Kenyan election: guest post by George Kahn

My friend George has been traveling in East Africa since October, starting in Ethiopia. He happened to be in Kenya for the elections, and his first-hand account of that fiasco, which he emailed to a few friends, deserves a wider audience. He wrote some illuminating notes on Ethiopia too, so I’d say it’s time he started a travel blog.

There are flawed elections, there are rigged elections and there are Kenyan elections – not a pretty sight.

I have spent practically the entire month of December in Kenya, traveling around and talking (mainly politics) to Kenyans at every opportunity. I really enjoyed the company of Kenyans as they are pretty well educated – already implied by the number of people reading newspapers (starting at the front and going through to the sports pages and not in the reverse order like me). They also have a pretty good command of the English language, so conversations frequently go well beyond the “How are you? What’s your name? What’s your country?” stage. Not least is the fact that they are highly politicised, passionate about their politics, and keen to share their views. Whereas often in the West voting is considered to be a private issue and it is not uncommon for people to consider their vote too private to divulge, the exact opposite is the case in Kenya, where people are all too keen to give you this type of information and back it up with arguments. The depth of analysis behind their choices is often a matter of education level, with many giving well considered opinions.

Kenyan elections reflect the ethnic boundaries of Kenyan politics. The two biggest tribes are the Kikuyu and the Luo and the political allegiances are fairly strictly along these lines. Kenya attained independence in 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta (KANU), a Kikuyu being the first president. Upon his death the presidency was handed over to Daniel Arap Moi (KANU) who belongs to a lesser tribe (Kalenjin) closely associated with the Kikuyu and who managed to hold on to the power for some 24 years by hook or by crook. A pretty fair indication of how much “crook” was involved is indicated by the one simple statistic that he became the richest man in Kenya during his presidency. 5 years ago Mwai Kibaki (PNU) another Kikuyu took over the job until the 2007 elections. So, basically, Kenyan power has been in the hands of the Kikuyu tribe ever since independence.

The 2007 December 27th elections were for all intents and purposes D-day for Kenyan politics – the make or break for Kenyan Democracy which in 44 years has not passed the acid test of a power hand-over. The setting was ripe for this small step for Kibaki yet large step for Kenya to take place as the polls since September almost consistently indicated that the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) with Raila Odinga at the head has been slightly more popular than Kibaki and his Party of National Unity (PNU).

I spent the election evening with a Kenyan family in the very pleasant town of Kericho in the Kenyan Rift Valley towards the southwest of the country. The elections seemed to run squeaky cleanly. The early results seemed to reflect the polls, i.e. an even contest. When I woke up next morning and switched on the tube, a clear lead for Raila seemed to have established itself, and when some two million votes from the 14 million registered voters had been counted it seemed all over bar the shouting. As all of western Kenya favoured the ODM everyone around me had already started counting their chickens, and the mood was elated. I thought it might be time to go around to the local polling booth (council building) where the votes were being counted and announced. Outside, there were hundreds of people lulling around interestedly and maybe with the intent of making sure nothing untoward happens. Inside, people were seated and watched the process unfold. It was all going in favour of the ODM. I interviewed a number of people and they were all elated not only over their win but also over the way it was obtained. Right throughout the month people insisted that there was going to be no violence and this had certainly been the case till that point. By 8pm when over 6 million votes had been counted the difference between the two main parties was some 800,000 votes and in percentages it was 59.1% to 39.7% – a huge margin. In fact I started to wonder how the pollsters could have gotten it so wrong, tipping a 1% difference which ended up becoming some 20%. I started to smell a rat as any half way questioning person might. As it was announced on televison that a declaration of the new president was only a couple of hours away I thought the elections were now an open and shut case and there was no reason for me to delay my trip across to Uganda. As I found out later, apparently this margin ballooned out to a million votes I guess by the time about 7 million votes had been counted.

Then the shit really hit the fan. As I was setting off, the head of the electoral commission (ECK) announced that there would be a delay in making public of further vote counts for some reason or other. As I was traveling by matatu (collective taxi) towards the Ugandan border people started receiving SMS messages about Kibaki hitting back and reducing the deficit to about 200,000 votes. And in no time at all the margin was reduced to zero and Kibaki even managed to establish a lead of some 40,000 votes enough for him to have been handed the presidency again. I think the final count was almost four and a half million apiece, with the only other candidate, Kalinzo of the ODM-Kenya party, coming a distant third (about half a million). So what had actually transpired is that in counting the last two million votes, Kibaki miraculously made ground to the tune of 20% or one million votes, which means that he had won about one and a half of the last two million votes whereas he only managed to get around two and a half out of the first seven million votes. These figures are only rough approximations as my first-hand information stopped on the eve of the 29th. So the rat I had smelled earlier was replaced by a new one of mega proportions.

Now, at this stage the whole election should have been declared null and void, since it did appear early on that Raila Odinga’s team had possibly been rorting the system but Kibaki in turn — late in the game when he had lost for all intent — most definitely did so. So what did the head of the ECK do? In all haste, without inviting any other heads of state, he declared Kibaki the winner. If Kibaki and the ECK would have wanted to create massive bloodshed and a possible civil war, they couldn’t have done a better job of it. Kibaki had been considered by many to have been an honest politician surrounded by dishonest and power hungry cronies. In the post election days, however, he managed to wipe out any sympathy he might have enjoyed, and managed to fall in line with the never ending list of African power grabbing dictators. He knew how historically important it would have been to relinquish power peacefully and hand it over to the opposition. If he had done that, he would have set Kenya truly on the democratic path> He must alos have known that failing to do so would set Kenya back a decade or more. His egocentric actions are in the process of destroying Kenya’s booming economy (which had been buoyant at a 6% growth rate recently) and have endangered the East African community centered on it. But that unfortunately is (with a few exceptions) African politics.

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Bring Back CL's blog
Bring Back CL's blog
16 years ago

very sad.

It is hard to see democracy taking roots when people put tribal loyalties above everything else

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
16 years ago

It’s not just tribal loyalties here. It’s tribal loyalty mixed with righteous indignation.

Imagine the scene in Australia if last election night, after they were calling it a Ruddslide, Howard miraculously comes back after 9PM by garnering 90% of the remaining votes and the electoral commission pre-empt any inquiry by declaring him the winner.

I am not saying there would be mass murder but there would be ugly and violent crowds in the street and plenty of bricks through windows.

Bring Back CL's blog
Bring Back CL's blog
16 years ago


I hear what you are saying however if peole voted without thses tribal loyalties coming into it you woud eliminate a lot but not all of this rotteness.

16 years ago

Is it really impossible to have the elections ran by the UN? Ie counting and everything?

Clearly, it would be horrendously expensive, but in fact trivially so compared to the apparent alternative.

Clearly also, it would be bitterly resisted by governments – but if China and the US could threaten to sever all trade links that would be very very persuasive. I would not even care if we egregiously bribed them into accepting!