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The Kenyan Election: Temper Your Optimism

The Kenyan Election: Temper Your Optimism

[The Star]

There is little doubting that the Kenyan elections just passed went a whole lot better than the last ones, in 2007, that resulted in widespread violence and chaos. December 2007 and January 2008 saw bloodshed that some observers chalked up to simple tribal and ethnic clashes. But that simplistic assessment reduced complex political contexts to hoary cliches that evoked deepest, darkest Africa. Nonetheless, there was considerable fear of a reprise of those awful weeks as this year’s election approached.

But that Kenya avoided the despair of just over five years ago hardly means that the recent elections went especially well. First, the outcome itself may be seen as sub-optimal. According to official results Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of one of the country’s liberation heroes and the country’s first post-independence president, won just a shade over 50% of the vote, sufficient to grant him an outright victory with no need for a runoff. But Raila Odinga, the current Prime Minister who came in second in this election as he officially did in 2007, plans to contest the results  And while observers have generally declared the closely contested election to have been relatively clean (compared to 2007 in particular) there have been more than a few signs of irregularities and there was some violence in the run-up that are attributable to the country’s larger political divisions.

But more to the point, Kenyatta’s victory is, to say the least, problematic. Kenyatta faces charges in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his involvement in fomenting violence in 2007 and 2008. Going forward his Presidency will be tainted in the eyes of vast swathes of the country, the legitimacy of the most recent election itself notwithstanding. The fact that ICC prosecution filed a motion on Monday seeking to drop all charges against former head of civil service Francis Muthaura may well mean that the charges against Kenyatta will come next, but it is hard not to take a cynical view that the ICC decision is more one of political expediency than legal legitimacy. That will be the view of many in Kenya. Of course there are many in Africa who look upon the ICC with great suspicion because it seems to target Africans disproportionately. Kenyatta will certainly work this distrust to his advantage.

Perhaps tellingly, United States Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the situation in Kenya. he praised the Kenyan people for voting peacefully. But he also did not mention Kenyatta by name. That will further help bolster those who question Kenyatta’s legitimacy. And legitimacy is arguably  the most valuable and rare currency in Kenyan politics.

So yes, by all means we should be pleased that the elections last week went so smoothly. Even better if Kenyatta ends up as the clear-cut winner according to all official counts and legal challenges. But let’s not overstate where Kenya is right now. Things may not be as bad as 2007-2008. But they are not great either. That Kenya has seen worse does not make these the best of times.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid