In Kenya and around the world, anxiety is mounting about the potential for violence following the August 8 national elections. Incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta is leading opposition candidate Raila Odinga by 55 percent to 45 percent, or more than one million votes. Odinga is characterizing the still-unofficial election results as a “sham, fictitious, and fake.” He claims that Kenyatta’s Jubilee party hacked the computers of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. Already, there are reports of violence and killings during post-election protests across many parts of the country.
The voting itself, however, appears to have gone well, and there was little or no violence. This follows a frequent African pattern of peaceful voting. Violence tends to break out only after the results are announced or leak out. Even though the Kenyan voting went well, there were enough irregularities—late delivery of ballots, late opening of polls, and instances of failure of the biometric technology—to raise questions. At this point, however, Odinga is not questioning the voting. Rather, he is claiming that the ballot counting has been compromised by “hacking”. For his followers, the pre-election murder of the election official responsible for technology will lead credence to his accusation. Elsewhere in Africa, notably Nigeria, election rigging occurs most successfully during the ballot counting process, rather than at polling stations.
The future depends on whether the general Kenyan public accepts the results of the election or if it splits largely along ethnic lines corresponding to party affiliation. Much will also depend on how Kenyatta and Odinga respond. The two leaders can inflame their followers through rhetoric, or they can urge calm and the peaceful resolution of election disputes through the courts. Kenyatta has said that he will accept the results, and has urged his supporters to return home after voting. The Odinga camp, on the other hand, has been more ambiguous; Odinga has urged his supporters in Nairobi to gather at a downtown park, while his vice presidential running mate has urged calm. The personal and political stakes are particularly high for Odinga, who, at age 73, has likely run his last presidential campaign, win or lose. During the campaign, both assured their followers of the inevitability of their victory, and did nothing to prepare them for the possibility of defeat. Indeed, pre-election polls showed the two candidates neck-in-neck, which may raise doubts about Kenyatta’s very large lead.
The behavior of the Kenyan army and police will also be crucial, neither of which Kenyans hold in high esteem. The police appear to be especially corrupt, as they demonstrated in their response to the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall terrorist attack. Neither is known for subtlety. Some Odinga supporters saw the deployment of military units to polling stations as part of a Kenyatta effort to intimidate them.
Kenyans will pay close attention to the conclusions of international observers, such as the Carter Center delegation led by former Secretary John Kerry and the African Union observers led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. On August 7, former president Barack Obama, in a rare public statement, inter alia, called on Kenya’s political leaders to reject violence and the security services to behave professionally. He urged election disputes to be resolved in the courts according to the rule of law. For many Kenyans, Barack Obama has a unique standing because his father was a Kenyan Luo (as is Odinga), and because of his administration’s emphasis on human rights and democratic governance.
These are dangerous times for Kenya. Too often international attention to high-profile African elections wanders as soon as the voting concludes. Observer delegations quickly draft a report and then leave. In the United States, North Korea is the current focus, not Africa. There is still no Assistant Secretary of State for Africa to sustain attention on Kenya or other African issues. Yet the stakes for the United States in the successful conclusion of the Kenyan elections are considerable. Kenya is the east African nation with which Washington has an important dialogue, especially on security and counter-terrorism, not least with respect to Somalia, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. Post-election violence in Kenya could seriously disrupt that conversation, while successful elections in Kenya would be an important, democratic example for its neighbors, notably the Great Lakes countries.