Too Close to Call: Why Kibaki Might Lose the 2007 Kenyan Election
December 4, 2007
Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki has presided over a dramatic economic turnaround that not long ago was expected to guarantee him re-election in the presidential vote coming up on December 27, 2007. The country’s economy is growing at nearly 7 percent annually, and a genuine “trickle down” of benefits, including free universal primary education, has touched the lives of many Kenyans in all regions. Why, then is Kibaki trailing in the polls, and fighting for his political life in an election that is now too close to call? The answer lies in a combination of Kibaki’s mode of governance, bad advice from his political advisors, and hard work by his principal challenger, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). Few African countries have experienced the broad-based renewal of their economies that Kenya has enjoyed since 2005. After nearly two decades of zero to negative economic per capita growth, Kenya turned the corner in 2004 with an aggregate growth rate of 5.1 percent. This rose to 5.7 percent in 2005 and 6.1 percent in 2006 – and continues to rise. Tourism is booming. The value of agricultural production rose 12.1 percent in 2006 as Kenya benefited from high commodity prices, better management and marketing of agricultural products, and rising production. The contrast with 2001, when electricity and water shortages turned Nairobi into a ghost capital, is striking. Kenyans have not enjoyed such prosperity since the mid-1960s and early seventies when Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, governed their country. Therein lies the explanation of both Kibaki’s success and his problem. When Kibaki was elected to succeed former president Daniel arap Moi in December 2002, public expectations were high that he and his government would reverse Moi’s dismal record of economic stagnation and predatory rule. Kibaki had been swept into power by a broad coalition of parties, the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition or NARC, beating Uhuru Kenyatta of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) by nearly two-to-one in the popular vote. Ururu, Jomo Kenyatta’s son, was Moi’s hand-picked candidate to be his successor. NARC also won control of Kenya’s parliament in the 2002 voting. Democracy had triumphed. But would democracy deliver by improving lives? It did, but not in the manner that many had hoped. Instead of governing via the big tent that NARC had established during the run-up to the election, Kibaki relied on a small group of leaders drawn from his own Kikuyu ethnic group and the related Meru and Embu communities. Dubbed the “Mount Kenya Mafia,” because its members came from ethnic communities that inhabit the slopes around Mt. Kenya, the group controlled the ministries of finance, internal security, justice and information, arguably the key positions of government. Kibaki began his term in ill-health, the result of a debilitating auto accident before the 2002 election, and at least one stroke following his inauguration. During the first half of his presidency, until November 2005, he relied heavily on the “Mafia.” This group was determined to run Kenya as the country had been run during Kenyatta’s time—soundly managed, both with respect to macro-economic policy and delegation to the civil service and business community. In marked contrast to Moi, Kibaki and his inner circle did not micro-manage. Individual Kenyans enjoyed more personal freedom, both political and economic, than at any time since independence. The result was that the Kenyan economy began to regain its position as the dominant economy in East Africa. Growth, despite persistent corruption, resumed. Parastatal organizations (state owned corporations), including the marketing boards for coffee and tea, and sugar factories functioned for the first time in years. Ditto for other organizations such as the Kenya Meat Commission, and Kenya Cooperative Creameries, corporations that had been driven into bankruptcy or near bankruptcy by Moi. Ditto too for Kenya’s universities, which had also been compromised during the Moi era. In sum, economic growth and the rejuvenation of institutions was broad based, but perceived by many Kenyans as being Kikuyu controlled. The same perception that had dogged the Kenyatta regime at the end of the 1970s, and which triggered the ruinous policies of redistribution during the Moi era, now dogged Kibaki and his government—that Kikuyus and related communities run the government at the expense of other groups, even though all regions of Kenya and thus all ethnic groups have arguably benefited from Kibaki’s rule. Given the fact that Kenyan elections have always involved the mobilization of ethnic communities by local and regional bosses, the likely scenario for 2007 became clear as early as 2005. While the government would justifiably run on its record at turning the economy around and instituting other reforms, the opposition would cohere into broad based coalition that played on fears of Kikuyu domination. A nationwide referendum held in November 2005 to approve a new constitution for Kenya was a prelude of these strategies. Since the return of multiparty politics in 1992, the various factions that comprise Kenya’s political elite have struggled to arrive at a new constitution. The Constitution of Kenya Review Commission presented a draft constitution prior to the 2002 elections, but neither its draft nor an amended version was ever passed by Kenya’s parliament. The Kibaki government then formulated its own draft which it presented to the Kenyan public. It was immediately opposed by an amalgam of political leaders and parties from both inside and outside the government, including Raila Odinga, then Minister for Works and Housing. He had long argued that Kenya should return to a parliamentary form of government and institute a measure of federalism, or “Majimbo,” to protect the interests of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups. The son of Kenya’s first vice-president, Odinga draws an immense following from his home region of Nyanza, the homeland of the Luo people. He is also immensely popular in Nairobi, where he has represented the Langata constituency since 1992 and where he appeals to younger voters. During the run-up to the 2002 elections, Odinga campaigned tirelessly for Kibaki and was widely recognized as the key to Kibaki’s victory. However, he soon became marginalized by the inner circle around Kibaki, especially when he demanded to be appointed Prime Minister in the new government. The constitutional referendum held in November 2005 was a political disaster for Kibaki, as Odinga and his allies persuaded Kenyans to reject the proposed constitution by a nearly 3:2 margin. Opponents included Uhuru Kenyatta; Kalonzo Musyoka, then Kenya’s foreign minister and a prominent Kamba leader from Eastern Province; and Musalia Mudavadi, a prominent Luhya leader from Western Kenya. Because the Election Commission of Kenya had assigned the symbol of an orange to the “No” side of the ballot (as contrasted to a banana for those wishing to vote “Yes”), the group soon took on the name of the Orange Democratic Movement or ODM. They drew broad support from across Kenya except in Central Province, the Kikuyu homeland and Kibaki’s political base. In defeating the proposed constitution, they also demonstrated that a coalition of ethnic groups mobilized in opposition to the “Mount Kenya” groups was a viable strategy for 2007. Kibaki and his advisors played into their hands by dismissing Odinga, Musyoka, and others from the cabinet following the referendum defeat. The battle lines for 2007 had been drawn. By June 2007, this year’s elections had boiled down to a contest between Kibaki and his supporters telling Kenyans “re-elect us, because you have not had it this good in years;” versus Odinga and his allies in ODM, who were quietly organizing Kenyans whose ethnic communities did not hold prominent positions in the Kibaki government. ODM has not run an explicitly “anti-Kikuyu” campaign. It has not had to, a fact unappreciated by the President and his advisors, who also made the mistake of believing that the ODM would fail to unite around a single presidential nominee. Because ODM had become a catchall coalition of those opposing the government, and because this coalition included at least four viable aspirants to the presidency—Odinga, Kenyatta, Musyoka and Mudavadi—both Kibaki and the Nairobi “pundocracy” concluded that ODM would eventually split. Kenyan opposition parties have historically done so, and a split would allow the President to win re-election easily. Based on the usual “ethnic arithmetic” employed by Kenya’s political elite, the pundits rightly reasoned that the President would win at least 40 percent of the vote—from Central Province, the Kikuyu homeland; from Eastern Province, the homeland of the Embu and Meru peoples; and from some Kamba areas which had long supported Kibaki. The President could also count on a significant number of votes, perhaps an outright majority, from Nairobi, and from Kikuyu minority areas in the Rift Valley Province, where Kikuyus comprise between a fifth and a quarter of the population. In this analysis, while Kibaki might be returned with only a plurality of the vote, he had little to fear. Whereas Kibaki’s ethnic arithmetic on his support base is proving correct, the assumption that ODM would split into squabbling factions of roughly equal size led by each of its top leaders has turned out to be wrong. After Raila Odinga won the party’s presidential nomination, only Kalonzo Musyoka decided to hive off and form his own party, ODM-Kenya, to contest the presidency. Odinga shrewdly picked Musalia Mudavadi as his vice-presidential running mate immediately after his own nomination thereby keeping the Luhya leader in the Orange fold. Most significantly, Odinga has been able to retain the support of a group of prominent younger Kalenjin leaders from the former ruling party, KANU, including William Ruto; while Uhuru Kenyatta, still the nominal leader of KANU, decided to sit this election out. Poor Kenyatta was caught in a bind when his mother, Mama Ngina Kenyatta and the third wife of Kenya’s first president, announced that she was supporting Kibaki. Former president Daniel arap Moi also encouraged Uhuru to do same, and he complied. Both Moi and Mama Ngina have been shielded from prosecution for alleged acts of corruption by Kibaki’s government, and shudder at the prospect of Kibaki being replaced by a government headed by Raila Odinga. The result, however, is that while the leader of KANU and the formal leader of the opposition is now supporting the Kibaki, most other leaders of his party, which draws most of its current support from the Kalenjin peoples of the Rift Valley, are backing Raila. With the exception of the defections of Kalonzo Musyoka and Kenyatta, who is no longer a candidate, ODM has remained largely intact. With less than five weeks to go before Kenyans go to the polls, the presidential contest has come down to a three-way race that is too close to call. If the public opinion polls are valid, Raila Odinga may nip out the incumbent president by two to three percentage points or less. This would be Kenya’s closest election since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992. While the validity of the public opinion polls is always questioned, the quality of survey research and market research in Kenya is among the best in Africa. The surveys are conducted on a random sample basis, and most (though not all) polling organizations strive to reach a level of accuracy of plus or minus three percentage points. Perhaps most important, the major polls, such as Steadman and Gallup, have been reporting similar and consistent results since September. At the aggregate level, i.e. for Kenya as a whole, the latest Steadman poll, released on November 30 (based on 2709 interviews conducted between November 17 and 19) has Odinga up by 44 percent to 43 percent for Kibaki, with 11 percent favoring Kalonzo Musyoka and only 2 percent undecided or favoring minor candidates. Similarly, the latest Gallup Poll, released on November 22 (but based on interviews conducted between October 25 and November 10) has the race at 45 percent for Odinga, 42 percent for Kibaki, and 11 for Musyoka. As both polls have a margin of error of 2 to 3 percentage points, it is possible that Kibaki may in fact be in a dead heat or have a narrow lead of one percentage point. The other consistent result from the major polls is their confirmation of the candidates’ ethno-regional bases of support. Thus, Steadman (and the earlier Gallup poll) reports that Kibaki enjoys an overwhelming lead of 92 percent in Central Province, the Kikuyu homeland, but fails to command a majority anywhere else. Kibaki also commands a plurality of 46 percent in Nairobi and 48 percent in Eastern Province, the homeland of the Embu and Meru people, and of the Kamba. By contrast, Raila Odinga is supported by the majority of likely voters in five provinces—86 percent in Nyanza Province, 73 percent in Western Province, 51 percent in Coast Province, 65 percent in the sparsely populated North Eastern Province; and 54 percent in Rift Valley Province. Most Kalenjins in Rift Valley and voters from other smaller groups in the province, who once followed Moi, are apparently deserting the former president. They are listening more to younger KANU leaders, such as William Ruto, who are backing Odinga, Indeed, a major sub-theme of the 2007 election is that the former president is no longer a political force. Odinga also has a strong following in Nairobi. Musyoka, not surprisingly, does best in the Kamba areas of Eastern Province, but is running slightly behind Kibaki in the province as a whole. A summary of the latest Steadman Poll by province is reported in the table below. Most interesting is that not only does Kibaki’s support vary greatly from one province to the next, but his support and the support for his two principal opponents closely track the results from the constitutional referendum of November 2005. Where the referendum passed with an overwhelming vote as in Central Province, Kibaki is also far ahead in the polls. Where the referendum barely passed, as in Eastern Province, he is in a close race. And where the referendum was rejected, as it was by large margins as in Nyanza and Coast Provinces, he is far behind. Skeptics might reject the results of recent surveys in Kenya, but they cannot ignore the pattern of voting in the referendum, a pattern that will be repeated in the December election. View Table Here The bottom line is that the outcome of the 2007 presidential election will most likely turn on which candidate can turn out his supporters in the greatest numbers. Although Kibaki has been consistently behind in the polls, the gap has narrowed to the point that the two leading candidates are in a statistical dead heat. Kibaki is also likely to benefit from a higher level of turnout amongst his political base in Central Province than Raila Odinga will obtain from supporters elsewhere in the country. Central Province has historically been the epicenter of Kenyan politics. Education and literacy levels, two determinants of public interest in elections and turnout worldwide, are also highest in Central. Odinga and ODM, however, have managed to establish themselves as a party to reckon with across a much broader ethnic and geographical segment of the electorate. There is also some indication that he appeals to younger and first-time voters more than Kibaki. The wild card in this mix is Kalonzo Musyoka, the candidate of ODM-Kenya. Running a distant third, he can continue his candidacy through the election, and probably spoil the outcome for Kibaki. Or, he can fold his campaign and throw his support behind the President or Odinga. Given the popularity of the president in Eastern Province, Musyoka’s home turf, it is more likely that he would back the incumbent. But at what price? He has already served in the cabinet, and only the promise of appointment as Kenya’s Vice-President is likely to bring him into the President’s camp. Because the election is too close to call, it will also test Kenya’s fledgling democracy in at least two ways. The first challenge is whether the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) can administer a credible election in which the losers accept the verdict, even if the vote is close. In a country where allegations of “rigging” are the rhetoric of politics, the ECK must be fastidious in its approach. So too must election observers, both domestic and international, because in a close election, any assessment of how the polls are conducted can fuel post-election discontent. The second challenge is that this is the first time since Kenya’s independence in 1963 that an incumbent president faces a genuine prospect of defeat at the polls. The stakes are high, and the incentive to cross the line of propriety and engage in questionable practices is there for both candidates. Both Kibaki and Odinga must rein in their activists, lest the final weeks of the campaign be marked by campaign violence. The international community, including the United States, also has a role to play by encouraging both leaders and their lieutenants to let Kenyans exercise their franchise freely and with the confidence that their ballots will be counted accurately. ____________________________________________________________________
Joel D. Barkan is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Iowa and Senior Associate at the CSIS Africa Program. The author wishes to acknowledge the input of Dr. Tom Wolf, independent consultant in Nairobi, and Professor Makau Mutua of the University of Buffalo School of Law for this article.
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