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The resistance begins: Kenya’s opposition marches on after last year’s electoral boycott

By Mark Anderson in Kisumu and Nairobi
Posted on Friday, 26 January 2018 16:58

At a roundabout in the opposition stronghold of Kisumu, dozens of young men set up roadblocks on 26 October, the day that Kenyans went to vote in a repeat presidential election. Instead of going to the polls, as they did in droves a few months ago, the men placed large stones in the streets and charged cars KSh50 ($0.50) to pass. “We will not vote,” said Brian Okoth, 29, one of the men manning the roadblock, as smoke from burning tyres pillared behind him. “We want Raila Odinga to be president, but he never gets a fair deal.”

Popular protests such as these could be seen across the country on 26 October. In total, 25 out 290 cons­tituencies did not vote. The electoral commission declared Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of the election, with 98% of the vote, handing him a second term in power. However, with just 39% voter turnout, many parts of the country are questioning Kenyatta’s legitimacy.

Urging their supporters to boycott the election, the country’s main opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance (Nasa), said that it was not worth running in an election that would not be free and fair. Musalia Mudavadi, the architect behind the Nasa coalition and one of its co-principals, tells The Africa Report: “The whole idea [behind the boycott] is that [the Jubilee Party] used to use our large voter turnout and large voter base to doctor their numbers, so we said we shall not give you that benefit. So we pulled out.”

Both Mudavadi and Nasa’s ­leader, Raila Odinga, also accuse the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) of inflating the number of votes in Nasa strongholds. “The election was a sham,” Mudavadi says. “It is an embarrassment, and the IEBC has no leg to stand on.”

The governing Jubilee party says that Nasa is stoking ethnic tensions in a country where more than 1,000 people were killed in post-­electoral violence less than a decade ago. “There’s no doubt about the nature of destructive politics based on ethnicity. Using ­violent means to stop elections from happening – that’s clearly going too far,” says Korir Sing’Oei, a legal adviser to deputy president William Ruto.

Police brutality

Meanwhile, international civil society organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have voiced concerns about police brut­ality and the use of excessive force against Nasa supporters in Nairobi’s slums and western strongholds. Nasa accused the Jubilee government of “ethnic profiling” and “genocide”. From the time the Supreme Court annulled the results of the August presidential vote, on 1 September, there were about 70 deaths, according to Nasa. The government puts the figure much lower, at about a dozen killed.

Nasa supporters have gone to court to challenge the validity of the October election. As The Africa Report went to press, the Supreme Court was considering two petitions to annul Kenyatta’s victory. The most closely watched was lodged by Harun Mwau, a former opposition lawmaker. Mwau’s case seeks to annul the election on the grounds that the IEBC did not allow for fresh nominations for candidates before the new poll.

But hopes that the Supreme Court could independently assess the petitions – as it did in September – were quickly dashed when a gunman shot and wounded the driver of deputy chief justice Philomena Mwilu on the eve of an eleventh-hour hearing on 25 October on whether or not to postpone the vote. This was seen as an attempt to intimidate the judges, and not enough justices turned up to the hearing to make a quorum.

Nasa was not holding out hope for the judiciary to rule in its favour. “I think that was not a coincidence. That was a warning shot,” Mudavadi says of the attack on Mwilu’s driver. “We equally hear that the other judges were intimidated in different ways.” Jubilee has categorically denied any involvement in the incident.

The opposition is digging in for the long haul by forming the National Resistance Movement (NRM), which is the civil disobedience arm of the political coalition. At a rally in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park on 25 October, Odinga called for a “national campaign of defiance”. He said the NRM will wage an economic boycott on companies seen as linked to the Jubilee elite, such as telecoms operator Safaricom.

“Even when the government is involved in activities that subvert democracy, these businesses just continue to support them,” Mudavadi says. “Safaricom had the contract for the results transmission and the Kenya Integrated Elections Management System kit, and there has been a lot of controversy around what results were transmitted.”

Should his electoral victory be upheld, Kenyatta will face a tough road ahead. About 12 million electors did not vote in the 26 October poll, and many of them feel locked out of the elec­toral system. Mudavadi says: “Where is [Kenyatta’s] legitimacy? When you are somebody without legitimacy you will expect people will not respect your authority. You will be ruling more by authoritarianism rather than the will of the people.”

Jubilee officials say a key part of their strategy to court support in opposition areas is to champion the role that the country’s devolved government can play. Boosting funding and paying outstanding budget allocations will send the right message. “The government at different levels is run by Nasa stalwarts, and they have a key stake,” says Abdikadir Hussein Mohamed, one of Jubilee’s top legal strategists.

But Nasa does not seem eager to embrace Jubilee’s version of devolution. “We are seeing a systematic stifling of devolution. Up to now, these guys have not been getting their budgetary allocation from the national treasury,” says Mudavadi.

Marches and meetings

The NRM is to be launched by a million-person march in Nairobi in December, according to party officials. The new body will organise demonstrations, be in charge of the economic boycott and organise meetings of the People’s Assembly, a new grassroots organisation. One objective for the People’s Assembly is to build support for constitutional referendums to reform the IEBC and rein in the power yielded by the executive branch of government, Mudavadi says.

“We will look at amendments to what the IEBC is all about, even the way they operate,” Mudavadi adds, before suggesting that the electoral commission could be devolved.

Another area that the opposition is focused on is pushing through amendments that would limit the power of the executive in parliament. “If you’re going to have an executive structure that makes so many people feel marginalised and angry, and on the other hand you have another group that feels privileged and scared – and therefore they must protect the skewed system – then that is not a healthy country,” Mudavadi says.

The IEBC is the institution that is most damaged by the political impasse. Former electoral commissioner Roselyn Akombe, who fled Kenya days before the 26 October election in fear for her life, tells The Africa Report that there is a long way to go before the IEBC will be credible. “At one point [Jubilee] came back to me and said: ‘I’m told that we are not opposed to [the IEBC’s chief executive officer Ezra Chiloba] leaving, as long as you have consensus’. But then […] they would go to each commissioner and tell them: ‘Ezra is not going anywhere.’ For them, their tactic has always been that in public they look like they don’t care about these things. But they go around and they give instructions directly to each of those commissioners.”

Amid the political battles, Kenya’s economy presents a major challenge for Kenyatta. Prolonged political uncertainty, a massive drought and government spending cuts are taking their toll. In November, the treasury slashed its projected economic growth for 2017 from 5.9% to 5%. Private sector activity also fell to a record low as instability scared off investors. Hit by a cap on lending rates, bank loans are rising at the slowest rate in more than a decade.

Nasa’s Mudavadi points to the recent turmoil in Zimbabwe, where the army seized power on 15 November amid political infighting and economic mismanagement, as evidence that major reforms are needed across Kenya’s institutions to ensure stability. “What’s happening in Zimbabwe shows us that you cannot keep sweeping some of these nasty issues under the carpet and then assume all will be well,” he says. “Let these [international observers] stop telling us about peace and stability while leaving out the word justice. The three must go together.”

This article first appeared in the December/January 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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