagwanja.

He adds: “There’s a truce at the moment even if the underlying issues [between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin] have not been resolved.”

What analysts refer to as the ‘ethnic garrisoning’ of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin people – between them representing more than one third of registered voters – has put Prime Minister Odinga under pressure.

At 68, Odinga has perhaps his last realistic chance at winning the presidency. Opinion polls have consistently placed him as the race’s frontrunner.

The last time he was behind in the polls was in mid-2007 – six months before the last elections.

Odinga has been both victor and victim of the February 2008 peace deal.

He got his job as prime minister but has since lost key allies in the Orange Democratic Movement – Ruto, Balala and Ngilu – all of whom have crossed over to the Kenyatta campaign.

So Odinga’s premiership has been constrained by the machinations of his coalition allies, and he has lost political traction in several key ethnic constituencies.

As events moved against him, Odinga – the political sorcerer – pulled another rabbit out of the hat.

His alliance in December with vice-president Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, 59, was inspired by a mutual need to shore up dwindling numbers.

Odinga supporters may have cringed at the sight of their leader embracing his old foe on the steps of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, but Odinga and Musyoka went ahead and announced their Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), which has revitalised the Odinga campaign.

It changed the ethnic arithmetic and Odinga’s team says it is confident of winning the presidency in the first round.


“We expect about 55% of the votes cast or about 6.6m votes. The alliance with vice-president Musyoka has given us an advantage as he has brought the Akamba vote with him,” says a close advisor to Odinga.

Registered voters number 14.4 million, according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) raw election data.

Projections of a 5-6% Odinga lead are in line with the calculations of Odinga’s consultants from Bell Pottinger, an affiliate of the British firm that so successfully marketed the Conservative Party’s Margaret Thatcher.

Bell Pottinger polling is now regarded as among the most accurate, but it is far too discreet to comment publicly about the electoral outcome.

Analysts on the Jubilee campaign dispute these numbers. Buoyed by the high registration figures in Kenyatta’s Mount Kenya stronghold – IEBC data shows that the region averaged higher-than-expected voter registration numbers, with the rest of the country averaging slightly less than 80% of the numbers predicted – Kenyatta’s sup- porters believe they have a built-in lead over Odinga.

“Every Luo and Kamba vote will have to be cast twice to catch up with the [Mount Kenya] and Kalenjin vote,” says political analyst Mutahi Ngunyi.

Others demur: “The assumption that the Kalenjin will vote 100% in favour of the Jubilee Coalition is doubtful,” says University of Nairobi political scientist Adams Oloo.

Although reports suggest that Jubilee’s campaigns in the Rift Valley have helped overcome the Kalenjin’s antipathy to Kenyatta, Oloo argues the region’s allegiances remain divided.


Many analysts now say the race is too close to call.

That raises the spectre of a repeat of the 2007 violence. Again, land is at the centre of the campaigns.

Just weeks before the elections, Odinga reopened the controversies by pointing out that the Kenyatta family had been among the main beneficiaries of the massive post-independence land grab.

In return, Kenyatta promised radical land reforms.

Devoting much of his manifesto launch to land, Kenyatta said: “Land should be used as a resource to address food security and create jobs. Dwelling on select ownership is a way of promoting hatred, which the Jubilee Coalition is against.”

Prime Minister Odinga told The Africa Report that all this obscured efforts to obstruct the land reform measures in the new constitution. “The attempt to muffle the debate on land is unconstitutional.

The cabinet has twice asked the president to gazette the National Lands Commission. He has twice refused.

There are very powerful forces that have no interest in land reform in this country. It is part of concerted efforts to roll back the gains we have made so far with regard to constitutional reform. The shape of the new constitution will be determined by who wins the elections.”

The growing antagonism between the two leading presidential contenders has raised political temperatures, with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and the newly appointed inspector general of police David Kimaiyo attempting to dampen down the tension.

Others see the potential for the land debate to escalate into violence. “The principal issue that led to the violence last time is land.

It has not been addressed. I’m not being a prophet of doom, but I think it is un- realistic to proceed on the basis that violence cannot recur,” says veteran lawyer and activist Paul Muite, who is also a presidential contender representing the Safina party.

To Muite’s sobering warning must be added the concerns that much could still go wrong in Kenya’s most complex election ever.

Voters will directly elect the president and vice-president, 384 members of a two-house legislature, 47 governors and 47 county assemblies under the new devolved structure of government written into the new constitution.

No one seems certain whether the new arenas for electoral competition will defuse or aggravate tensions.

Optimists insist, however, that the symbolism of these elections – 50 years after independence – and the bright economic prospects on the horizon will deter activists from repeating the bloody clashes that occurred after the last election.

Few on the campaign trail want to contradict that view as they keep their fingers tightly crossed●

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