Keep Some Ugali: Regional Stakes In Kenya’s 2017 Elections – OpEd


Given Kenya’s generally violent politics, next week’s election has raised considerable anxiety inside the country and throughout East Africa. A lot depends on whether the electoral body will deliver a free, fair and credible poll. Or Kenyans will be well advised to store up some Ugali – the national staple food – in case the post-election period stretches out before things are finally settled.

By Odomaro Mubangizi*

It is almost an understatement to say there is a lot at stake in Kenya’s elections scheduled for 8 August 2017. The country is literary painted blue (for the opposition party National Super Alliance—NASA) and red (for the ruling Jubilee Party). A political carnival is going on in one of Africa’s most prosperous middle-income countries.

The stakes are high and all eyes (national, regional and international) are fixed on the great land of hakuna matata (no problems) and nyama (roast meat). The 2017 elections are like no other in the political history of Kenya for several reasons. First, these elections come after two hotly contested ones amidst claims and counter claims of rigging (some call it stealing of votes or electoral fraud)—particularly the 2007/2008 when the country almost collapsed due to post-election violence.  Second, the main protagonists—President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga–have been at it for quite some time, and many observers consider this a “do or die” scenario.  For the incumbent the big issue is the fear of doing one term; while the chief opponent Raila is concerned about his political destiny, this likely being his last chance attempt to occupy State House. What makes the political battle between these two heavyweights very exciting, but also arousing anxiety if not fear, is the elephant in the room. Kenya’s politics has over the years become inextricably linked to ethnicity with a dynastic flavor.

Third, there is a general concern that while the country’s economy is the strongest in the region, majority of citizens affectionately referred to as Wananchi, have limited access to the national cake. It is not surprising that as the election momentum picked up doctors, nurses, teachers and lecturers were out on the streets clamoring for a pay rise and better working conditions, and there was a severe shortage of maize meal—the chief ingredient of the famous Ugali.  The politics of food has finally caught up with the voters and political contenders.

Fourth, there is the regional dimension of Kenya’s elections.  Kenya enjoys some regional hegemony, especially economically – partially ceding political and military hegemony to Uganda.  Indeed when Kenya sneezes, the region catches the cold.  After Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya’s KQ comes next as a regional carrier.  Kenyan manufactured goods flood the regional market.  Kenya’s financial sector is also unrivalled in the region, boasting of the most well-qualified and highly motivated skilled labour force. Kenya’s telecommunications, internet connectivity and media have no rival in the region. Here we are talking of a mini-superpower in the Eastern Africa region or in the Horn of Africa (to use a more fancy concept). Still on the regional front, stakes are high in terms of security.  Kenya has been battling with Al Shabab militants both in Somalia and at home. So, one of the election issues is clearly national security in the context of the Al Shabab threats. Besides, there is South Sudan, where Kenya has played some part, even as the peace protocol collapsed and the country has gone back to the Hobbesian state of nature, where “life is nasty, brutish and short.”

Kenya in regional geopolitics and political economy

To appreciate fully the need to watch closely Kenya’s 2017 elections, it is important to first situate Kenya in regional geopolitics and political economy.  The lens with which to look at Kenya in the region is that of world systems theory. Arguably Kenya enjoys the status of a semi-periphery and easily serves as the entry point of global capitalist penetration in the Eastern Africa and Great Lakes region. No country in the region, except Ethiopia, has as many international agencies as Kenya. The number of multinational corporations with bases in Nairobi is staggering. Most of the countries in the region have experimented with some version of socialism—Uganda’s Move to the Left under Milton Obote, Ujamaa under Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Ethiopia’s socialist system under Mengistu Hailemariam.  All three have since abandoned the socialist experiment and embraced some form of mixed economy model. Kenya has all along followed a free market economy.  As a result Kenya has attracted a lot of foreign direct investment from rich capitalist countries for a long time.

Among the major foreign conglomerates with their Africa headquarters in Kenya are: Bharti Airtel, General Electric, Mitsubish Motors, Reckefeller Foundation, Standard Chartered  Bank, World Bank, Toyota, Google and IBM. With the seventh largest African population and a liberal market economic model, Kenya easily attracts foreign investment. The key income earners are: tourism (Kenya is rated third in Africa in tourism competitiveness), coffee, tea and horticulture. Kenya is the home of M-pesa, the number one mobile money system in the world, used by close to 17 million citizens. Kenya also has a great brand name thanks to its global stature in sports.  When you mention Kenya, everyone thinks of long-distance athletics and gold medals.

But at the same time, Kenya is a land of great inequality.  Amidst the property boom of real estate, there are sprawling slums such as Kibera and Mathare Valley.  These could be hot spots for electoral violence.  The poor cannot afford to rent the very costly flats dotting Nairobi’s skyline. Unemployment is estimated at 40 per cent. Food is a serious issue. The price of maize flour, the staple food, has short up by more than 50 per cent this year. The recently introduced subsidies on the price of maize and the controversial maize importation from Mexico have not considerably alleviated the food shortage. The cost of all other basic commodities is beyond the reach of the majority of wananchi. Voters might look at the ballot through their stomach!

Kenya enjoys a strategic location in the region. It is well located on the Mombasa-Kigali route. Most of the imported goods for the region pass through Kenya on their way to Uganda, South Sudan, DRC, Burundi and Rwanda. This means that Kenya fetches quite a bit of revenue from customs fees. Some countries such as Uganda that have taken advantage of proximity to Kenya have increased regional trade, and it is estimated that Kenya earns about $800 million from trade with Uganda.

But being a regional superpower can also attract some resentment and jealousy. There are whispers that Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania are finding an alternative route for transporting goods to avoid Kenya. While it can be argued that such alternatives are purely based on economic calculations, regional politics can not be ruled out entirely.  After all, one cannot separate economics from politics.

South Sudan is also keenly watching what unfolds in Kenya come August 8.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the heavily loaded Southern Sudanese political elites keep their investments in Nairobi.  Some of the big businesses in Juba are linked to Kenya especially the financial sector. Do not forget some ethnic affinities between the two countries.

At the level of political chemistry among the regional leaders, the grapevine has it that one of the key contenders for Kenya’s State House, Raila Odinga, has an ally in Tanzania’s President Mugufuli. Whether this bit of relationship has some political ramifications, we are yet to discover.  Just to show how this relationship may have something in, during the solo presidential debate last week Raila was asked if he had set up a tallying center in Tanzania. He was philosophical and dodged the question by arguing that where tallying centers were situated was not the issue. He astutely, and with humour, concluded that the tallying center will be anywhere in Kenya and in the clouds.  What the moderator did not ask Mr Raila was whether he had any strong political links with President Magufuli. Still, Magufuli’s name came up when, in response to a question about dealing with powerful corrupt individuals, Raila quipped that upon coming to power he would “Magufuli” them.

What of the other regional leaders? The two strongmen of the Northern Corridor—President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda—must be watching intently the developments in Kenya. Kagame has elections this Friday that he will predictably win with a big margin, while Museveni is well settled in. The talk in Kampala is now about age-limit and whether it should be removed so as to allow Yoweri Museveni to have a few more years after he has turned 75.  What do these small details imply for geopoltiics? The future of the East African Community with its grand vision of political federation, free trade and other ambitious plans for infrastructural projects is in the balance if the electoral question in Kenya is not fairly, freely and democratically settled.

Mention should also be made of the regional hot spots that help to situate Kenya’s elections in a broader regional political context. South Sudan is still at it. An influx of refugees has once again engulfed the region with close to a million in Northern Uganda alone.  Nobody wishes to add another headache for the region.  DRC is also boiling with ethnic violence in Kasai amidst President Joseph Kabila’s lack of readiness for elections this year. Burundi (a member of the East African Community) remains under serious political stress.  If elections do not go well in Kenya and a replay of the 2007/2008 violence happens, the economic gains attained so far in this promising region will be squandered.  All the key actors in the current political drama—presidential aspirants, the electoral commission (IEBC), regional leaders, international observers, etc.—should do all in their power to ensure that the electoral process is free, fair, democratic and credible.

The personal is political and the political is personal

A closer look at the manifestos of the two major parties—Jubilee and NASA – reveals that the policy differences between the two are minimal. They both speak of raising income and the standard of living of citizens, state support for the poor and elderly, etc. So if there is no major substantive policy differences between the two main political rivals, what is at stake? Many observers would agree that the majority of voters look at personality and ethnicity.  As the saying goes, in African politics, blood is thicker than the waters of democracy. This should not be the case in 21st century knowledge-based society, but unfortunately this is the tragic reality.

The personal is indeed political and the political is personal. In politics the subjective takes centerstage, as post-modernism has reminded us. This is why Kenya has ended up with the main political archrivals representing the two most politically motivated families in Kenya’s history—the Kenyattas and the Odingas.  If the two can be a rallying point for resolving the country’s political contradictions right from independence, so be it.  But then can this kind of deeply entrenched ethnicized politics be labeled a democratic?

There is another subtext along the personalist politics of Kenya that has deep historical roots.  It should be recalled that way back in the late 1960s when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga resigned as Vice-President, President Jomo Kenyatta handpicked Daniel Arap Moi as his Vice-president.  This was clearly interpreted as anointing an heir apparent. And sure enough when Jomo Kenyatta passed away in 1978, it is Moi who succeeded him.  Talk has it that the two leaders struck an unwritten deal that their respective sons would continue their respective political dynasties.  It is difficult to establish the veracity of such claims but anecdotal evidence suggests that former President Moi’s son Gideon Moi is slowly rising in his political ambitions, while Uhuru Kenyatta was brought to the political limelight in 2002 when Moi picked him as his successor.  Uhuru lost his presidential bid to Mwai Kibaki, with Raila Odinga widely believed to be the kingmaker in what was then dubbed the NARC coalition.  This raises the question of whether current Deputy President William Ruto is a potential threat to the Moi dynastic scheme. Only time will tell.

Over into the region of the Great Lakes, the personal is still political and the political is personal.  Apart from Tanzania, the rest of the countries still rely heavily on the personal charisma of the leaders.  Think of President Museveni of Uganda who has dominated the political landscape for over 30 years. Then over to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda who has done 17 years, and President Joseph Kabila who has done two terms and wants a few more.  The region has its own brand of politics that gravitates around the person of the president and not a political system that can outlive him.

Electoral trouble shooting

Even as we try to discern the regional implications of Kenya’s elections, we should not loose sight of the big question of whether the August 8 elections will be free, fair and credible.  The tension and fear seems to gravitate around the electoral process.  As soon as the campaigns commenced, the first issue to surface was about tendering for the ballot papers.  Recourse was taken to the courts of law.  Finally the Court of Appeal ruled that the ballot printing could proceed. The opposition NASA coalition had won the case and the tendering process was to be redone, at least for the presidential ballot papers.  Regardless of what the details of this issue are, one thing is clear: there are fears of rigging. The battle is essentially around the ballot box and the tallying process.  Recall that another issue settled by the courts was on how to announce the election results. This too was settled in favour of the opposition that the results declared at the poling station are final.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail. What other details are likely to cause trouble? In the past the national tallying center at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi announced results as they came in, showing on a big screen how each candidate was fairing. Now IEBC has given a new directive that only the final tally will be announced at Bomas. There will be no presidential results. One can guess that this new strategy is to avoid suspense and tension in case a candidate who was seen leading all of a sudden begins to drop drastically – as has happened to Raila in past elections.  IEBC could have other reasons for this change of procedure, but it would be useful to give some clear explanation on this change to remove any room for suspicion.  There is also the question of party agents, election monitors and officials.  The number of those guarding the ballot boxes and the tallying process is also crucial. While the tallying center should not be overcrowded, the various interested parties should have enough personnel to be able to monitor well what is going on.

The other detail to look out for is the voters register and the actual votes cast.  If at any polling station the votes cast go beyond the registered voters, the obvious conclusion is that someone tampered with the voting.  If the voters register is not updated or closely checked, you will end up with “ghost voters.”  If the dead come back to cast their votes, the ghosts of democracy will haunt the nation.

Voter-turn out is also a clue.  Who manages to vote who does not is key.  Circumstances of each situation should be well studied.  If in some polling stations voter turn out gets suspiciously too high or too low, be worried. A point of regional interest is the phenomenon of voters near border areas geting help from their kin to come over and vote—cross-border electoral fraud.  This kind of regional integration from below is very tricky and yet it is common.


Kenya is set for its landmark elections and a lot is at stake both for the country and for the region. All eyes are set on Kenya.  Some few of the regional indicators and implications have been briefly outlined.  Regional leaders have some role to play be it implicit or explicit.  The East African Community, of which Kenya is a regional power broker, is undergoing some serious political stress.  What will happen in Kenya come August 8 will have a huge impact in the region.

It is too early to tell what exactly will unfold as Kenya goes to the polls, but a lot will depend on how the elections will be conducted up to the last act of announcing the presidential winner. At the international level, investors are all on “wait and see” mode.  This is normal for an election that has attracted so much attention but also given the anatomy of past elections.

Some mention should be made on the media’s role.  Kenya has some of the most vibrant and independent media outlets in Africa.  It is hoped that the media will play a constructive role of giving objective and balanced reporting of events as they unfold and, above all, offer sound and critical analysis that will inform all interested parties to make informed choices.  The media should not be seen as adding fuel to inflammatory political tempers, but should rather serve as a voice of sobriety guiding the perplexed and ignorant, to make informed choices.

One last piece of advice: Trust in God but keep some Ugali, in case the post-election period turns out to be a long one before things are clear or sorted out.  Politics is also a game of the unpredictable—a reminder for all those contesting.

* ODOMARO MUBANGIZI (PhD) is Dean of the Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he teaches Social and Political Philosophy and is also Editor of the Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.

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