Kenya’s Young Democracy Put to the Test

In a world of rising authoritarianism, Kenya stands out as a democratic experiment worthy of U.S. and international support. Kenyans voted by a large margin in 2010 for a new constitution embracing liberal democratic values and widely guaranteeing individual freedoms. Parliamentary and judicial checks and balances are strong, in theory if not always in practice. Encouraged by high levels of civic activism and a mostly free media, Kenyans enthusiastically march, demonstrate, protest, and vote. Nothing suits them better than the chance to dismiss underperforming incumbent officeholders.

On August 8, Kenyans will again elect a president, parliament, and county-level officials. Concern is mounting about the fairness and peacefulness of the ballot. Since Kenya’s many ethnic groups almost always vote in blocs, multiethnic coalitions are needed to elect presidents and parliamentary majorities. This ethnicity factor elevates the risk of intercommunal clashes when elections are hotly contested or vote rigging is suspected. Such a scenario played out disastrously in 2007 when irregularities in a close presidential race triggered ethnic violence that killed more than 1,200, displaced 300,000, and drove Kenya to the brink of civil war.

The United States has an important stake in avoiding such an outcome in 2017. Kenya is not only a fledgling democracy, but a fast-growing and pivotal African economy with a dynamic private sector. It is also the target of a murderous Al-Shabaab terrorist campaign that has claimed hundreds of lives since 2011, including mass atrocities at an upscale Nairobi shopping mall and a rural university. Along the border with Somalia, Kenyan police and military patrols are hit almost daily by bomb attacks. Inside Somalia, Kenya’s army is part of a multinational African force fighting against Al-Shabaab on the jihadists’ home ground. With U.S. forces now more heavily engaged than ever before in this fight, Kenya’s role as a strategic partner of the United States continues to grow.

Peaceful elections are important, but so too are credible elections. Despite polls favorable to incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta, many voters believe the race is a toss-up, with perennial challenger Raila Odinga at last poised to win the presidency. Odinga himself believes he has the numbers to win but is also convinced his rivals will stop at nothing to deny him the prize. Mindful of past electoral irregularities, Odinga’s supporters share his suspicions.

Odinga has stepped up his preelection warnings of possible rigging. Tensions have risen accordingly. Indeed, most Kenyans accept there will be failings and at least some degree of tampering with the vote. Thus, even if Kenyatta wins smoothly, Odinga could dispute the result, and the risk of postelection violence would escalate quickly.

An additional worry is the potential for clashes at the local level where Kenya’s new constitution has created county governments funded by the national treasury. As candidates fiercely competed in April for party nominations for governorships and other offices, primary elections deteriorated into chaos and violence in a number of counties. Human rights groups have warned that this is not a good omen for the upcoming general elections.

To mitigate such dangers, the United States and European Union have committed more than $80 million toward civic education, technical assistance, election observation, and conflict prevention. Many international observers will be in the field in Kenya in early August. These are commendable steps, but more must be done. Specifically, the United States and others must press the Kenyan government to do more to boost public confidence in the election process.

A crucial step is to address widespread worries about Kenya’s Independent Election and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The IEBC has missed many deadlines for election preparations, raising questions about its independence and competence. The IEBC’s penchant for secrecy has further undercut its credibility. It is not well placed to attest to the integrity of the voter registry or convince voters of the reliability of new and untested voting machines. A more transparent and communicative IEBC is urgently needed if public confidence is to be restored.

Another critical requirement is the issuance of clear orders to security forces to act with restraint and to prioritize the protection of polling places, voters, and election observers. Observers worry as much about police partisanship as they do about the politically linked thugs and armed gangs the police are responsible for constraining. Similarly, swiftly identifying and prosecuting those engaged in hate speech would also send a reassuring signal to a nervous electorate.

The vote is fast approaching, but it is not too late to fully empower and fund statutory bodies such the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority. These institutions have a legal mandate to monitor and deter the kinds of violence that could occur around elections. Yet they are not being utilized by the Kenyan government to do so.

Credible elections will not only help check potential violence, they will also help rebuild Kenya’s confidence in itself. Kenyans may be freer than their neighbors and most other Africans. But like many other young democracies, Kenya has been buffeted by currents of illiberalism in recent years. Following elections in 2013, President Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto cracked down on civil society and the media, seeking to even the score with critics, activists, and journalists they deemed “agents of foreign powers.” Under Kenyatta, official corruption has soared to levels not seen in decades—a problem Kenyatta himself deplores. As Kenya’s gross domestic product has leapt forward, inequality has worsened, leaving a third of the nation living below the poverty line. Kenya’s police forces, meanwhile, have done little to improve their reputation as corrupt predators, more feared than respected in the communities they are meant to serve.

A clean electoral process, a robust reaffirmation of popular sovereignty, and a broadly accepted outcome—regardless of which side wins—would do much to reinvigorate Kenyans’ faith in their democratic project. Helping Kenya to achieve that should be a strategic goal of the United States.

Mark Bellamy, a former career diplomat and U.S. ambassador to Kenya, is a senior adviser to the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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