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Kenya’s election this year amounts to nothing less than a coup by the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta. Every effort was made to infiltrate and control the electoral body. The heavy security preparations and the deluge of peace messages suggest that the outcome was already predetermined and the people’s resistance anticipated.

Why does Kenya’s presidential election keep producing contested results and deaths? How did the opposition’s strongholds in various parts of the country, especially the slums, become the killing fields of those protesting the declaration of the 2017 presidential results?

Kenya’s General Service Unit (GSU), a paramilitary force, and a militia group suspected to be the Mungiki, have killed scores of citizens in the opposition strongholds, especially some of the low-income estates and slums of the cities and towns, in the aftermath of the disputed 2017 general election. The estimate of those killed varies from source to source. The Kenya National Human on Commission Rights places the count at 24 people. The National Super Alliance (NASA), the opposition coalition, claims that 100 people, including a 9 year old girl, Stephanie Moraa, and a six-months old infant, Samantha Pendo, have been killed.

However, the Jubilee government has strenuously denied these killings, noting that the police killed only 10 ‘criminals’ during last weekend’s protests against the declaration of the presidential results by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). Yet all these killing happened within locations that were labeled “hotspots” by Kenya’s securocrats, constituting the multi-agency security team, in the run up to the general election.

Ballots and bullets

This marks a bloody, brutal and lethal beginning of Uhuru Kenyatta’s second term (if the Supreme Court upholds his contested victory). The authoritarian regime is shedding any democratic pretences and showing more of its steely repressive arm, cheered on by a motely lot of cheesy lynch mob of footloose scholars of democracy, who are too quick to legitimate the ‘spectacular Jubilee’s win in Kenya’s 2017 general election,’ and well oiled local and international PR machinery now spinning how Jubilee won or NASA lost in Kenya’s freest election ever.

To understand why Kenya’s presidential elections keep producing contested results and deaths, especially state ochestered killings, calls for a reconsideration of what really is at stake in a competitive authoritarian presidential regime: is it really the mismanagement of the democratic aspects of the system, the strategic use of state security apparatuses to secure victory and resistance to it, or both?

Arguably, the last three presidential elections in Kenya have demonstrated that in a competitive authoritarian regime, an electoral moment is not the moment when citizens exercise their political rights and collective will to determine their leadership. Rather, it is the moment when the exercise of such rights and expression of collective will is merely incidental to the actual process through which who becomes the president is determined, whether it is a power transfer or a regime succession.   

There is an asymmetrical power struggle at the heart of a competitive authoritarian regime such as Kenya’s. It is not only the struggle for popular votes, through grueling campaigns. It is also the asymmetrical struggle mainly between the incumbent and the opposition for the infiltration, control and seizure of the main decision making center of a highly centralized electoral management system, where the state power momentarily reposes during a general election.

In an electoral contest said to be to too close to call, a highly centralized electoral management and decision-making body is a strategic locus of power, from where, to paraphrase Edward Luttwak’s seminal study of coup d’états, one can “seize state power and through it, the acquisition of the control of the rest of the state machinery, and gradually of the nation as a whole.” However, one has to infiltrate and seize the control of the electoral commission and neutralize all other power centers that may counter the execution of such a plot, while anticipating resistance from the opposition strongholds.

In 2007, Mwai Kibaki’s regime spectacularly, blatantly, crudely and hastily deployed the GSU paramilitary force to take charge of the Kenyatta International Convention Center, the national tallying center for the presidential election, and subsequently a sequestered Chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya, Samuel Kivuitu, who declared him the winner amidst an unresolved political stalemate over vote tallying, with a disastrous consequence. The electoral body’s processes of determining the outcome of the presidential race did not produce a winner. It produced a stalemate. However, brute force, executed by General Hussein Ali, the narcissistic police commissioner, in the full glare of national television, did. 

In order to stamp its power, Kibaki’s regime resorted to lethal use of a cross-section of the security forces, namely, the Kenya Police, Administration Police and the GSU paramilitary force, and the criminal Mungiki gangs to put down the resistance against this act, mostly in the opposition areas. This act of a brazen power-grab triggered various forms of violent resistance, from the spontaneous flash mob acts, to organized criminal and political militia violence against those perceived to be supporters of the Kibaki regime and government installations, mostly in the opposition strongholds. It was witnessed in nearly all-Kenyan provinces, except Eastern and North Eastern.

Coup d’état

Only a coup d’état as a distinct political acts, executed within an electoral moment, explains why the declaration of the presidential results occasioned deaths by the state and militias.  The police force killed the 40 percent of the over 1300 reported deaths during the 2007/8 post-election violence, while political and criminal gangs, allied to the two main political parties, killed the rest. Additionally, the Kibaki regime curtailed media freedom and successfully co-opted the mainstream media in containing the situation, through appeals such as ‘ save our country,’ and the mysterious disappearance of the unofficial tally of the presidential results from these media houses.

More importantly, the Mwai Kibaki regime’s chaotic power-grab at the KICC provided the template on how this coup d’état strategy could be executed with minimal disruption and an appearance of normality. It has shaped the last two presidential elections in Kenya, also said to be too close to call: 2013 and 2017.

The Kibaki example demonstrated that what really matters in a closely contested electoral contest is the infiltration, control and seizure of the electoral commission. This comes in handy in the event of a political stalemate arising out of the electoral process, where what counts is not what the law and the rule book say about the counting and tallying of the ballots, but actually the sheer declaration by the chairman of the electoral commission that one is a winner, even if the chairman, like Kivuitu, turns around to claim that they don’t know who actually won the race, the morning after gazetting the results.

It also demonstrated the incumbent can seize state power out of a muddled electoral process, using extra-legal means, aided by a cross-section of the armed forces and acquiescent media, and keep it. However, one need to ‘creatively’ deal with the backlash such an act might attract, and contain it, in order to savor the state power wholly. Therefore, the incumbent needs to plan well for the contingent resistance that may arise.

Indeed, to pull it off smoothly, one needed to create an illusion of victory, through vigorous campaigns, advertisement, and ultimately a well stage-managed production of favorable the presidential results by the electoral commission. Once done, the incumbent’s control of state apparatuses of coercion comes in handy. What’s more, the subsequent struggle by the opposition and a cross-section of the civil society, to overturn the contested results, through civil or uncivil means, is an uphill task. It is an asymmetrical power struggle, which favors the incumbent against the opposition, and the pro-democracy civil society groups.

It seems, since Kibaki’s power-grab, the incumbent has used at least three ways of containing the anger of the aggrieved voters triggered by contested presidential results: First, during the campaigns, create a fearful, despondent citizenry, through re-living the trauma of the 2007 violence and reconnect it to every other elections, with the support of a cross-section of civil society preaching peace as a means of deflecting attention from the demands for a free, fair and credible election. Peace at all cost, not a beliveable presidential electoral outcome resulting from a credible, free and fair election.

Since 2013, the political messaging supported by a motely lot of actors such as the European Union’s supported projects like Uwiano, the Kenya’s Private Sector Alliance, some religious organizations and leaders, local and international PR companies, have been enlisted in this cause, to preach peace exclusively during the campaign period.

However, it seems, these are efforts primarily aimed at creating a citizenry that is so fixated on the trauma caused by the violence of the 2007/8 disputed presidential election, who readily connect any general election to violence, and would readily acquiesce to electoral fraud or remain indifferent to the pursuit of a free, fair and credible election.

The incumbent offers this as a fair trade off between the pursuit of electoral justice and peace. The Uwiano’s intrusive SMS messages sent via Safaricom mobile phone service provider is a case in point. A text from Uwiano reads: “JACOB. Hongera kwa kupiga kura. Unaposuburi matokeo, zidi kudumisha Amani. SMS 108 kuripoti uchochochezi wowote. Changua Kenya Dumisha Amani,”[JACOB. Congratulation on voting. As you wait for the results, continue keeping the peace. SMS 108 to report any form of incitement. Choose Kenya. Keep the Peace”].

This text not only violates one’s privacy, but is also rude and patronizing, presenting Kenyans with false choices, as if one needs a reminder of what to do after election or is incapable of devising what do after voting. It solicits an obsequious conduct of oneself, in the name of patriotism, precisely at the moment when patriotism demands vigilance and critical distance from official pronouncements.

‘Go to court, the law works’

Second, the morning after a disputed outcome, the incumbent exhorts the principal victims of this stratagem, the ‘defeated’ presidential candidate, to  ‘go to court,’ or ‘the law works’— that is, to seek legal redress to injuries caused by the incumbent’s extra-legal use of security forces and violation of laid down procedures of determining the people’s democratic will. Thus, he calls on the one injured by extra-legal acts of the IEBC to sublimate his own anger and that of his supporters, through a judicial process, which might deliver electoral justice. Indeed, a process, which might examine only one aspect of the power struggle in a competitive authoritarian regime: the democratic aspect, but not the asymmetrical security aspects of this struggle, and the undue advantages to the incumbent in such a contest.

Pacification of opposition strongholds

Third, the state offers violence, in the last instance where peace talks fail to find a hearing. That is, the pacification of the opposition strongholds. For this lot of citizens, the state has built a capacity for pacification, through a series of measures disguised as ‘objective’ security responses to law and order demands during election. Yet these measures enable the incumbent to take strategic positions, in combating any form of resistance that a Kibaki-like power grab may trigger in the opposition strongholds.

In this year’s election, the Kenya government mobilized an unprecedented number of troops, bought new armored vehicles, acquired helicopters and protective gear for the police to secure the elections. News reports indicated that 180,000 troops had been assembled and trained ready to be deployed to secure the election. Additionally, a motely cast of the National Police Service, IEBC and National Cohesion and Integration Commission had identified and mapped out “hotspots,” the areas that supposedly needed “beefed up” security, during the election.

If it is hard to tell the selection criteria of the armed forces comprising this multi-agency security team or the rapid deployment units securing this year’s general election. The pattern of deployment, choice of arsenals, military fatigues, attire, and reconnaissance movements in and around the slums of cities like Kisumu and Nairobi tells us something: these troops and arsenal were mostly deployed in the so-called hotspots, mostly in the areas perceived to be opposition strongholds, although it theoretically included some incumbent’s strongholds with fraught inter-ethnic relations, in the Rift Valley and in Central Kenya. Moreover, the presidential race, though said to be statistically a dead heat, had indeed an anticipated outcome and reaction, which needed to be violently repressed.

Thus, given the pattern of troop deployment in this year’s election, the electoral contest was not like the tossing of a coin, which would give a 50/50 chance of disappointing or exciting the support base of either incumbent or the opposition, thereby releasing destructive or celebratory pent-up emotions by the supporters of either side.

Rather, the deployment of troops and deadly arsenal for repressing protests, one week to the general election, riot control simulation and outlawing of any form of protest, during or after the election by state agents in places such as Kisumu and Kibra slums suggest that the result was already known, and responses anticipated. Furthermore, the “hotspots” in the cities are mostly the low income residences and slums. There were no troops to be found within the middle class estates or the myriads of Nairobi’s gated communities. Indeed, city politics, as Michael Chege long observed, is won or lost in the slums. It is won or lost in the dark, dirty and litter-strewn alleys of the urban slum, not in the wind-swept Eucalyptus scented and well-lit streets of a Lavington or Karen neighborhoods.

However, the general election period is also the moment when residents of urban slums and low-income neighborhoods have momentary power, in a city that routinely excludes them in multiple ways. It is a moment of excitement, anxiety and apprehension in these places. In other words, the so-called hotspots are areas, where Kenyans have high emotional investments in the outcomes of various electoral contests, especially the presidential election. Arguably, these are a people whose emotional investments in particular outcomes could be sublimated by a credible, free, and fair election.

The so-called hotspots could be the greatest beneficiaries of a voluble demand for a transparent electoral process that produces believable electoral results. Not a deluge of peace messages to the exclusion of concerns for credible, free and fair elections. The killings that have so far been reported in this year’s election occurred in these so-called hotspot areas in the opposition strongholds. These were places that were already marked and mapped out as being impervious to peace messages, and which could only be contained by brutal and lethal use of force by the Kenya government’s multi-agency security team.

Kenya’s 2017 presidential election, it seems, illustrates yet again that a “president can make otherwise” during an electoral process, in spite of the laid down democratic procedures. However, such a process invariably invites resistance, civil or uncivil. Moreover, it seems the incumbents have become adept at anticipating acts of resistance in the name of policing “hotspots”.

Therefore, Kenya suggests that the contest for state power in a competitive authoritarian regime is a dual struggle, a struggle waged in the name of “democracy” through campaigns, manifestoes and political advertisement, on the one hand, and on the other hand, an asymmetrical warfare, where the incumbent is best placed to win nearly all the battle that may arise out of a botched electoral process: the infilitration, control and seizure of the main-decision making organs and processes of the electoral management body, any form of organized protests, civil or uncivil resistance. It is this duality that produces contested presidential results and deaths, perhaps all the deaths that have stalked this year’s election.

* AKOKO AKECH is a graduate student, Makerere Institute of Social Research.



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Comments (1)

  • joseph.mbugua's picture

    Please give us sensible and reasonable commentaries not ethnic bigotry. Peace to the losers is a pretext despite death of over 1000 people in 2007. Allegations of hacking now can't be sustained so the writer turns on security preparedness as supposed threat to democracy. Did IEBC the body with constitutional mandate to oversee elections cite security sector as a hindrance to their work. Did the writer want lack of security as a suitable environment for 'free and fair' elections? The previous IEBC was disbanded courtesy of CORD. The new body is led by people who through ethnic political leaning perceptions in Kenya are associated with NASA, yet the president is accused of conniving with them to deny NASA victory?

    Aug 18, 2017