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The 2013 general elections as a tipping point

With elections in March 2013 Antony Otieno Ong’ayo reflects on how ethnicity has become politicised in Kenya’s past violent elections and argues that the forthcoming election is a bridge between stagnation and a forward leap towards a middle-income country


The political violence and near eruption of a civil war in the aftermath of the botched 2007 general election in Kenya is still fresh in the memory of Kenyans and the world at large. It took the efforts of Kofi Annan and the Panel of Eminent African Personalities to extinguish the flames of self-destruction that had engulfed the country, by cobbling a power sharing arrangement that prevented Kenya from state-collapse. The country once touted as an oasis of peace in Africa almost burnt because of a political culture in which impunity, politicised ethnicity and access to the state largesse through ethnic prism has been the hallmarks of its governance system since independence.

In the history of Kenya, electioneering periods have always witnessed intense competition for political power and political violence of different magnitudes. Examples include the ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley Province prior to the 1992 election, and similar clashes in the Rift Valley and Coast Provinces prior to the 1997 election. However, the more open conflict that engulfed the entire country as in 2008 was incomprehensible. The major underlying factor is politicised ethnicity, a practice that has been part of the electoral and representative politics in Kenya since its independence in 1963. It is an area where Kenya has refused to grow as a nation, where different sub-nationalities co-existing in one polity.

On 4 March 2013, Kenya will be going into another general election, which is critical for its stability and future. The forthcoming election is a bridge between stagnation and forward leap towards a middle-income country as outlined its vision 2030. It is also a historical moment in Kenya’s nation building and democratic transition because the full implementation of its progressive constitution hinges on the outcome of the forthcoming general election. The leadership that will emerge from this electoral process will be vital for the entrenchment of the new constitutional dispensation in the everyday governance practice in Kenya. The significance of the forthcoming elections is not only about structural changes, but also about one that will recalibrate the mind-sets of Kenyans in terms of accepting the plural and multicultural nature of the Kenyan polity. It could present a second opportunity for a person from a non-entitled community to take the national leadership. Breaking such a historical glass ceiling in Kenya will dispel the myths that have kept various sub-nationalities in Kenya in a political container of systematic marginalisation


The forthcoming general election has the potentials for state restructuring and the establishment of the necessary institutional, policy and legislative frameworks that would safeguard the interests of the multicultural polity that Kenya is today. Kenya is a melting pot of nations, sub-nations, and transnational citizens. In Kenya, we have Africans of very different backgrounds; Asians of Indian, Arab, and Persian backgrounds; Europeans of American and continental Europe backgrounds, besides hundreds of thousands of African migrants who have found a home in Kenya either as refugees or as labour immigrants. The place of Kenya in Africa is indisputable due to its geo-political and economic position, and as a regional hub and host for internationals institutions, which adds to its rich multicultural heritage.

The unfortunate reality is that the there is still no political will to create and entrench a system of governance that balances the plural nature and interest of the diverse groups in Kenya. As a result, Kenyans remain deeply polarized along ethnic lines especially during electioneering periods. This is because acquisition and retention of political power in Kenya holds key to state resources for co-ethnics and the elite from the ruling communities who will always try to reclaim or retain power by any means necessary including manipulation of the electoral process. The notion of pluralism as used in politics denote a theoretical standpoint on state and power, which to varying degrees, suggest an adequate model of how power is distributed in societies. In this regard, groups compete in a fair manner to access state power. Depressingly enough, the political competition in Kenya as witnessed in the on-going campaigns shows the struggles between the dominant forces behind the status quo and representation of impunity and those that have waged decade-long struggles to safeguard the interests of the majority of the citizenry. What we observe is the emergence ethnic-oriented and purposely formed for retaining political power and state resources in the communities that feel entitled to the Kenyan leaderships for reasons that are myopic and draconian.


Following the 2008 crisis, the National Accord and Reconciliation Act negotiated by Koffi Annan recommended fundamental changes regarding the political system and grievances around historical injustices that contributed to the post-election violence. Moreover, with the election date drawing closer, apprehension and anxiety is beginning to grip the citizenry. The traumatic experiences from the post-election violence in 2007 and failure of the government to address the underlying factors as observed in Agenda Four of the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Accord, have made majority of Kenyans to realize that the old order is not going to disappear through regular multiparty elections. It is an entrenched system whose beneficiaries trample on the Kenyan economic and political landscape like an out of space colossal monster. A system that only benefits a few local capitalists and the political elites whose interests are served by the status-quo of weak state institutions, unaccountable leadership, political corruption, and impunity. It is this group whether in the public domain or in the background that has placed huge bottlenecks in Kenyans transition especially after the posy election violence. The change that Kenyans desire to have is not in their best interest and as a result, the group has attempted to scuttle the constitutional dispensation using every trick from the dirty books of post-colonial Kenyan leadership. The mentality of our turn to eat has and feelings of entitlement and arrogance has blocked this group mainly composed of ethnic chauvinists from seeing the long-term interest of their co-ethnics and possible grand children in a Kenya that belongs to all who belong in it.


Despite some significant achievements by the Kibaki led-government especially in terms of improved infrastructure, economic growth, increased access to basic education, and expanded political freedoms, Kibaki’s regime has also brought back the issue of ethnicity in the public sphere to levels that seem to suppers his predecessors. Kibaki’s government has been embroiled in a number of flagrant official economic and political corruptions, which is contrary to his inaugural promise to end the pervasive corruption that was the hallmark of both Kenyatta and Moi regimes. Looting of public coffers has increased threefold, in terms of the volumes that are involved through official contracts, government procurement, inflation of public project costs or omission of substantial digits in the national budget on the pretext of technical computer errors. Large segments of the Kenyan masses are still in poverty, experience cyclical droughts, and floods, lack basics such as water, health care, education, and housing. Moreover, the imbalances in regional development in terms of infrastructure development and decades of economic and political marginalization especially in the northern, coastal, and western regions and challenges of insecurity because of youth unemployment are some of the factors that will still inform the choices of voters in the coming elections. However, this will only depend on how loud the ethnic drums will beat, and what kind of new tunes will emerge for the purpose of political expediency and retention of power where it belongs regardless of the costs. With such realities, any desired change in Kenya will only take place when the citizenry consciously refuses to give up their “agency” to the Kenyan political class and the “middle class” that derives their opulent lifestyle from the status quo in Nairobi.


The 2013 general elections will therefore offer an interesting political litmus test for the new constitutional dispensation and path to democratization in Kenya. Despite the periodic setbacks largely occasioned by the lack of political will to engage in a serious national building process, Kenya has always emerged as a country that can rebound back even in the face of near state-collapse. The forthcoming elections will once again test Kenya’s resilience. Ethnicity in Kenya is here to stay, but Kenyans must find better ways of dealing with it, making use of its positive sides by accepting that sub-nations can live and work together in one polity. The forthcoming elections present Kenyans with an opportunity for societal transformation and a moment to lay a good foundation for social cohesion and nation state building. However, confronting both the voters and politicians alike is the question of the implications of a scenario in which politicians that have been indicted at the International Criminal Court due to crimes against humanity following the 2008 post-election violence may assume the national leadership? What would the implications for Kenya becoming a pariah state from economic and geo-political and economic perspectives? What signals will such a scenario send to the segments of the Kenyan population that is still yearning for justice in the aftermath of the post-election violence in Kenya and redress of the historical injustices that the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation Agenda Item 4 pointed out as the fundamental underpinning of the post-election violence? Last, where does such a scenario leave the Kenyan stride towards a democratic transition? With such a scenario, will Kenya manage to come off the yoke of corruption and culture of impunity? These issues rest with Kenyans as well as the international community whose interests are embedded in the socio-economic and political dynamics in Kenya.

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Antony Otieno Ong’ayo is a PhD Researcher at the International Development Studies, Human Geography Department, and Faculty of Geosciences in Utrecht University. He is also a Research Fellow at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM), Maastricht/Brussels, and the African Migration and Development Policy Centre (AMADPOC) in Nairobi, and a member of the Advisory Board, Research Group Globalisation, Aging, and Health Care in the Netherlands, Tilburg University, and Marga Klompe Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected]