The Common Denominators In Kenya’s General Elections 


Electoral seasons in Kenya are usually characterised by palpable tension, economic uncertainty, violence, electoral fraud, political conman ship and hoodwinking, the rise of youth gangs and ethnic mobilization. The period also provides an enabling environment for money laundering; this money is acquired from proceeds of corruption and illicit trade such as drug, arms and human trafficking as well as the smuggling of goods.

The upcoming general elections are no different from previous general elections in this country. Since the return of multiparty elections in 1992, every election has been marked by the formation of new parties, coalitions and alliances with the sole purpose of winning elections. This time round once again, party manifestos have been launched with pomp and splendour but with the same old promises of eradicating diseases, reducing hunger and poverty, and eliminating ignorance through investment in our education. These promises have been recycled and reused from 1963 when Kenya got its independence and are still relevant promises since they’ve been partially fulfilled.


The Cost of Democracy

This year’s election comes at a time when the world is still reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like many other countries in the world, Kenya’s economy has been adversely affected by the economic and social disruptions caused by the pandemic. Myriad economic activities came to a grinding halt after the Kenyan government put in place restrictions on movement and curfews in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

This brought economic shocks to an already debilitating economy weakened by wanton wastage of public resources, huge loans taken out by the government, and as well as corruption. As a result, several Kenyans languished in poverty and many haven’t recovered since. Most Kenyans are grappling with meeting their basic needs more so foodstuffs due to the hike in prices which have nearly doubled for most of the basic commodities. Many are left with no option but to reduce the number of meals to two and in some cases, one in a day while those living in arid areas are starving to death.

Despite these circumstances, Kenyans have continued to witness a lot of pomp and colour in political campaigns whose costs far exceed the gross earnings that would come with the much sought political seats, begging the question why political aspirants would spend such large amounts on campaigns. Consequently, this creates a lame excuse for successful candidates to embezzle funds as a means of “recouping their investments” hence creating a cycle of poor leadership since election is not based on merit. Handouts and bribing of voters is one of the ways used to mobilize the hungry masses for campaign rallies and some aspirants going to the extent of bribing their constituents with foodstuffs such as cooking oil, maize flour, wheat flour and sugar among others.

This high cost of living has birthed the Njaa Revolution Movement (Hunger Revolution) by Article 43 of the Social Justice Movement in Kenya. Human rights defenders, activists, community organizers and mobilizers and Kenyans at large have joined the movement to demand for affordable prices of basic commodities. During this year’s Saba Saba (July 7th) commemorations, Kenyans from various suburbs in Nairobi marched in droves to the city centre with their placards inscribed one clear message: No Food, No Elections. They later marched to Harambee House which is the president’s office to deliver a petition bearing their demands.


Rise of populist leaders and ethno nationalism

Populist leaders at different points in history have risen to power through whipping the masses’ emotions with rhetoric that speaks to economic transformation and nationalism. In Kenya’s case, candidates have during election campaigns portrayed themselves as the messiahs who will salvage the country from destruction. These campaigns also take the form of ethno-nationalism with a perceived entitlement of ethnic groups to have their leaders occupy elective positions of leadership contested by leaders from “rival” ethnic groups. This is particularly the case when it comes to the presidency and the entitlement goes hand in hand with the expectations that once one of their own becomes president, they will solve all their problems. This messiah-mentality complex informs the unrealisable promises political candidates give to the electorate during election campaigns. Currently, promises to revive the economy and lower the cost of living are being bandied about by contenders for the presidency in a bid to garner votes in the upcoming election.

Another common denominator in our elections is the balkanization of different ethnic groups into voting blocs. These blocs are expected to be affiliated to political parties that are virtually owned by their respective ethnic kingpins. This gives such politicians the leeway to use their communities support as a bargaining chip in coalition agreements with other ethnic kingpins.


Political Parties as vehicles for political bargains

Most parties in Kenya’s political scene are formed as vehicles for political bargains, devoid of any ideology. Party power is heavily personalised – party decisions are often determined by the leader of the party. Political parties have a relatively short life span as they are usually folded once they join other outfits.

During their short life span, parties are only active during the season of elections. Training of party cadres and other party activities are hardly part of their activities as they not only lack the mechanisms but also the curriculum for this. Consequently, the rank and file of the party comprises cadres bereft of intellectual or ideological grounding and are therefore predisposed to sycophancy and hooliganism in favour of their paymasters or party leaders. This breeds a political culture of personalisation of power, dependency and violence which hinders the growth of progressive politics in Kenya. Principles rarely have any place in such parties – those who question matters party decisions on principles are sidelined or discarded. Party success is virtually gauged by this unquestioning loyalty. This parochial view hinders organising which would otherwise have ensured that the masses would have an ideological understanding of Kenya’s politics.  Perhaps most parties avoid organising as well as ideological training because of the time it would take to get the envisioned results. But it comes at a cost; the lack of ideological grounding of the masses means that the masses have to settle for poor living standards, high cost of living all of which inform Kenyans’ yearning for a messiah.


Disregard for chapter six of the Constitution

Chapter Six of Kenya Constitution 2010 is on the integrity of state officers. Years after the operalization of the constitution, this chapter seems to have been rendered redundant owing to its disregard by institutions and the people; many leaders of dubious standing have been elected or appointed to positions of leadership. The disregard for this chapter in the past has set the stage for the undercurrents in the upcoming election. Kenyans have to contend with various aspirants cleared to run for political office despite the cases of graft, incitement and other crimes they are facing in courts. Granted, the recommendation by the Ethics and anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) to the IEBC to bar several candidates from participating in the election on integrity grounds was a step in the right direction, nevertheless, the weaponisation of the war on corruption by the executive could have informed this recommendation. IEBC later declined to bar such candidates from contesting for political offices, perhaps in an attempt to remain above the fray.  For those cases that might have been genuine, integrity was sacrificed on the altar of political neutrality, a loophole that is often exploited by politicians, some of whom may be elected to office.


Ethnic mobilization and the rise of political gangs

Ethnic mobilization has been a recurring theme during electoral seasons in Kenya leading to violence, the highest level being in 2007/2008 post – election violence. Most of these conflicts between ethnic communities are tied to the unresolved land questions and the perception that leaders of communities – conflated with their respective communities – have been denied state power. Leaders from these communities use these grievances to rally and mobilize their communities against others.

Gangs, mainly comprised of jobless youths, have also been used to terrorize other aspirants more so in urban centres. These gangs are supported financially by rogue politicians who use these poor youths to intimidate their opponents and control their areas. Recently, gangs such as Forty Brothers, Superpower and Confirm have emerged and seem to have been used for this cause. Our politicians understand better that in Kenya, it is not the manifesto that sells a candidate entirely but the use of force and a show of might and control is a necessary evil towards that pursuit.

These mobilizations take the form of mudslinging, the use of derogatory language and defamatory remarks and even hate speech against opponents in political rallies. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) created under the National Cohesion and Integration Act (Act No.12 of 2008) has only been involved in documenting cases of hate speech and summoning politicians behind inflammatory utterances. The commission has no prosecutorial powers thus rendering it ineffective. Since its creation, its impact is yet to be felt yet its operations are financed from public coffers.


What’s new in the 2022 elections?

The Kenya Constitution, inaugurated in 2010, introduced the gubernatorial position which, unlike other political seats, was given a two five-year term limit just like the presidency. Some of the governors who have already served their two terms are now going for senatorial seats. The Senate, one of the two houses that serve as the legislature, plays an oversight role – it watches how county governments spend the funds they receive from the national government. Most of the financial reports on expenditure are brought to parliament for discussion and scrutiny. Given workings of government described above and the possibility of the election of the former county chiefs into office, the former governors shall be the ones scrutinizing their records they left when they were in office. During the writing of the constitution, it seems that this prospect was overlooked as well as its consequence on governance and accountability.

Due to the high levels of corruption, economic disruptions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, ripple effects of the Russian-Ukraine war, the economy is in the doldrums. This has probably informed the election campaign messaging – promises to revive the economy have taken centre stage eclipsing ethnic nationalism as a campaign platform.


Futility of change through the ballot

Without a radical overhaul of the system that creates the current crop of leaders, Kenyans will be in for a perpetual cycle of complaining and choosing their supposed messiahs expecting seismic changes. After more than 59 years after independence, our democratic system has failed to give us competent leaders who can lead the country into a new age. This continues to be the case since the political and economic system is for maintaining of the status quo so that the rich ruling elite and families can continue with their exploitation and control of the working masses as they control most means of production such as capital, industries and land.

With this kind of a system, it is highly improbable that elections would be an all fix for the challenges we face as a country. In order to escape the cycles of despair, political parties need to change their tact and embark on grassroot mobilization and organizing to liberate the masses. The women in the furthest corner of Turkana and the young man in Mathare need to understand their role in Kenya’s political landscape. They need to understand that they are not mere voters and that their power extends beyond electoral periods. Most citizens do not understand their role in participatory decision making; more so their power to recall incompetent representatives. Most of the citizens have to bear with bad leadership for five years yet they have the power to replace a leader even before their term lapses.

It is only through a conscious people who know their rights, who know that sovereign power belongs to them and how this power can be exercised that radical changes can be realised. Through politically conscious masses, the current exploitative system can be overthrown and replaced by a people-centric system that is not there to serve the ruling families, nor the rich elite or predatory corporate lobby groups but the poor masses.  Without radical political education and ideological clarity, political hoodwinking and chicanery will continue to be the norm in this country. The miracle or magic lies not in elections but in ORGANIZING, EDUCATING and allowing the masses to LIBERATE themselves politically, culturally and socio-economically.

*Gathanga Ndung’u is a social justice activist based at Ruaraka Social Justice Centre




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1 Comment

  1. Mo

    Great observations Gathanga