Kenya’s 2013 election race has a unique feature: a presidential candidate and his running mate charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. What’s more, they are very likely to win, according to the latest opinion polls.
Given Kenya’s turbulent past, if this election proceeds peacefully, it could become an exemplar of post-conflict transformation in Africa. As other African leaders face charges for crimes against humanity, this case could also serve as a precedent.
“It is a real case study of a conflict transformation,” said Vincent Tohbi, head of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) Technical Mission to Kenya. “If Kenya succeeds in getting through this process, it will mean a lot of hope for all the countries in Africa that are going through such crises.”
Kenya will vote in historical general elections on Monday, March 4. These will be the first elections since 2007, when post-electoral violence caused 1,133 deaths and about 600,000 people to be displaced.
Monday’s elections will test the new constitution enacted in 2010, which shifted the power from the state to county level; it will also test the integrity of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and the new Media Council of Kenya.
The constitution stipulates that the winner must earn at least 25 percent of the votes in 24 of the 47 counties to qualify for the highest political office.
Among the eight presidential candidates, only two are likely to win this volume of votes: leading the polls are Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Coalition, finance minister and son of the first Kenyan president, and Raila Odinga of the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), current prime minister and son of the first vice president of the country.
A poll by Ipsos Synovate rated Kenyatta’s popularity at 44.8 percent, only slightly higher than that of his rival Odinga’s 44.4 percent.
Kenyatta is one of the four Kenyan officials charged with inciting the violence that erupted in 2007, along with William Ruto, another candidate for president.
But the court of Kenya decided it is out of its competence to decide if the two men are fit to run for president.
Can we just turn this page without punishing the perpetrators of these crimes? If we do that, don’t we invite more?
—Vincent Tohbi, head of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) Technical Mission to Kenya
“This is a serious issue not only for Kenya, but also for the international community,” said Tohbi. “Can we just turn this page without punishing the perpetrators of these crimes? If we do that, don’t we invite more?”
Some think that as long as indictees are running, it is unlikely there will be free and fair elections.
“This spells doom for the future of democracy in Kenya,” wrote a Kenyan private-sector official who preferred to remain anonymous in an email. “Frankly speaking, I am so scared for this country.”
Still, for others, the decision of the court just reflected the political status quo.
“The ruling was correct,” said Emmanuel Kisiangani, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. “You cannot come up and say they cannot run in the elections, especially as one of them is one of the two main contestants.”
After all, democracy is the ruling of the people by the people, argued Kisiangani.
“If they want Kenyatta Uhuru to govern them, who can oppose the will of the people?” asked Tohbi.
For better or for worse, Kenya is underway to set a precedent in dealing with leaders charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC). If Kenyatta wins and Kenya evades violence, it could be a good lesson for Africa, because some prominent political leaders are similarly being tried in The Hague, such as Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.
“So what is going to happen in Kenya may define the fate of those people who desire to come back to the political arena,” added Tohbi.
However, for the ordinary Kenyan, ICC is the last factor on the list when choosing the president, said Njeri Maina, Kenyan freelance journalist, living in Nairobi.
“The common man thinks like that: Will I have a toilette? Will he put water in the slums? Will my kids go to school? People don’t care about the ICC or Hague. They really don’t,” Njeri said.
Tribal Affiliations Motivate Voters
Despite the profound political, judicial and electoral reforms in the last few years, the tribal factor remains crucial in the upcoming elections.
“The thing that influences people for whom to vote in this country, is tribe,” Njeri said.
The largest tribe in Kenya is Kikuyu, the tribe to which Kenyatta belongs. Kenyatta is also from a very rich family, owning huge chunks of prime land. Njeri thinks this will also tips the scales in his favor.
“So people think: as he is so wealthy, he doesn’t need to steal from us again,” Njeri said.
Raila Odinga, on the other hand, is from the Luo tribe—the fourth largest, according to Kenyan 2009 census statistics. Njeri explained that Kikuyu and Luo have long been rival tribes. After the elections in 2007, many Kikuyus who lived in the Luo areas, such as Kisumu, were forced out, many killed.
Given the Luo acts of violence, Njeri said many Kikuyu will think, “If Raila cannot stop his fanatics, if he is not controlling the Luos, how is he going to govern a country?”
Njeri and many other Kenyans anticipate the elections with mixed emotions of excitement and worry, partly because of the threats of violence, but also because of the elections’ influence on the region.
“It’s scary, it’s exciting and we are anxious,” said Njeri. “You just don’t know, and you are hoping for the best. Everybody is watching us and we are watching ourselves. It is very fascinating!”
“It is important for the whole Sub-Sahara, that we go through this in a very peaceful way, because it affects them in a very positive manner for the next five to ten years.”
The impact of Kenyan elections, positive or negative, will surely be felt across Sub-Saharan Africa, so they have to be watched closely.
Patricia Taft, senior associate at Washington-based Fund for Peace, via email: “Beyond the fact that most of the continent, and indeed the world, will be looking at these elections as a possible bellwether in Africa, there remains the very real possibility that the Kenyan economy will suffer again, causing shocks throughout the rest of the continent.”
“Particularly, in a part of the world where a spark in one country can ignite an entire region,” Taft said, “it is critical that all eyes be on this election, and regional and international leaders must make clear that a violence and chaos such as that which followed the 2007 election will not be tolerated.”
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