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Kenya’s election: The fight of a lifetime

By Mark Anderson and Morris Kiruga in Nairobi, Nyeri, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kakamega and Mombasa
Posted on Friday, 4 August 2017 17:13

On a bright morning in June, Nakuru’s matatu stand is teeming with dozens of waiting minibuses and hawkers selling phone credit, socks and newspapers. Overhead, billboards are plastered with the faces of local politicians soliciting votes in the general election on 8 August. This is the hub of the Rift Valley, a vast region that stretches from the country’s southern border with Tanzania up to Ethiopia in the north, and is home to 10 million people.

The Rift Valley’s mishmash of ethnic groups will play a decisive role in the country’s political future. The stakes in the election are high, and in nearly every vote since a multiparty democracy was established in 1992 the Rift Valley has seen vote-rigging and violence.

The race for State House is tightening between the governing Jubilee Alliance and the opposition’s National Super Alliance (Nasa) coalition. An election that had been seen as an easy win for President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto is now too close to call.

This time around, there is no trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Kenyatta and Ruto, known popularly together as UhuRuto, used to great effect in shoring up support in the 2013 poll. The duo, who had been on opposing sides in the aftermath of the December 2007 election, came together to cast the ICC as imperialists trying to intervene in Kenya’s politics. But in this election, rising food prices, youth unemployment and soaring national debt have turned many against the pair.


Billy Sipayo, 32, a matatu conductor, takes a break from hustling for fares to talk about the election. “Look at this road, the governor has done nothing for Nakuru,” he says, motioning to the potholed surface beneath his feet. “We want Nasa to win the national race be- cause of the economy. We are backing Nasa because of the rising cost of food – nowadays we take only one meal a day. Jubilee swallows public money.”

In a veterinary supply store down the street, three women sit behind a counter. “There’s a lot of tension here, so we don’t know what will happen,” says one woman, who wears a white doctor’s coat and declines to give her name. “The way they are campaigning is making us worried. The words they are using are scaring us because they are saying the results will not be fair and [local politicians] are going to dispute the results.”

As the race gets closer, worries about violence are mounting in many areas. Inter-ethnic tensions are simmering all along the Rift Valley, pastoralists are clashing in Laikipia and deep-rooted mistrust of the central government is heating up the Coast. In the last election, both sides preached peace in the hope of avoiding the horrors of the 2007 elections, which saw about 1,300 people killed and 600,000 displaced.

One of the worst-hit areas in the country was Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Long-time resident Moses Ambasa, 64, lived through that crisis. He says a repeat of electoral violence is likely this year. “People in Kibera are not ready to trust the result,” Ambasa says.

Politicians also point to high tensions. “We as political parties are very sensitive to the fact that violence can break out any time,” Suleiman Shahbal, Jubilee’s candidate for Mombasa governor, tells The Africa Report. “I go into every meeting with a minimum of 10 bodyguards. It’s unfortunate, but it’s necessary,” he says.


The lessons from 2007 are in danger of being forgotten. In a country where vote- rigging has been common, the credibility of the electoral process is deeply linked to the likelihood of violence. “Violence never just happens,” Nasa presidential candidate Raila Odinga says. “Violence happens when there’s an injustice. In 2008, the campaigns were very peaceful, it was only after the electoral commission announced what everybody knew were [fake] results,” Odinga says. “That’s when the country exploded.”

After the 2013 poll, which Jubilee won in the first round of voting, Odinga launched an appeal in the Supreme Court. When this was rejected, he fixed his sights on reforming the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which had long been criticised as being in the pocket of the governing party. Regular protests shut down Nairobi’s central business district last year until the government agreed to reorganise the electoral commission.

These changes seem to have assuaged some of the opposition’s worries. Wafula Chebukati, a veteran lawyer and a former member of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement, was appointed the IEBC’s new chairman in January.

But as the election nears, doubts about its credibility remain. In early June, the IEBC was still making critical changes in its personnel, particularly in the procurement department. And by late June, both main political groups were fighting about Al Ghurair, a United Arab Emirates-based firm that won the tender to print ballots.

Despite these setbacks, Odinga says he has no “strong views” about the IEBC. “We have [fewer] issues with them [than previous commissions],”he adds.”The good thing is that they listen and they are ready to consult both sides.”

The 2010 constitution brought devolved government, changing the dynamics at play in this election. A focus on county-level politics is shifting electoral pressure away from the national race and into local battles. Jubilee is investing massive resources to challenge Nasa’s dominance in the country’s three largest cities: Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.

One of the many ways that devolution has modified politics can be seen in Kenyatta’s spat with Josephat Nanok, the governor of Turkana. Kenya’s second- largest county, Turkana is also home to a discovered deposit of 750m barrels of oil and is a key node in the planned Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor. The spat is about the share of oil revenue reserved for local commu- nities, which the central government wants to cap at 5%.
Such debates are prevalent in county politics, setting the stage for the most complicated elections in Kenya’s history.

While ethnic arithmetic still means a lot, especially at the national stage, other issues are important. Enhancing devolved units is one of the key pillars of Odinga’s manifesto. Odinga’s side also promises to increase allocations to counties to almost half of national revenue.
While the campaign gains speed, worshippers file into Kakamega’s main mosque as chickens and goats scurry between stacks of bricks and piles of gravel in the lot outside.

Next door, Elizabeth Ngatia, 31, sits by the entrance to a primary school that serves as a polling station. Ngatia is a verification agent in charge of double-checking that voters have been correctly registered. She is using a Safran Morpho tablet that has a fingerprint scanner. In order to verify that a voter’s information is correct, she scans a QR code to bring up polling station information, enters the person’s ID number and scans their thumbprint.

In spite of these advances in election management, the government says the electronic transmission of votes alone is not adequate. Of the more than 170 new laws that parliament has passed since 2013, few have been more divisive than the Election Laws Amendment Act, which requires a manual voter register to be used as backup to the biometric register. Nasa sees it as a Trojan horse that would allow Jubilee to fiddle with the register on polling day.

The case for a manual backup was built on failures of biometric systems, most infamously during Nigeria’s 2015 elections, when a system could not recognise then president Goodluck Jonathan’s fingerprints. But in Kenya, it was a key grievance in the opposition’s election petition in the 2013 elections because it was seen as a way to manipulate the vote count.


There are other problems with the voter registration list. A report released by KPMG in early June found 92,277 dead people on the electoral register. It also estimated that that number might rise to 1 million between the audit and the last round of registration. These figures have already shaken the system, given that the last election was decided by a vote margin of more than 800,000.

At an opposition rally held at Kakamega’s Bukhungu Stadium on 3 June, thousands of screaming supporters waved placards reading “10 million strong” and “Uhuru must go”. The rally was the official launch of Odinga’s presidential campaign, which he insists will be his last. He was joined onstage by Nasa’s principal leaders: Kalonzo Musyoka, who is running as Odinga’s deputy and is the leader of the Wiper Democratic Movement; Musalia Mudavadi, leader of the Amani National Congress; and Moses Wetangula, leader of Forum for the Restoration of Democracy – Kenya. The coalition chose Kakamega as a launching pad to solidify its support base in Western Kenya. Kakamega County is the second-largest county in terms of population after Nairobi.

For Odinga, this election is do or die. It is his fourth stab at the presidency in 20 years. If some continental trends are anything to go by, it may be his best chance yet. In Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo defeated President John Mahama in his third bid for the presidency.

But the peaceful handovers of West African countries have not been as common in East Africa. A defeated Odinga would not necessarily be considered a spent force, but it would dim his chances of ever winning what has eluded him for two decades. A victory would also mean a one-term Odinga presidency, as determined by his deal with Musyoka.

Odinga’s greater concern is the internal mismanagement that has hampered his previous runs for the presidency, as well as keeping the coalition together. Odinga, who served as prime minister between 2008 and 2013, is seen by many as a career oppositionist. During his tenure, he won praise among his supporters for firing Ruto as minister of agriculture amid a maize-stealing scandal. Other groups criticised him for pushing settlers out of Mau Forest. Nasa is a loose coalition of 11 political parties, which has at its helm a five-man team, with each man bringing his own party. To avoid the mistakes of past coalitions, the team has divided up several key jobs in case it wins in August.

The other political camp is getting ready for tough competition. On Madaraka Day, the first and last national holiday after the campaign began, Kenyatta and Ruto stared out across a crowded stadium in Nyeri. Odinga, in a beige hat, was seated a few seats behind them. The day before, Kenyatta had inaugurated the standard gauge railway, dubbed the Madaraka Express, built with $3.1bn of Chinese loans. “Madaraka Express, Ladies and gentlemen, is a true living symbol of the journey we are undertaking together,” Kenyatta tells an unenthused crowd. “It is the foundation for better incomes for our farmers, manufacturers and other businesses.”

Kenyatta’s government has swatted away multiple controversies, including a eurobond scandal and a public healthcare scandal that involved some of his relatives. An unresolved crisis in the healthcare sector, a shaky economy and a united opposition coalition are piling pressure on Kenyatta and Ruto. Public debt has also doubled during his term, pushing it to more than half of the country’s gross domestic product.

Jubilee is struggling to appease myriad competing interests within its own coalition. Some politicians are jockeying for position in the 2022 presidential race. Others have become independent candidates, causing headaches for the governing coalition.

At the bare minimum, Kenyatta is relying on substantial turnout in both the Rift Valley and in the Central region, where Kalenjin voters are not as loyal to Jubilee as they were in 2013, to counter Nasa’s strong support in Western and Coastal regions.

In Uhuru’s strongholds, his main problem is the flight of Jubilee politicians to independent candidacy. His deputy’s perceived hand in that exodus is perhaps the most existential threat to a Jubilee win. Ruto is also struggling to galvanise Kalenjin voters in the face of challenges from the family of former president Daniel arap Moi and the Kenya African National Union party, as well as his former ally Isaac Ruto, now an opposition kingpin.

Odinga, on the other hand, is depending on the Luhya vote, which is historically hard to unify. This explains why he chose Kakamega as his electoral launch pad and has two key Luhya politicians – Mudavadi and Wetangula – in his coalition. Odinga also seems assured of the Kamba vote, as Kenyatta’s treatment of Kalonzo’s erstwhile rival, Charity Ngilu, drove her back into the opposition. Both sides of the divide are jostling for the Kisii and Coastal votes, while spreading their chances across the other parts of the country.


A few hundred metres from the stadium that hosted the Madaraka Day celebrations, about 10 helicopters sit on a grassy patch. The bulk of them are privately owned. By early June, there were only 88 registered helicopters in Kenya. But that has been growing since the beginning of the year at the rate of about five per month, as politicians and businesspeople buy them in the run-up to the polls. Now, nearly all of Kenya’s leading politicians personally own choppers, straining the nation’s civil aviation authority. One candidate, running in the capital city, owns two.

By all accounts, this year’s election is a show of might and opulence. At a fundraiser in early June, Kenyatta asked the country’s business community not to hedge their bets. But it’s unlikely to happen, if previous elections are anything to go by. Wealthy Asian businessmen have, for example, traditionally funded both sides.

The Friends of Jubilee Foundation is Kenyatta’s main fundraising vehicle and includes key Nairobi businessmen such as Paul Ndung’u, the head of telecoms company Mobicom, Peter Munga, the chairman of Equity Bank, and Stanley Kinyanjui, director of outdoor advertising giant Magnate Ventures. It also, curiously and controversially, includes a few high-ranking civil servants including the commissioner general of the Kenya Revenue Authority, John Njiraini.

Chris Kirubi, chairman of Centum Investment, Kenya’s largest investment firm, is another high-profile supporter of Kenyatta’s government. “This is one president who has done so much for this country in four years that it would be a big pity if we didn’t allow him to just keep pushing his agenda forward,” Kirubi tells The Africa Report, noting progress in energy and transport. “This is the first time the whole world has honoured Kenya, where our president is invited by G7 to sit in their meetings – they don’t invite just anybody.”

On the Nasa side, the campaign financing team is reportedly headed by a wheeler-dealer, Jimi Wanjigi, and former attorney general Charles Njonjo. Wanjigi, a former schoolmate of Kenyatta’s, also claims he managed the deals for the new railway. Working under Mudavadi, the team’s main financiers include Nasa governors, especially Nairobi governor Evans Kidero and Mombasa governor Hassan Joho. They will also be relying on people such as former ports boss Brown Ondego and Johnson Muthama, a gemstone dealer who chose not to stand for re-election as a senator.

Kenya’s electoral body was close to imposing campaign spending limits on this election through a parliamentary act, but its efforts were shot down by the country’s high court. “[The act] was suspended, so it’s a free for all. They can spend a lot of money,” Andrew Limo, an IEBC spokesman, tells The Africa Report.

Without the caps, the leading presidential candidates are most likely going to spend a lot. “In terms of resources, as of the government, it’s like a battle between David and Goliath,” Odinga says. “We know that they outnumber us, outgun us, by far.”

Back in Nyeri, as people streamed out of the stadium after the Madaraka Day celebrations, dozens of soldiers milled around and Jubilee flags were being sold. Above the sea of waving flags, a swarm of helicopters flew overhead. Aboard were the politicians who will decide Kenya’s future. They flew alongside each other for a few minutes, before parting ways to scour the country for votes.

• This article appeared in the July-August 2017 edition of The Africa Report.

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