Before dawn breaks every day, Bariki Saitoti, 27, is at his small stall in Buru Buru Phase I Estate, Nairobi, with the vegetables, fruits and tubers he sells neatly lined in rows.
His only shelter is a tree that offers shade from both rain and sun. Even so, his daily hustle helps to put a meal on the table for his wife and two children back home in Kajiado County, and keeps the children in school.
On August 8, 2017, like millions across the country, Bariki will break his daily routine to line up to vote for the president, governor, MP, senator, MCA and woman rep, who will craft the policies that will shape his life for the next five years.
Kennedy Obonyo, 48, will also join the queue in Makadara constituency, and his attitude about the polls sums up the resilient spirit that has shaped Kenya for the last five decades of independence.
“Elections come with a lot of issues,” he says from the stall where he sells fried groundnuts and sugar-coated sesame seeds. “You won’t say if it will be good or bad, you just wait.”
Both Saitoti and Obonyo cite the need to tame the rising cost of living as the number one issue they expect their elected representatives to tackle, but the underlying optimism in their own futures is striking at a time when so many are worried about what the 2017 elections will bring, coming a decade after a disputed presidential election brought the country to the verge of civil war.
Few elections in Africa draw as much attention as those in the commercial and transport hub of East Africa.
In March 2013, 1,834 international observers joined 21,554 domestic monitors and 6,327 local and international journalists to scrutinise the first Kenyan election since the Constitution was endorsed in 2010.
By comparison, there were 107 accredited international observers in the pivotal Nigerian election in 2015.
Balloting in Kenya this year is expected to attract as much, if not more, attention as the 2013 poll. And the reasons why Kenyan elections are so keenly watched in Africa and beyond tell a story about the country the various presidential candidates will be seeking to rule when millions go to the polls on August 8.
“Kenya is the only country in the developing world that hosts the headquarters of a United Nations agency,” says Prof Winnie Mitullah of the University of Nairobi. “The country is home to a large number of envoys. It is a transport and commercial hub in the region. Elections here matter. And, despite all its shortcomings, Kenya is a fairly liberal democracy whose progress is keenly watched across the continent.”
Election year in Kenya, of course, brings both promise and peril. There is the joy of choosing hundreds of representatives across the country who will manage resources and shape policy for five years, but history has shown that elections can also go wrong, resulting in the kind of mass violence and displacement witnessed in 2007/8.
MPESA AMID POLITICS
What does not change is the people. Kenya has one of the best educated, most dynamic and resourceful populations on the continent.
“When it comes to the people of Kenya — particularly the youth — I believe there is no limit to what you can achieve,” former US President Barack Obama said while addressing an entrepreneurship summit in Nairobi in June 2015.
Obama cited the progress that has been made in the technology field in particular. In 2002, income from the ICT sector stood at Sh1.5 billion. It shot up to Sh42 billion in 2013, a staggering climb in just a decade.
The Safaricom money-transfer platform M-Pesa, the most successful e-wallet system of its kind anywhere in the world, has become a fixture in many Kenyans’ lives, making it hard to believe that it was launched only 10 years ago, in 2007.
Today, 25 million Kenyans use the service, transacting Sh15 billion every day. The concept has been taken up far and wide, from Ghana to Albania to Afghanistan.
The march of the mobile money revolution has seen the number of Kenyans with access to banking products rise from 25 per cent in 2006 to 68 per cent in 2014.
The advances in technology have drawn some of the biggest names in the business — Google, Intel, Nokia, Microsoft and IBM — to set up offices in Nairobi. Also, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made his first foray to try and establish a bigger presence in Africa, he chose to stop in two cities — Nairobi and Lagos.
But all these advances sit uncomfortably beside a political class that has failed to move beyond an old form of politics where support is canvassed strictly along ethnic lines.
This leaves pundits worried that, despite all the progress Kenya has made in many fields, the nation remains hostage to destructive forces which only enlightened voters can help to break.
“The ethnic dimension to our politics, particularly in the race for the presidency, is something that we have completely failed to address,” says Dr Mutakha Kangu, a constitutional and governance expert.
“The failure to tackle this problem means that we have skirted around many of the issues that caused problems in 2007, including matters such as the need for good governance, the question of ethnicity, and the winner-take-all system.”
Dr Tom Wolf, lead research analyst at Synovate Ipsos, says the key test for Kenya in 2017 will be how well the electoral process is managed to produce an outcome that is broadly acceptable to all parties. Dr Wolf says the reasons for the immense attention that Kenyan elections attract partly stem from history.
The fact that the country was able to make a transition from single-party rule to a multi-party system of government in the late ’80s and ’90s without descending into a civil war, he says, caught the attention of many scholars that study Africa.
The subsequent decision by President Daniel arap Moi to obey the two-term limit and, in particular, the peaceful 2002 election that brought to an end Kanu’s four-decade-long hold on power, electrified much of Africa.
“There is also the fact that Kenya has a dual personality,” says Dr Wolf. “It is still a relatively poor country, but for those that can afford the amenities, Nairobi offers a first-world lifestyle. It is a convivial and convenient place for international journalists to report on the continent, meaning Kenya will attract attention, whether it likes it or not.”
The consistent excellence of Kenyan athletes at global events such as the Olympics and, more recently, the breakthrough efforts of members of the rugby and cricket teams in competitions where African participation was historically low, have also helped.
This attention means that triumphant elections such as that in 2002 and disastrous ones such as the 2007 poll draw massive coverage around the world.
For the Kenyan on the street, elections also bring fear and anxiety. For Daudi Loasa, 21, who, like Obonyo and Saitoti, is a trader in Buru Buru and a new father who keeps abreast of news thanks to a small transistor radio at his stall, his hope is that the election does not cause dramatic disruptions that will complicate his life.
“I am worried because the way our leaders are trading verbal exchanges may affect my business. They may make people run away to the countryside and that may see our customer base shrink,” he says.
Public security and safety analyst Dr Simiyu Werunga says the most essential ingredient to ensure 2017 will go smoothly is to take steps to ensure that the public has faith in the electoral process.
“Let Kenyans believe that the elections are credible, free and fair,” he says. “That is the sure way to have a smooth outcome. Public confidence is critical. Without it, the battle will be lost.”
Dr Werunga flags party nominations, which are often marked by acrimony, as a potential flashpoint, considering the high stakes.
The intense battle for the position of governor will be another key issue to watch. Across the 47 counties, little has been heard of the contest for other seats, such as that of senator or woman rep.
“Every speaker in county assemblies, deputy speaker, the deputy governors and senators all seem to be in the running for the position of governor,” says Prof Mitullah. “This is a situation that needs to be managed carefully to avoid problems.”
In a sense, the massive competition for governor posts could be seen as a marker of the success of the young experiment with devolution. The system, designed to reduce the powers of the presidency and bring power and resources closer to the people, was a centrepiece of the 2010 Constitution.
“We are a very resilient people,” says Prof Mitullah. “We managed to survive crises like 1982 and 2007. And the best thing about 2007 is that the crisis was used to yield a progressive Constitution that helped to consolidate the country’s liberal democratic framework.”
The economy will be another factor to watch. Anxiety around elections has spelt slower economic growth in every election year since 1992.
A 2011 paper by Prof Karuti Kanyinga of the Institute of Development Studies in Nairobi illustrates the sharp decline in agricultural production witnessed when elections come around, spelling a fall in incomes for the vast majority of Kenyans that depend on the sector.
Dr Samuel Nyandemo, a lecturer in economics at the University of Nairobi, says there are already some worrisome signs on this front.
“In election years, a lot of money is pumped into the economy, inducing heavy consumption at the expense of production” he says. “This in turn leads to a higher cost of living.”
Investors have already started offloading stocks in the Nairobi Securities Exchange and the shilling is expected to come under pressure in the course of the year as well.
However, in typical Kenyan style, thousands of entrepreneurs have lined up to tap into the billions that the politicians will spend. This will be high season for everyone, from entertainers and graphic designers to drivers, pilots, car-hire operators, printers, hoteliers and many more.
At the end of the day, the decision will fall to the people of Kenya, who, in the preamble to the Constitution, are given the “sovereign and inalienable right to determine the form of governance” that the country adopts.
The words of Mr Obama in his address to Kenyans at Kasarani in July 2015 could be a useful guide: “Kenya is at a crossroads — a moment filled with peril, but also enormous promise. And the pillars of that success are clear: Strong democratic governance; development that provides opportunity for all people and not just some; a sense of national identity that rejects conflict for a future of peace and reconciliation.”