Kenya: a president elected – or perhaps not?
After a tense week of waiting, Kenya’s electoral commission has declared William Ruto winner of the presidential race with just over half of the votes. His opponent, Raila Odinga, has rejected the results, claiming corruption in the electoral commission and vowing to go to court. As uncertainty continues, it’s incumbent on both candidates to abide by constitutional processes to resolve the matter, keep calling for calm and do nothing to inflame their support bases. Whichever candidate ultimately prevails should also act on the disaffection that saw many young people decide not to vote and commit to reversing the government’s attacks on civil society.
On 9 August Kenyans went to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly and the Senate, county governors, members of county assemblies and, most importantly, the country’s new president.
The presidential contest was a battle between two established political figures: Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister, and William Ruto, the outgoing Deputy President. It proved a tight race and the results reflect a divided electorate.
After a week of waiting, Ruto was declared winner with just over half of the vote. Predictably, given the tight margin, Odinga has rejected the result, declaring it ‘null and void’ and refusing to concede defeat. Ruto has called for unity, and so far there has been relative calm, but the country remains on edge given its recent history of electoral violence in the wake of disputed elections.
With Odinga contesting the results, matters are still far from settled and the picture remains uncertain.
Odinga vs. Ruto
Raila Odinga, a member of Kenya’s Luo ethnic community, is a veteran politician. 2022 was his fifth attempt to become president, following bids in 1997, 2007, 2013 and 2017. This time, he was supported by his former political rival, outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta. Their surprise agreement sent shock waves across Kenya. It was viewed as a strategic move to ensure victory by the two parties that joined together.
As part of his platform, Odinga proposed a healthcare-for-all plan called BabaCare and an extension of social protection provisions through monthly cash transfers to vulnerable Kenyans. He also promised to revive the agricultural and manufacturing sectors and take on corruption.
Joining Odinga’s campaign as his running mate was another veteran politician, Martha Karua, who stood to become Kenya’s first female Deputy President. She’s from the Kikuyu heartlands of south-central Kenya, home to the country’s largest ethnic group. Karua is a known defender of human rights and has taken strong stance against corruption in the past. With her on the ticket, Odinga gained credibility among supporters of social justice, gender equality and political transparency.
William Ruto, of the Kalenjin ethnic group, started his campaign on the back foot. After falling out with Kenyatta and being kicked out of the ruling party, Ruto joined forces with the United Democratic Alliance in the run-up to the elections.
Ruto has a political career dating back decades but sought to position himself as an outsider fighting against a powerful political elite from which his opponents hail. Although a billionaire, Ruto grew up on a farm and sold chicken on the roadside to support his family. He leaned on this background, promoting himself as a ‘hustler’ and advocate for low-income people.
Though he lost the support of Kenyatta, who is also from the Kikuyu ethnic group, Ruto gained favour in the Kikuyu-dominated Mount Kenya region by selecting Rigathi Gachagua as his running mate. Gachagua, a business leader and outgoing member of parliament, holds significant sway in the area. With competition stiff for the Kikuyu vote, this allowed Ruto to recover from his break with Kenyatta.
It may have been a tight race, but undecided voters could point to key weaknesses with both candidates.
Odinga and Kenyatta’s alliance may have offered hope that the typically divided Kikuyu and Luo communities could be bridged and the election might not be defined along ethnic lines. However, many Kikuyu people rejected the alliance.
Kenyatta’s endorsement also meant Odinga had to run as the continuity candidate, reversing his previous criticism of the outgoing president and government. This perhaps hurt his credibility, made him look like an opportunist and hampered his campaigning style.
The Ruto campaign also offered hopes of bridging ethnic divides, connecting Kalenjin and Kikuyu people, often politically at odds, through Ruto and Gachagua. However, a corruption scandal involving Gachagua dampened the potential value of having him on the ticket: in July, a court ordered Gachagua to hand over to the government approx. US$87,000 that it judged to the proceeds of corruption. This offered a hint of the corruption and self-interested actions many Kenyan politicians are accused of.
Odinga’s running mate Karua was also a mixed success with the public. In a country where following the 2017 elections only 23 per cent of parliamentarians were women – despite a constitutional mandate that no more than two-thirds should be men – her presence on a major ticket was seen as an important step for inclusion. Karua had strong support from urban and educated Kenyans and civil society personnel due to her human rights record.
However, Karua was less popular in rural Kenya, where people are likelier to hold socially conservative views about women’s roles. Violence towards some women candidates on the campaign trail showed how challenging conditions are. Others supported her bid for the vice-presidency but were not convinced her election would be enough to make a difference in government.
Both presidential candidates faced criticism for their platforms. Odinga’s cash transfer plan was met with scepticism because he failed to outline how the government would generate income for the programme. Meanwhile Ruto’s ‘bottom-up’ campaign, though successful in winning support from small business owners and low income earners, drew criticism given his own wealth and the lack of development of his home region.
Many saw the election as an internal dispute within the elite. While politically positioned as opposites, Odinga and Ruto are both part of a political establishment widely seen as corrupt and responsible for everyday problems. Many wanted to see much stronger action on two key issues: high unemployment and the soaring cost of living.
Record low participation
While Ruto and Odinga battled for every vote, a sizeable part of the electorate opted for neither. In the run-up to the election, interest was at a record low among under-35 year-olds. This is a huge group: under-35s make up 75 per cent of Kenya’s population, and 40 per cent of those registered to vote are between 18 and 35. The number of young people who registered to vote in these elections dropped by 5.3 per cent compared to 2017.
This speaks not of apathy as much as disaffection at the electoral choice on offer, and a broader lack of faith in electoral politics as an arena to solve problems. Young people are active in demanding change, articulating ideas and leading and participating in social movements. Their refusal to vote is a damning indictment of Kenya’s institutional politics and a protest at systemic corruption, elitism and the political gate-keeping that makes standing in elections the preserve of the wealthy, excluding many young people, and young women in particular.
The experience of violence may be another reason why some stayed away. Since 2007, when over 1,000 people died in post-election violence, some Kenyans have rejected ethnically focused appeals. Both presidential candidates were involved in the deadly disputed elections of 2007.
Ruto was charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, as was Kenyatta, but in both cases, the charges were ultimately dropped amid claims witnesses had been pressured to retract evidence. This was a huge blow to those seeking redress for the violence, who now face having a president they see as having escaped justice. Memories of the dreadful events and lack of justice possibly discouraged some from going to the polls, as did incidences of violence at some events in 2022.
Voices from the frontline
Ken Ogembo is programme manager of Siasa Place, a Kenyan civil society organisation that promotes youth participation in politics and educates people about the importance of voting and holding the government accountable.
There are a number of factors that could have possibly contributed to low voter turnout, but I think it is first and foremost about people being demotivated from voting because they do not see any change happening as a result of elections. Government corruption is pervasive no matter who is in the government, and economic performance is consistently poor. Public services are of very low quality: there are not enough healthcare facilities, doctors are often going on strike, markets are dirty. Youth unemployment continues to be very high, and most people don’t think this will change, so many do not see any reason for voting.
We also need to look at how candidates are nominated. Presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s party, Azimio la Umoja, did not conduct democratic internal processes in most of its strongholds and often nominated people who had long been in power and had performed dismally. People are discouraged from voting when they think their voices do not matter.
I would also say it is also ignorance that drives young people away from the polls. They should understand that regardless of whether they get out to vote, a government will get elected and will rule over them. The fact that they did not vote takes away their moral authority to question those in power. Of course they still have a constitutional right to do so, but their questioning will lack substance and they will not have any alternative to offer.
Through our engagement with young people, we have noticed they lack confidence in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IBEC), the institution that manages elections, which many consider unable to deliver free and fair elections. They view it as pointless to go out and vote if the IBEC can’t ensure their votes will count.
This is probably a mistake, because there have been improvements in the electoral process, including by making it clear that the results received from voting stations are final. However, the IBEC still has a lot of work to do make people trust the electoral process.
Finally, I think the government played a huge role by not providing any civic education. It only started doing the basics when it was already too late, as most people who didn’t vote had already made up their minds not to. And when the government did, the content was not of the right kind, in the sense that would make people understand why voting is important and how to play their role as citizens.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Ken. Read the full interview here.
Civil society in action
The run-up to the election was characterised by growing pressure on civic space, including violent attacks on protests, political interference in the media and judiciary, and attacks on journalists and LGBTQI+ rights groups. The situation might have been even worse if the courts had not blocked an attempt by the government to weaken constitutional protections of freedoms: in March 2022 the Supreme Court upheld a verdict that Kenyatta’s so-called ‘Building Bridges Initiative’ was unconstitutional.
In 2021 the government also instructed international civil society organisations (CSOs) and foreign governments not to put any resources into civic education without express government approval, something that could directly work against voter awareness and registration. When resources did come, it was very late in the process, leaving many CSOs unable to do effective work.
Our job as civil society is to advocate on people’s behalf, inform them about the process and raise awareness of their rights. But most of us were denied the right to do our work due to lack of resources.
Despite these constraints, civil society was active on several fronts during the campaign. Organisations like Mzalendo Trust worked ahead of the election to try to encourage young people to make their votes count. Grassroots campaigners organised drives to get their communities out to the polls on voting day.
At the same time, thousands took to the streets calling for a boycott of the elections to call attention to issues neither candidate seemed willing to tackle, particularly the high cost of living. Support for street protests was amassed on social media. Organisations like Kongamano la Mapinduzi (Conference of the Revolution), the Fight Inequality Alliance and the Mukuru Youth Initiative coordinated twitterstorms and social media campaigns to highlight the demands of poorer people, usually denied a voice in Kenyan politics.
Other organisations focused on monitoring the election process. The Elections Observation Group, a CSO coalition, tallied the votes and confirmed the official results issued by the electoral commission.
CSOs also worked to ensure a safer and more peaceful election than its predecessors. The Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, a civil society network, put forward measures for a peaceful election and held a peace walk to encourage people from all walks of life to respect the democratic process. Several other groups participated in peace marches in the run up to election day.
International CSOs such as the Global Peace Foundation and Mercy Corps monitored hate speech online and advocated for calm to prevent hostilities escalating into violence.
A tight result
Ahead of the vote, polls predicted an exceptionally close race. Most showed Odinga wining by a narrow margin, but as the counting progressed, a small but clear Ruto lead was confirmed.
To win required not just securing over half of the vote but also receiving at least 25 per cent of the vote in at least 24 of Kenya’s 47 counties. Ruto surpassed both thresholds, squeaking through with 50.5 per cent of the vote compared with Odinga’s 48.8 per cent.
Voter turnout in poorer areas was strong, but weaker in middle-income areas. This imbalance likely played a role in pushing the ‘hustler’ politician over the line. Ruto’s scored a landslide win in Mount Kenya, stronghold of Kikuyu people and the largest voting bloc in the country.
Overall turnout dropped to around 65 per cent in comparison to the 78 per cent who voted in 2017 and 83 per cent in 2013, indicating a clear trend of disaffection, with millions of Kenyans no longer seeing the point in voting. But the good news was that at most polling stations the process was peaceful, and violence after the announcement of results has been limited.
In several past Kenyan elections, tight races were followed by surges of violence, the worst by far being that of 2007. A decade later in 2017, when Kenyatta’s victory over Odinga was announced violence erupted and at least 24 people were killed. The police were accused of unlawful killings.
In August 2017 Odinga claimed fraud and took his case to the Supreme Court, which overturned the result of the presidential race and ordered a rerun. When the presidential election was held again in October, Odinga boycotted the vote, claiming it lacked credibility, delivering a landslide Kenyatta win.
In 2022, Odinga is again challenging the results. He has accused the electoral body of corruption and has suggested he will again take the matter to the courts. The results have been endorsed by a range of independent observers, which overall have considered the process transparent. However, Odinga will be bolstered by the fact that four of the seven members of the electoral commission resigned and disowned the results; they have since been accused of trying to force a rerun. No presidential election has gone uncontested in Kenya since 2002, making a court battle inevitable after such a tight result.
With public trust in Kenya’s institutions standing at just 26 per cent and given the country’s track record of post-electoral violence, fears remain of an escalation of violence. So far, there have only been small pockets of unrest, with Odinga’s supporters burning tyres and hurling stones. The cross-ethnic nature of both presidential tickets may have lowered the chances of ethnic conflict erupting.
In contrast with their fiery reputations, both Ruto and Odinga have called for calm. Ruto has communicated his intention to participate in any legal process to validate the election results, and Odinga seems committed to seeing this through.
Both sides need to keep resisting the temptation to make inflammatory calls, respect constitutional processes and abide by their outcomes. It’s necessary not only to avoid violence but also to restore public faith in democracy. This means the new president, when confirmed, must act on pressing economic issues, stop attacking civil society and give the disaffected millions a reason to vote next time.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government must launch an independent and transparent investigation into all claims of election irregularities.
Both Ruto and Odinga should continue calling for calm, follow the mechanisms for dispute resolution provided by the constitution and accept their outcomes.
The new president should commit to reversing attacks on civil society and enabling civic space.
Kenya is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Cover photo by Ed Ram/Getty Images