East Africa

This time next week, Kenya could be facing another catastrophe

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Next week, Kenyans will vote for their president. That might not sound a particularly noteworthy event – except, if it all goes wrong, it will explode into a disaster with far-reaching consequences. In the 2007/8 election, 1,500 people were killed; it could be even worse this time.

The strange thing about Kenya is that it’s normally relatively peaceful. It is the West’s most important link to East Africa, a vital source of trade and home to 30,000 Western expats. All are endangered by next Monday’s elections.

Kenyans liken their elections to a reoccurring nightmare. No matter how disliked the government is or how corrupt parliamentarians are – they earn over $150,000 a year, as well as liberally awarding themselves perks and ‘send-off bonuses’ – no one looks forward to kicking the bastards out.

To stop people voting for their political opponents, political mobs routinely attack and kill voters to exacerbate ethnic divisions. In three of the four national elections since democratisation in 1992, over 500 people have been killed.

And two of the main alleged culprits might soon be celebrating electoral victory. Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were on different political sides in 2007/8, but found common cause in their political ambition and their indictments by the International Criminal Court.

Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding father, is currently the narrow favourite to win the presidency, with Ruto certain to gain a lucrative post under his administration. So far, so simple.

Except it’s not: the ICC summons for Kenyatta and Ruto is set at a few weeks after the election. A national leader has never previously had to deal with an ICC hearing – as Raila Odinga, current Prime Minister and Kenyatta’s main rival for the presidency, has said, you can’t govern by Skype. And chaos, and a power vacuum, could ensue if Kenyatta and Ruto are found guilty of crimes against humanity.

But there’s plenty to worry about even before that. To prevent a repeat of 2007/08, the security services have been strengthened, the disgraced electoral commission has been revamped and all parties have declared they will respect the results. Inaugural TV debates, too, may also have made the demonisation of other tribes a little harder.

Yet “the underlying causes of past election-related violence remain in place”, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. The ruthlessness of Kenya’s politicians means that Kenya’s 2013 elections could be the most catastrophic yet.

By Tim Wigmore

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