Election risks plunging us deeper into tribal division

Saturday June 17 2017

Orange Democratic Movement presidential candidate Raila Odinga (left) and Jubilee Party presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. PHOTOS | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Orange Democratic Movement presidential candidate Raila Odinga (left) and Jubilee Party presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. PHOTOS | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The August 2017 General Election will be the sixth since the return of multiparty democracy in Kenya in 1992. These elections have had a similar pattern in terms of results. And if you put all bits in these elections together you can predict with some level of confidence how the 2017 election will look.

The past elections had outcomes which generally reflected how communities are settled. Our different tribes tend to vote with a high degree of predictability. The final presidential results reflect largely how the groups are settled and how they have formed coalitions of interests. The alliances that politicians form are generally tribal. Of course they form them by mobilising collective fear or group interests. This is why we can not say that Kenyan politics are not issue based. Each and every group presents itself as either against or for the national government. Groups have issues that they believe can be resolved by aligning their interests with other groups that have similar interests. The leaders of the tribe play an important role in “herding” voters to a certain direction. These leaders generally control how their communities will behave.


The second thing about past elections is that high levels of mistrust between communities mark them. Since the alliances are opposed to each other, the issues they present even on behalf of their respective groups are also opposed viewpoints.

The third aspect is the cost of past elections. Our elections are very expensive, in terms of money, to conduct compared to many elections elsewhere. In several countries in Africa the cost of elections per vote is about $10 or Sh1,000 per vote. The cost per vote in a country such as Namibia is less than Sh500 per vote. But in Kenya the cost per vote is above $20 or Sh2,000. Many others conduct theirs in a cheaper manner than we do.


I must add that the cost of elections increases the more there is mistrust in the electoral process. Our elections become very expensive because we do not trust each other – or those in government and those in opposition are so suspicious of one another that we have do so many things to secure confidence of each other. We print ballots from expensive places. We buy ballot boxes that are specifically meant to deter theft or ballot stuffing. We simply get out of the way to do many things that do not make sense in an election because we do not trust one another.

The thing to say about our past elections is that they are all marked by absence of strong enforcement of the law. Our electoral commission, the Registrar of Political Parties, the police and other institutions charged with the responsibility of enforcing the law simply fear to hold any politician to account. No senior politician has ever been held to account for election offenses. The nearest one institution ever came to this in recent times is in 2013 when the National Cohesion and Integration Commission compelled arrest of a few politicians for the purpose of prosecuting them for hate speech. And even then, the commission did not go far. It is possible the members of the Commission chickened out and started making deals with the same politicians. In some instances some of the politicians were requested to simply apologise. The matter ended at that point.


The reality is not different today. All these features are clearly showing with regard to the August 2017 elections. The country is as divided as it has always been. The two main alliances are organising as usual along tribal lines. Mistrust and suspicion run deep between and among communities if they are in different political camps. The political leaders are also firmly in control of the behaviour of their voters as is usual. The leaders are also working up their voting blocs with negative language that creates a sense of “we” versus “them”. Interestingly – and this was brought to my attention by a friend – the leaders speak “tribe” and arouse tribal emotions when they are in their strongholds. They speak in strong vernacular messages when they are in their strongholds. However, the moment they reach other areas they speak “national”. They speak as Kenyans and speak in a civil language when they are in areas they consider as the opponents territory. They also speak as nationalists. But they are not. They are tribal to the core.

Similar to the past, there is no enforcement of the law even as the election date approaches. The courts have tried the best under the circumstances to give judgements on some important matters. Other institutions appear frail and are failing. For instance, Chapter Six of the Constitution, the chapter that anchors public values in our lives and the one that demands leaders to be people of integrity, is yet to be enforced. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission said that at least about 106 people did not pass the integrity standard set by the commission. Other institutions will certainly run away from this list.

They will present hurdles to prevent it from passing the test.


The party nominations produced bad results everywhere. Some of those who won can not pass integrity test; they have various sins around their neck but they won the nominations.

There are other challenges. Public Confidence and trust in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is not as high as it was on the eve of the 2013 elections. The continuing publicised drama over the tender to print the ballots, the apparent tension within the commission leading to the sacking of senior staff, are not steps to improve public confidence in the commission.

This is said with one point of caution. The country is divided and therefore some parts of the country have confidence in the commission and others do not have a lot of confidence in the commission. We are in a situation where sections of the country see things differently from other sections of the country – yet we are in one country. In one recent public survey on confidence and trust in institutions, the findings reveal a polarised country. Nyanza and Western have one view, which is different from the Central and Rift Valley regions. The views from the Coast and North Eastern are mixed and quite moderate. This is Kenya – one country, different views on the same thing.


With these differences, many people hope that the election will be free, just and credible. Many people hope that the IEBC will conduct a credible election and one that will instil confidence in leaders. People hope that there will be no problems with the technology at any point of the electoral process. People hope that there will be no violence. They pray that the election will be free in order to prevent eruption of violence.

There are fears too. People fear that internal challenges within the IEBC will affect the electoral process. There is fear that any internal challenges will spill over to affect the management of the elections. People fear that the mistrust between the key political alliances will deepen and make it difficult to conduct credible election. Trust deficit is everywhere. There is fear that this lack of trust will affect how we view the final results; those who lose may not concede and those who will win may not believe they have won.

The first scenario is common in all areas where people are divided during an election. This is a scenario characterised by failure to concede defeat – hatutaki (we do not accept) may be the immediate response by those who will lose the elections. This will be possible if leaders do not mute the language of mistrust and suspicion which they use when campaigning in their strongholds. This is not a good scenario. It can be prevented only by conducting the election in a credible manner. It can be prevented only by conducting the election in a manner that shows high level of transparency at every stage.


The second scenario will appear as a dream – ndoto! This is the one where we get leaders of high level of integrity and committed to building a strong Kenya. We certainly know this is a dream because the party nominations produced bad results for both Jubilee Party and the National Super Alliance. Both parties are short of men and women who “can die for Kenya” or who have high levels of integrity.

The third scenario is the "chest thumping" one. Whoever will win will chest thump in show contempt for the other. It will be “We have won. Utado? (We have won. What will you do about it?)”! Given the present context this is the most possible scenario. We tend to show poor tolerance to each other.

This suggests that the 2017 election may not heal the nation except if the leaders in both Jubilee and Nasa begin to change their language. They will have to change the language they are using to mobilise their supporters against their opponents.

Prof Karuti Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.