Election undercurrents could compromise Kenya’s pivotal role as a regional powerhouse

Election undercurrents could compromise Kenya’s pivotal role as a regional powerhouse

Kenyans pride themselves with the status of one of the leading democracies in Africa, as attested to our relatively free democratic and governance space. And the country’s General Election in August this year will undoubtedly be one of the most significant political events in Africa. Other countries aspire to Kenya’s stability, economic muscle, and diplomatic leadership in a traditionally turbulent region. This is, essentially, a reason for pride.

But, as happens every election cycle, Kenyan leaders are increasingly looking inward. They have thrown all caution to the wind, spewing dangerous rhetoric, threatening the electoral and undermining the country’s capacity to continue playing regional powerhouse. Our election history features hotly contested, sometimes violent elections in which candidates and their allies have used identity politics to divide the electorate.

For perhaps the first time in our history, a sitting president and his deputy are openly pulling in different directions, leading to a shifting of loyalties and apparent rifts within the once-formidable Jubilee coalition. It is an already bumpy path to the election. While on a visit abroad early this month, Deputy President William Ruto spoke of “a few people that want to control presidential power to impose a presidential candidate… and have consolidated their interests under a certain presidential candidate, in an apparent reference to the President and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The stage is set for a bruising political dogfight.

The role of Kenya’s security agencies in elections has often been in the spotlight during or near elections, particularly in the violent manner in which the police, the most visible and public of security agencies, crack down on protesters and public gatherings. Recorded incidents include extra-judicial killings, random and ‘accident’ shootings, assault, general harassment, and sexual assault. 

Our country has a long history of excessive and disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officers, often seen as an excuse to crack down on dissidents. As the Council on Foreign Relations notes, the experience of past elections has reinforced the view that the Kenyan police are instruments of political actors – utumishi kwa wanasiasa – as opposed to an impartial body that protects the rights of citizens and provides service to all Kenyans. To be sure, the country is preparing for elections in a context where there is deep distrust and high levels of animosity between the police and the public.

Distrust of Kenya’s police reflects a broader distrust of the state, especially among youth, and a profound sense of political disenfranchisement. This is compounded by persistent concerns about the credibility and political independence of Kenya’s electoral institutions and their capacity to manage the electoral process. The results of Kenya’s 2007 and 2017 elections were widely contested, leading to post-poll violence, and the role and conduct of the main electoral management body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), was criticised in both cases. The reforms proposed to restore public confidence in the integrity and legitimacy of the IEBC have not been fully implemented, raising serious concerns about a peaceful transition of power in next year’s election.

Meanwhile, the economy has taken a beating in proportions rarely witnessed before, exacerbated by a COVID cloud that will take long to undo. Whereas forecasts say key economic sectors are recovering, that is not the lived reality. Many Kenyans are still reeling from the economic devastation of COVID-19 and frustrated by corruption in government. Food prices have shot up in successive bursts, pointing to runaway inflation. 

The fluidity of the prevailing socio-economic and political realities, combined with the familiarity of the personalities involved, looks to be breeding cynicism among voters. A lackluster response to repeated voter registration efforts signals a distinct lack of enthusiasm among potential first-time voters—a massive cohort in youth-heavy Kenya. 

Kenyans need the government to conduct itself in a manner that shows it understands its role and is accountable in its duty to the people. So far, the upcoming election does not offer the hope that it will answer Kenyans’ hopes for some saving grace or the region’s need for a credible, dependable leader. (

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