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The 2017 election in Kenya – hopes, fears and propaganda

As Kenyans head to the polls on 8 August 2017, they are once again poised at the cusp of history, where old battles and the possibility of new beginnings merge. Yet the most salient feature of this election has been the cloud of propaganda hovering above the unsaintly mix of the hopes and fears of a nation.



A woman votes in the previous elections in Kenya. Photo: Demosh/Flickr

It is 21 March 1988, election day in Kenya. The president, Daniel arap Moi, had dissolved Parliament on 5 February and organised Kenya African National Union (KANU) party nominations on 22 February. There would be 796 candidates, vying for 188 constituencies. The election administration also introduced queue voting, the infamous mlolongo. Voters lined up at polling stations behind their preferred candidate or their symbol, and were counted manually. There was nothing like a secret ballot and the state watched your choices with keen interest.

On that day, the voter turnout was very low. Out of 5 562 981 registered voters, only 2 264 381 voted – a figure of 41%. In a single-party state, KANU won all 188 seats– 186 were men, 2 were women. However, even in those nefarious circumstances, the will of the people was heard to some degree: 80 members of the previous House were defeated, among them three Cabinet Ministers and 23 Assistant Ministers. As expected, Moi had won himself a third term in office. Three days later, he ballooned his government by appointing 34 Cabinet Ministers and 70 Assistant Ministers.

Sons following in the footsteps of their fathers

Fast forward to 8 August 2017. It is once again election day in Kenya. There are 19 611 423 registered voters, spread across 40 883 polling stations. The incumbent battling for re-election is Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, the person his successor, Moi, fingered in 2002 to succeed him. The challenger, going for the prize a fourth time, is Raila Odinga, the son of Kenya’s first vice president, Oginga Odinga, the man who had insisted that KANU would not take part in government until Jomo Kenyatta was freed from detention. His efforts handed Jomo Kenyatta the presidency – and then they fell out.


Kenya Election Posters
Image Courtesy: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Flickr/Global Panorama

Read: The psychology of the Kenyan presidential election – a historical and cultural perspective

In his book Not Yet Uhuru, Oginga Odinga recounts the beginning of the allegations that he was a communist stooge out to destabilise the Kenyan government. On 30 March 1962 the Kenyan newspaper East African Standard carried a report that Oginga wanted to take over the country by totalitarian means. This fear by KANU stalwarts – “fighting a battle against Mr Odinga’s communist influence and the threat of revolution” – two years before Kenya became a republic, was to characterise the early years of the country’s independence. This drove a wedge between Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga, sowing the seeds for multi-party politics and the rise of opposition parties.

Fear-mongering as campaign tool

The same fear exists today. On the campaign trail, Uhuru and his deputy, William Ruto, have severally being quoted as telling their supporters that Raila was power hungry and wanted to take power “through the back door” – read “through unconstitutional means” – especially when Raila calls for demonstrations against the regime, or even independent institutions like the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The fear of Raila Odinga presidency was the central rallying cry for the Uhuru Kenyatta-led TNA in 2013 and now for Jubilee Party in 2017. 

Raila Odinga Kenya opposition presidential candidate for the 8th August general Elections. Photo: railaodinga/twitter

In a “re-elect Uhuru or you’ll suffer” campaign, Ferdinand Waititu, the Jubilee Party’s gubernatorial candidate for Kiambu County, warned that Kikuyus “would be forced to wear shorts instead of trousers” and that people “would sneeze using their elbows” if they voted for Raila Odinga. This was in addition to thinly veiled reporting by security agencies that unnamed (opposition) politicians were seeking funding from the West or political players in the region to destabilise the Jubilee Party’s administration, or that the West was funding the opposition and civil society to plan and carry out a civilian coup. These strategies have proved to be fairly effective propaganda for shoring up Kenyatta and Ruto’s political strongholds against any incursion by the opposition.

In 2013, the Supreme Court upheld Kenyatta’s election, based on his having garnered 50.07% of the vote, against Raila’s 43,28%. Minutes after the ruling, outside the courtroom, the police shot tear-gas canisters at opposition supporters demonstrating against the ruling. Raila Odinga disagreed with but accepted the court’s verdict. In a televised speech hours later, Uhuru thanked Odinga and assured Kenyans that “my government will work with and serve all Kenyans without discrimination.” It was an election won on anti-Raila and anti-ICC propaganda.

The Uhuruto duo (Uhuru and Ruto) started off well, but five years later, an item-by-item analysis does not yield a favourable assessment of their performance.

The Uhuruto duo (Uhuru and Ruto) started off well, in matching white shirts and red ties, to implement the many promises in the harmonised manifesto of the Jubilee Coalition but, five years later, an item-by-item analysis does not yield a favourable assessment of their performance – depending on who you ask, as we say in Kenya.


Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta speaks during the opening ceremony of the Pre-Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) Expo, 22 July 2015. Photo: Ministry of East African Affairs, Commerce and Tourism (MEAACT)/Stuart Price/Flickr

The economic reality of life in Kenya

Kenyans continue to suffer from grand corruption, a high cost of living, insecurity, persistent strikes in the health and education sector, skyrocketing domestic and external debt and an economy that continues to midwife massive layoffs in the private sector and the exodus of key industries to (neighbouring) countries with better business environments. Not even the construction and launch of one of the biggest achievements of the government, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), which runs from the port city of Mombasa to the capital city, Nairobi, has been free from corrupt dealings.

Read: Kenya’s opposition needs more than a coalition to win the polls

These failures have been free bullets to the opposition, and it has maintained a consistent onslaught, even as they galvanised their support bases around the National Super Alliance (NASA), the coalition that is challenging Uhuru’s reelection. In opposition campaigns, Uhuru has been portrayed as a drunk driver, with his deputy, the conductor, as a thief. The clear message is that they are incompetent to run the country.

The five key Kenya opposition leaders during the historic rally to name flag bearer in Nairobi, from left to right – Raila Odinga (ODM), Musalia Mudavadi (Amani), Isaac Rutto (CCM), Moses Wetang’ula (Ford Kenya), and Kalonzo Musyoka (WDM). Photo: RailaOdinga/twitter

Talking to NTV’s Larry Madowo last year, the former anti-corruption czar, John Githongo, labelled the Jubilee regime “the most corrupt government in Kenya’s history”. It is no longer possible to keep up with corruption scandals, whether real or perceived, and the magnitude of the heists, real or perceived, has dwarfed what was initially paraded as grand corruption. Boniface Mwangi, an activist and a favourite for the Starehe Constituency MP seat, has decried: “Other countries have a mafia. In Kenya, the mafia have a country.”

With just a few days to the election, rosy manifestos are on display, propaganda is swirling on Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and in the newspapers, and there are incessant calls for ‘peace’ as more and more Kenyans run to safe ground should violence erupt. All hope for a free and fair election now resides on the hands of the IEBC.


Kenyan journalists react after police fired tear gas at them during a demonstration by anti-corruption protesters demanding President Uhuru Kenyatta to act on corruption or resign, in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, 03 November 2016. Kenyan police fired tear gas at protesters, led by a prominent civil rights activist Boniface Mwangi, and at journalists who were covering them. Hundreds of protesters gathered in response to reports by local media that some 50 million US dollars were misappropriated at the health ministry. Photo: ANP/ EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

The murder of Christopher Msando

Over the weekend, Christopher Msando, the IEBC ICT manager, was murdered, an event that has been linked to attempts to destabilise the electronic voting infrastructure. The possibility of rigging has persisted over the years and the murder of Mr Msando just days before the election has raised these fears.


Christopher Msando, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s ICT manager, was murdered, an event that has been linked to attempts to destabilise the electronic voting infrastructure.

There is no doubt that Kenya has steadily been reforming its election management systems, away from the days of the mlolongo. The 2017 election will be managed by an IEBC emboldened by the 2010 Constitution. Kenya has grown by leaps and bounds from the early days of the Office of the Supervisor of Elections (OSE), which operated under the Attorney General’s office and the direct manipulation of the Office of the President, to a fairly independent institution today.

There is no doubt that Kenya has steadily been reforming its election management systems, away from the days of the mlolongo.

On 8August 2017, the IEBC will manage the election of 15 082 candidates vying for various positions. It is a Herculean task and the outcome will determine the trajectory of the country for the next five years. I wish the Kenyan people a free, fair and credible election.