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A Date With The Machete: Looming Chaos In Kenya’s 2017 Elections – OpEd


By Henry Makori*

Mr. Harrison Mumia is a little known activist in Kenya. But most of those who know him hiss with hate whenever they hear his name. Mumia is the president of a fringe organisation called Atheists In Kenya. Now, Kenya is a Christian nation, 80 percent. It is difficult to get a seat in any church on a Sunday. The nation is so devout that everything ground to a halt when Pope Francis visited last September. Kenya is the home of lawyer Dola Indidis who in 2013 famously petitioned the International Court of Justice to overturn the conviction and death penalty handed down to Jesus, arguing that the trial and execution violated the Son of Man’s fundamental human rights.

Kenya is so Christian that special prayers are often organised to seek divine intervention for endemic problems like poverty, famine and politically instigated violence or for the collapse of criminal cases involving top politicians. Retired dictator Daniel arap Moi still goes around with his Bible. Mwai Kibaki, the other former president, attends church at mid-day every Sunday at Consolata Shrine Parish in Nairobi, where he and his security detail have six pews permanently reserved for them right in front of the altar.

When an investigative report was aired on a local TV station detailing how Catholic Archbishop Zachaeus Okoth – chairman of the Justice and Peace Commission of the bishops’ conference, no less – had been stealing millions of donor dollars meant for various projects in his diocese, no one said anything. It simply could not be true. Another TV report showed Christians rejoicing and singing praises to the Almighty at a Nairobi church while their pastor – who performs fake miracles at a fee – gleefully fondled the breasts of a woman at the altar during a “healing” session. The pastor’s wife is a celebrated gospel singer…

Mumia, Kenya’s Atheist-In-Chief, was not talking about any of these things, or debating the non-existence of God, when he appeared in the news last week. Rather, it had emerged that Mumia had written to Kenya’s elections body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), requesting that his name be deleted forthwith from the national voters’ register. “I do not wish to participate in the general election in August 2017. Most importantly, I do not want to associate myself with the voting process in Kenya,” an upset Mumia fulminated. Why? Because “Kenya cannot have credible, free and fair elections”, he declared.

In the week that Mumia’s letter came to light, two closely watched by-elections had just taken place that featured exactly the kind of ills Kenya seems unable to rid itself of: violence, hate speech, intimidation, police harassment, misuse of public resources by the ruling party, bribery of voters, buying of identity cards and claims of massive rigging.

These are dark signs. Maybe Kenyans ought to pay more attention to the prophetic voices of people like Mumia rather than those of their politicians and smug clerics and other elites who have lost touch with reality. Going by the conduct of those by-elections and other factors, Mumia’s worries are not without basis. There are good grounds to believe that the next elections in August 2017 will be seriously flawed and could precipitate perhaps the worst chaos in the country’s electoral history – far worse than the mayhem of 2007 when, officially, 1133 people were killed and over 600,000 internally displaced.


The first month-long mass voter registration ended this week on Tuesday, March 15. The IEBC had targeted 4 million new voters. Only slightly over a million people bothered to turn out despite repeated appeals from the electoral body and the spirited efforts of some politicians – including one mercurial female MP from central Kenya, Esther Murugi, who urged fellow women to deny their husbands sex until they proved that they had registered as voters. Reports also indicated that some vernacular radio stations broadcasting to that region, home of President Uhuru Kenyatta, vociferously urged listeners to register in large numbers in order to “protect our presidency.”

In Western Kenya where funerals are a huge celebration, some leaders issued orders not to serve food to mourners unless they showed proof of registration. In opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Nyanza stronghold, reports said people were required to show their voter registration cards before they could be allowed to ride on boda bodas (motorcycle taxis).

The IEBC has expressed serious concern about the dismal turn out, warning that this could be a pointer to voter apathy in the coming elections. The government of Kenya still tightly regulates the issuance of national identity cards that are essential for voter listing and this is a huge loophole for manipulation of voter registration. The second mass registration will take place next year.

Some observers believe the apparent voter apathy is attributable to diminishing public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process and in the commitment of the political class to transform the country for the better. Journalist Mutuma Mathiu of Daily Nation newspaper recently wrote that, “If the next president is going to be either Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta, Mr. Raila Odinga, Mr. William Ruto, Mr. Kalonzo Musyoka or Mr. Moses Wetangula, many Kenyans are asking, what is the point of voting at all? It is just a matter of more of the same.” He went on: “People are usually enthusiastic about voting when there is the prospect of change, of doing things in a different manner, of improving their lot.”

It is, in fact, the prospect of change that brought out millions of Kenyans to vote in the last election on March 4, 2013. The turnout, officially put at 85.91 per cent, is the highest in the country’s history. The contest was basically a two-horse race between former Prime Minister Odinga and Mr. Kenyatta who – together with his running mate Ruto – was facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court for allegedly being the masterminds of the 2007 post-election violence. There was wide expectation both locally and internationally that the two politicians who were tainted by serious criminal cases – though still not yet proven guilty – were at least morally unfit to run for the highest office in the land. But in the end Uhuru and Ruto were announced as winners by a slight margin, an outcome confirmed by the Supreme Court but which remains highly divisive to this day.

Since that time, neither the IEBC nor the Supreme Court has been able to regain the confidence of many Kenyans. There is a perception that both these institutions were compromised by powerful political forces to tilt the scales in favour of Uhuru Kenyatta. In addition, since the last election the IEBC has been dogged by numerous corruption scandals, which forced its CEO James Oswago to quit in a huff. IEBC chairman Ahmed Isaac Hassan has also been named in some of those scandals but denies any wrongdoing.

The latest blow to the IEBC’s credibility comes, surprisingly, from within the ruling coalition that has previously staunchly defended the electoral body. The former ruling party Kanu is a partner in the Jubilee Coalition. The senatorial by-election in Kericho County last Monday pitted a Kanu candidate against that of the Jubilee Alliance Party, a new outfit that Uhuru and Ruto have crafted for their re-election bid next year. Against expectations, the JAP candidate was declared the winner by a huge margin. Kanu angrily rejected the results and accused the electoral commission of being compromised. “We as Kanu and our campaign team declare that the Kericho by-election was rigged and IEBC was totally compromised and complacent to save face for some senior politician in the region,” Kanu leaders said. The unnamed “senior politician” is Deputy President Ruto, who is battling a sweeping rebellion across the Rift Valley region, which is considered his stronghold. Kanu went further to state that the party would not file a petition in court because “we don’t have faith in the Judiciary.”

The Judiciary is another key institution in Kenya whose credibility has dwindled in the eyes of Kenyans since Jubilee came to power. The courts received a new lease of life when the new constitution was enacted in 2010. Dr. Willy Mutunga, a revered name in the struggle for democracy in Kenya, became the country’s first Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court. But his performance in the presidential petition following the hotly contested 2013 elections was underwhelming. The ruling in favour of Uhuru Kenyatta has been extensively disparaged. Yet Dr. Mutunga, who defended the unanimous ruling against accusations of external influence, has himself said – not once – that the Judiciary he heads is mired in corruption. At the moment one of the seven judges of the Supreme Court, Philip Tunoi, is suspended and facing a tribunal over charges of receiving a hefty bribe of $2 million to rule in favour of the current governor of Nairobi in an election petition.

So, there goes Kenya into the next election in circumstances that are uncannily similar to those of 2007: Dangerous polarization between supporters of the incumbent and those of the opposition leaders and an electoral body and a judiciary that have little credibility in the eyes of the people. How will Kenyans deal with the 2017 presidential election result, which is guaranteed to excite very strong passions on either side of the political divide? While the ruling Jubilee Coalition exudes confidence that it will be re-elected, despite its abysmal record, already the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) has warned that they will not accept a rigged election outcome as they did in 2013. CORD has been unrelenting in questioning the fairness and competence of the electoral commission. Raila Odinga, the presumed CORD candidate, has told his followers that “this time round I am not coming to tell you my votes have been stolen.” Odinga will be running for president for the fourth, and some say, last time. He is 71 years old. What he and his coalition are going to do to ensure the integrity of the vote given the grave accusations against IEBC, or what their reaction might be in the event of expected massive irregularities to their disadvantage, remains to be seen. Suffice it to say that CORD is unlikely to take its grievances to the courts.


The recent by-elections witnessed a singularly baffling incident that has not occurred at any other time in Kenya. The government deployed the military to oversee one of the two by-elections. On polling day, Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) troops were stationed in Malindi at the Indian Ocean coast, an opposition zone. Despite criticism of the decision by vocal Kenyans on social media, no explanation was forthcoming about the unprecedented deployment. President Kenyatta had spent about a month in Malindi campaigning for the ruling party candidate, but the opposition retained the seat. The military deployment was seen as one of several strategies by the state to use its might to intimidate Malindi voters. Any attempts to deploy the military in next year’s election, a role that oversteps their mandate, would certainly raise tensions in the country and provoke agitation within the opposition.

In the years that he has been in power, President Kenyatta as the Commander-in-Chief of KDF has spared no effort to consolidate his control of the military, but also to militarize the state. Tongues were left wagging after State House circulated photographs of the president in full military gear in September 2014. The pictures now appear on some matatus (public transport vehicles) in Nairobi, no doubt courtesy of Kenyatta’s supporters who would like to portray him as a tough, no-nonsense head of state. Although Kenya likes to pose as a democracy, where political power derives from the free and sovereign will of the citizens, in reality, however, the president aligns himself very closely to the military, which came to symbolize presidential power especially during the Moi years. There is always the unspoken fear that the military or sections of it might take sides in the country’s often polarizing political contests, with grave consequences for the incumbent.

Despite significant losses that have been inflicted on KDF in their mission against Al Shabaab militants in Somalia – and the fact that the soldiers, now re-hatted under an African Union mandate, have not managed to crush the Islamists as promised when they first deployed in 2011 – Kenyatta insists that KDF will remain inside Somalia until they accomplish their mission. Much of that, of course, has got to do with the commitments Kenya, as a client state, has made to its chief anti-terrorism partner, the US, which significantly funds and provides operational and strategic support for the Somalia invasion. But, politically, KDF’s continued occupation of Somalia is sheer grandstanding meant to send the right signals to Kenyatta’s constituency – and perhaps to his political opponents. As a matter of fact, nobody knows when that mission will end. In the latest attack on Kenyan soldiers, so far the worst, a KDF camp inside Somalia was decimated in January. Burials of the soldiers who were killed in the attack are still going on in Kenya. The government has refused to reveal the number of casualties, with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud saying up to 200 KDF troops may have been killed.

After the Westgate terrorist attack on September 21, 2013, Kenyatta came under intense public pressure to replace the then much-discredited Interior minister. Eventually, the president dismissed Joseph Ole Lenku and appointed retired army Major General Joseph Nkaissery to the position. Nkaissery’s tenure has provoked a fair amount of controversy, from his threats to jail journalists whose work he doesn’t like to shoot-to-kill orders he has given to police officers. His latest outrage was an order to withdraw the bodyguards of the governors of Mombasa and Kilifi counties at the coast after the opposition CORD, to which they belong, retained the Malindi seat.

Nkaissery himself was a CORD MP before Kenyatta poached him in an effort to weaken the opposition. When Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho protested against Nkaissery’s order to surrender his licensed firearm, the minister admonished him: “Nobody can be bold enough to compete with government. You can’t challenge the government.” To those familiar with the years of the Moi dictatorship, Nkaissery’s chilling threats and the repressive political atmosphere in Kenya today bring back troubling memories. This is likely to remain the case into the election period. Subtle and not so-subtle suggestions are being made that the Kenyatta regime would not hesitate to use force or other means to achieve their political objectives.


In early January, a video clip emerged in which wealthy Mombasa businessman and politician Suleiman Shahbal announced to a gathering that the Jubilee Coalition would win the 2017 elections by any means, including the use of force and fraud. Deputy President Ruto and Jubilee’s Leader of Majority in Parliament Aden Duale were present. “I would like to tell you that we shall win the 2017 election. We shall win the 2017 elections by force. We shall buy it; we shall steal it; whatever it will be,” said Shahbal. He received thunderous applause. Ruto and Duale did not contradict Shahbal or pretend to clarify his comments. Nor did the police pursue him. If the recent by-elections in Malindi and Kericho are anything to go by, it would be foolhardy to dismiss Shahbal’s remarks as the raw rant of an over-excited sycophant trying to impress his bosses. Such strident rhetoric is known to precede election violence in Kenya.

In Malindi, two Jubilee MPs from Uhuru Kenyatta’s central Kenya backyard were reported to be involved in voter bribery and buying of identity cards from opposition supporters. A video clip showed MP Ferdinand Waititu apparently buying identity cards while MP Peter Gitau was arrested with bundles of currency notes he was said to be bribing voters with. Similar allegations flew right, left and centre in Kericho as well. Corruption is deeply entrenched in Kenyan politics. Chief Justice Mutunga, who describes Kenya as a “bandit economy”, has noted that corruption inside government is taking a worrying trend as next year’s general election approaches. State coffers are being looted for money to buy support.

Corruption is Kenya’s gravest problem, making the country the third worst in the world according to a February report by audit firm PriceWaterHouseCoopers. According to the new anti-graft Czar Philip Kinisu, Kenya loses a third of its annual budget, that is some $6 billion, to thieves within government. Despite frequent pledges of tough action by the Jubilee government, nothing of significance is being done to stem the menace. Projects in which the Jubilee administration has invested millions of public money ostensibly to meet its election pledges to citizens such as the National Youth Service (NYS) have turned out to be cash cows for individuals connected to the pinnacle of power. Practically no department of government is clean. Prosecution of suspected senior state officials and politicians is rare. They enjoy protection from the powers that be.

Questions continue to be raised about the sources of the huge sums of money Deputy President Ruto dishes out at fundraisers so often. His beneficiaries include churches, provoking Fr. Gabriel Dolan, a Catholic priest and columnist, to remark that: “Ruto spreads his millions around — in a manner reminiscent of his mentor, Mr Moi — but he appears to keep his largest contributions for the Catholic Church. Priests and prelates receive the ‘generous donations’ with smiles for the cameras while Mr Ruto preaches about the evils of corruption standing before the tabernacle. The other day I watched the DP giving two Bishops a stash of money in a briefcase that looked for all the world like a priest’s mobile mass kit. It was a pathetic sight. Is this the price of the Hierarchy’s silence over the looted NYS millions and the Eurobond, Anglo Leasing and SGR billions?”

With Kenya’s devolved system of government that created 47 semi-autonomous counties, corruption has also been devolved down to the country’s grassroots. There are frequent, almost daily, reports of huge sums of county funds that are uncounted for or misappropriated through irregular procurement. A lot of this corruption is tied to the upcoming elections as politicians at every level try to build war chests for the polls. Mr. Kinisu’s constitutionally independent anti-corruption agency is toothless, spends the best of its time and resources chasing small thieves and is generally thought to take its instructions from the Presidency.


Kenya has not healed from the trauma of the 2007-8 post-election violence and this poses a danger for the next election. The findings of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission that was established after the chaos have never been officially made public and debated. It is now four years since the report was handed over to President Kenyatta. Nearly a decade after the violence, some internally displaced persons have not been resettled. Controversy has surrounded government compensation and resettlement schemes, with critics saying that only Kikuyu IDPs – members of Uhuru Kenyatta’s ethnic group – have benefited. Notably Luo, Luhyia, Abagusii and IDPs in northern Kenya have been ignored.

More worryingly, not a single perpetrator of the violence has ever been prosecuted and convicted in Kenyan courts. Interested politicians shot down an attempt to set up a special local court. Six politicians, government officials and a journalist were indicted by the International Criminal Court. Only the cases of Deputy President Ruto and journalist Joshua arap Sang are still going on at the ICC. Kenyatta’s case collapsed amidst claims by the ICC Chief Prosecutor of systematic and widespread witness tampering. Several prosecution witnesses in the Uhuru case were killed, disappeared or bribed to recant their initial evidence. At home, not effort was made by the government to arrest and prosecute the hundreds of lower level criminals who took part in the violence. This strengthens the sense of impunity among those people who think they can use violence to win elections.


As history shows, Kenya’s presidential elections since the return to multi-party politics in 1991 are decided not by the grievances the citizens might have against the incumbent, or by the credibility of a candidate’s manifesto, or commitment to certain political ideals by a majority of the voters, but by the strength of a particular ethnic-based alliance of politicians. Whoever is able to coble together a bigger ethnic coalition carries the day. In this setting, the slogan “Your Vote, Your Power!” is largely meaningless. One’s vote only has power as a member of an ethnic voter-bloc. Voters who cast their ballot for a presidential candidate other than the one blessed by the ethnic power brokers waste their vote.

It is certain that the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic formations and their cousins who brought Jubilee to power in 2013 through their so-called “tyranny of numbers” will still support the Kenyatta-Ruto ticket in 2017. The Luo, Kamba, Luhyia and ethnic communities at the coast which mainly support CORD might also be expected to continue their support for Raila Odinga and whoever will be on the ticket as his running mate. CORD’s fortunes lie in large voter registration and turn out in its strongholds, whereas Jubilee is trying to beat that by retaining its traditional support base while attempting to grab some votes from CORD zones.

But the coming elections will not be just about these ethnic dynamics. The present character of the electoral commission, IEBC, is deeply worrying, as is that of the Judiciary. Among the population, tension is building. Social media is brimming with ethnic hate speech. The traditional media have discreetly chosen their sides. Both CORD and Jubilee are determined to win the election – almost at any cost. Neither party seems ready to accept the other’s win, or to go to court to contest an unfavourable outcome. We can only expect an angry rejection of the result by the losing side. And what is going to happen when no one has confidence in the Judiciary to challenge the outcome at the Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the final arbiter of presidential election disputes? Given Kenya’s history, the prognosis is too dire to contemplate.

* Henry Makori is an editor with Pambazuka News.

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3 thoughts on “A Date With The Machete: Looming Chaos In Kenya’s 2017 Elections – OpEd

  • March 19, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    makori is a prophet of doom. for starters it is only cord which he tends to support (with no pretence of objective reporter) that claims no convidence in institutions.and as such mr makori is futhering their threats to violence. we suffered last time so that some people got nusu mkate and forgot whose backs they rode to get it and will not want what makori and his ilk are phyching us for.

  • March 21, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Oh Please Makori.
    You and your ilk prophesied violence and bloodshed in Kenya in 2013 if Raila did not win. Well, he did not win and there was no bloodshed.
    In 2017 Raila, as is usual, will not win and will , as is again usual, claim all manner of rigging and unfairness. Kenyans are used to Railas rants whenever things do not go his way and we are assured of the same.
    But, Kenyans will not murder each other for the sake of Raila.
    The Kenyan security apparatus and citizens are very aware of Railas shenanigans all the way back to his failed coup de tat in 1980 where once again, because of Raila, thousands of Kenyans died.

    It is a known fact that the unprecedented electoral violence deaths caused in 2007/8 were due to Raila Odinga stoking the embers of animosity felt by the Kalenjin towards their Kikuyu neighbours. Raila fanned these embers into a raging inferno of hate that resulted in the death of thousands of Kenyans just so that Raila could share a seat as PM.
    Well, Raila is already at it again. Fanning hate. Telling Kenyans that NOW the Kikuyu and Kalenjin are responsible for their station.
    This tactic of singling out ethnic groups for victimisation reeks of Hitler as regards Jews.
    But Kenyans are aware.
    We shall complain politically but we will not kill for Raila this time round.
    Raila Odinga can carry a machete if he feels like it. He shall wield it alone!!

  • March 25, 2016 at 6:58 am

    Makori conveniently forgot to mention the violence meted out against the ruling coalition’s perceived supporters in Malindi or the fact that the opposition by virtue of governors who enjoy a lot of privileges at the expense of the public used those resources to campaign for the opposition candidate. Such bias raises questions of your impartiality and objectivity in articulating Kenyan issues. Could it be you are another naysayer helping further the cause of our naysayers-in-chief CORD?


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