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

A number of factors contribute to the potential for an explosion of violence in the period immediately after any Kenyan presidential election, says Muga Wycliffe.




The essential psychology of any Kenyan presidential election was perfectly encapsulated as far back as the 16th century, when the British theologian Richard Hooker observed: “He that goeth about to persuade a multitude that they are not so well governed as they ought to be shall never want attentive and favourable hearers.”

Any Kenyan president seeking reelection is always up against two iron laws of the Kenyan voter psychology: The first is that it is relatively easy for the opposition to persuade the public that they have not received what they deserved from the president and his men, and that it is time to give someone else a chance. The second is that Kenyan voter psychology is still stuck in the long, dark night of the arbitrary “African Big Man” rule, and of single-party authoritarianism. This dates back to the start of independence in1963, when any form of material progress could only come directly from the hand of the imperial president.

About 70% of Kenya’s population consists of rural subsistence farmers or nomadic herdsmen, most of whom live in poverty. To this day – and despite the 2010 Constitution guaranteeing a certain minimum of “devolved funds” for local use in each of the 47 counties that this constitution created  the great majority of Kenyans still believe that the question of whether they will prosper or continue to languish in agrarian or nomadic destitution depends entirely on who is elected president. By the same token, they are likely to blame their continuing poverty on the most recent occupant of State House.


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

Because of this, the only voters whose support any serving president may be sure of are those from his own tribal or regional backyard and the regional backyard of his running mate. In all other parts of the country it is an uphill task to secure any substantive support.

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


The challenge posed by the tribal demographic

And yet the tribal demographic of the country is such that you cannot really hope to win the presidency with the support of just two tribes or regions. You need at least three such regional/tribal vote blocs if you are to get past the 50% mark – the current constitutional requirement for the victorious presidential candidate’s tally. The history of recent presidential elections shows that this is no easy task: Kenya only returned to competitive multiparty elections in 1991. Since then, there have been five elections. In each of them, where there was an incumbent president (or even a prime minister seeking the presidency, as happened in 2013) this incumbent has not been able to get over 50% of the vote.

Daniel arap Moi

In the 1992 general election, the long-serving president Daniel arap Moi got only 36% of the vote, but he won anyway. This was because he faced three relatively strong opponents, each with unshakeable regional support. The US Ambassador of that time, Smith Hempstone – who never bothered to conceal his desire to see Moi lose – was to lament that if those three had only found a way to join forces, they could easily have consigned Moi to the dustbin of history.

But far from landing in any such dustbin, come the 1997 general election, Moi did slightly better and got 40% of all the presidential votes cast. Again, the key to his victory – easily foreseen from a distance, this time around – was that he faced a deeply divided opposition, featuring no less than four “regional political chiefs”, each with their own dedicated supporters.

Read: Why the 2002 Kenyan elections remain a point of reference

In the 2007 general election, serving president Mwai Kibaki was reelected with just 45% of the votes cast. He too benefitted from facing a divided opposition.


Former President of the republic of Kenya Mwai Kibaki. Photo: Demosh/Flickr

And then, in 2013, we had the serving prime minister, Raila Odinga, on the receiving end of the kind of toxic propaganda that he himself in previous elections had directed first at President Moi and then at President Kibaki. Here, too, the result confirmed that anyone coming into an election occupying high office was not likely to get over 50% of the vote: Raila got 44% of the votes cast and lost to Uhuru Kenyatta.

Lingering suspicions of fraud

But the visible rationale for victory in these presidential elections (i.e. that the winner faced a divided opposition) is only one part of the picture. There is also the enduring suspicion that the presidential candidate favoured by the political establishment always gets a fraudulent boost to his tally. This is most blatantly suggested by the improbable turnouts of up to 95% that eventually emerge from the polling stations in that candidate’s regional stronghold. 

There have been broad hints of extensive ballot-box stuffing in virtually every presidential election to date.

There have been broad hints of extensive ballot-box stuffing in virtually every presidential election to date. All this contributes to the potential for an explosion of violence in the period immediately after any Kenyan presidential election.

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

On the one hand you have the expectation that a certain degree of ballot stuffing is likely to take place one way or another. (This possibility has been repeatedly emphasised by the opposition National Super Alliance, NASA, in this election, leading to their “adopt a polling station” strategy, designed to allegedly “protect their votes from being stolen”.) On the other hand, you have a well-documented history of Kenyan presidents always managing to somehow grab victory from what had appeared to be the jaws of unavoidable defeat.

You have a well-documented history of Kenyan presidents managing to somehow grab victory from what had appeared to be the jaws of unavoidable defeat.

This sets the stage for opposition leaders to make the claim – one that is readily believable to their supporters – that if indeed the president does win, then this can only be a consequence of massive electoral fraud.

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

Complicating this picture further is the fact that in this election the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is facing a firmly united opposition, one that is quite unlike the splintered irreconcilable opposition parties of the past. This is a completely new factor in Kenyan politics; certainly something that no previous Kenyan president has had to face.

President Uhuru Kenyatta faces a firmly united opposition, unlike the splintered irreconcilable opposition parties of the past.

Add all this up and you can see why Kenya goes into the 2017 general election with the country overwhelmingly tense about the likely outcome of this vote and its potentially violent consequences.


This is partly a legacy of the 2007 election, which resulted in unprecedented violence. This violence is deemed to have been triggered by the spectacle of the challenger, Raila Odinga, leading by a wide margin all day as the vote tallies trickled in, and then– in a surprise turn – the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, suddenly piling on enough votes to squeeze out a very narrow victory late in the evening.

Both the Kenyan Electoral Commission, which had managed that election, and the international Independent Review Commission (IREC), chaired by Judge Johann Kriegler from South Africa, which had been established specifically to look into this election, were to declare that it was not possible to determine who had really won that presidential election. It is this shadow of potential illegitimacy that has haunted Kenyan governments ever since. As Kenyans, we all wonder: Once the ballot counting is over, will we really know who actually won that election? This is a potent question, especially in a situation where each side has been loud in their declarations that their opponents had no chance at all of winning the presidency.

Worse still is this question: Will the loser be able to look at the evidence presented in the final tally and concede defeat? We will know soon enough.