As always, we turn to our brilliant FPI fellows to explain what’s happening around the world. As Kenya braces for a rocky presidential rerun, Nanjala Nyabola and Sarah Jackson catch us up to speed on unprecedented uncertainty in the country. 

FPI: Why is a reelection being held in Kenya?

Sarah: The fresh election was ordered by the Supreme Court on 1 September when it nullified the presidential result from a series of elections held on 8 August. In its groundbreaking ruling – the first of its kind in Africa – the Supreme Court said the August poll which the electoral commission had declared that President Uhuru Kenyatta won, was marred by illegalities and irregularities.

Nanajala: It’s worth recalling at this stage that except for the 2002 election and the 2007 election which resulted in indictments for Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto at the International Criminal Court, every presidential election in Kenya since 1992 has triggered an election petition. After every one of these rulings the court generally sided with the incumbent through some bad law in some decisions like the 1992 decision. So it was a huge surprise around the world when the Supreme Court agreed with Odinga and his co-petitioners – that the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had broken the election law so many times in the lead up to the election that it was impossible to accept the electoral result. The election law says that if a presidential election result is invalidated by the Supreme Court, the elections commission has 60 days to organize a new election because the invalidated election basically didn’t happen. So the Commission has until October 31 to do so, and they selected October 26.

FPI: Roselyn Akombe, a senior member of Kenya’s electoral commission, fled to the US amid death threats. What does this say about the current political environment?

Sarah: Akombe fled Kenya via Dubai where she had gone to inspect the printing of ballot papers for the forthcoming election. She said she had left due to death threats, but did not give specific details. The political environment in Kenya at the moment is tense. The ruling party wants the polls to go ahead on October 26, while the opposition wanted it delayed by 90 days to allow for a more credible process, and has threatened protests.

Nanjala: It confirms what everyone already knows – that the stakes are high and that there is a lot of backroom movement that’s happening. Akombe’s flight is not unreasonable. On August 6, two days before the August 8 election, her colleague, acting Head of ICT at the Commission was tortured and killed. His murder is yet to be solved. She chose her peace over pushing through despite the tremendous risk. Still, it’s important to note that so far, much of the anxiety has been contained in the political plane. Any election violence that has happened in Kenya since Msando’s murder has been as a result of police violently responding to protesters – which is qualitatively different from what happened in 2007. Day to day life in Kenya continues.  

FPI: In 2007, Kenya suffered widespread violence in the aftermath of elections. Is there a potential for violence to erupt again?

Sarah: There is a likelihood of violence at various junctures in the election process. Police are likely to violently break up opposition protests this week against the 26 October date; they may also clash with protesters on election day, as well as after. Police have heavily deployed in the Nyanza region where opposition leader Raila Odinga hails from amid opposition attempts to prevent the election from taking place there. This increases the likelihood of violent confrontations. 

Nanjala: I don’t think constantly referring back to election violence in 2007 is a useful analytical framework – there’s always potential for violence anywhere, and it’s really important to keep a sense of perspective. Ultimately, Kenya in 2017 is not Kenya in 2007.

2007 represented a very unique political moment – in the heels of a near perfect 2002 election and a hotly contested constitutional referendum, expectations were unbelievably high. And the abuses of the electoral system were more flagrant than had ever been seen up to that point. Much of the early protest in 2008 was spontaneous because people believed they had been wronged Today, Kenyan voters have changed considerably. The size of protests called by both the opposition and the ruling coalition is an indication that sadly voters are more disillusioned and apathetic and less invested in participating in the hullabaloo, which in the case of a country where only football probably dominates more conversations might be a good thing that prevents events from spiraling out of control.

FPI: How would Kenyatta’s continued presence impact the lives of Kenyans? 

NanjalaUhuru Kenyatta’s presidency has been bad for civil society and the media and the rights and freedoms associated with them, and so many people within these sectors are nervous about him winning again. After August 11, one of the first things the NGO coordination board did was seek the de-registration of two local civil society groups. They also detained Maina Kiai, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions at the airport when he tried to return to his job in New York. The administration has also promised to deregister the International Development Law Organization, an international treaty that supports the judiciary and other ministries. And now he and members of his campaigns team have promised to turn their wrath onto the judiciary for delivering an unfavorable judgment. These are not decisions that may immediately affect members of the public in the way that a devaluation of the shilling might. In the long run, however, they compromise the quality of life for the average Kenyan because they constrict the space available for civic discourse in the public sphere. They make it harder for people to exist fully in public.

But the Kenyatta presidency has also been bad for the economy. State borrowing has gone through the roof. A number of corruption scandals have rocked the country every few months. They were so numerous, that in 2015, hours after then President Obama’s visit to Kenya, Kenya’s auditor general announced that the government could not account for up to 1/3 of the country’s budget. There has been significant labor unrest in the public sector – long, costly strikes in healthcare and education that have crippled these two key state provided services. Few significant gains in the war against Al-Shabaab can be identified even though billions of shillings of taxpayer money is being spent on that war in Somalia.

Still, his supporters remain loyal – and vocally so. They point to the massive investments that have been made in large-scale infrastructure projects like the Standard Gauge Railway and the expansion of roads around the country. Government contracts have created a young “nouveau riche” that is shoring up the many malls and apartment complexes that are popping up across the country. For the West, Kenyatta is a safe pair of hands in a complex region.

FPI: Why should the US care about Kenya’s elections?

Sarah: Kenya is the economic hub of East Africa – with its capital Nairobi home to large US and other foreign multinationals, the only UN HQ in Sub-Saharan Africa, and many non-profit organizations. Its main airport – Jomo Kenyatta International Airport – is the main gateway to the region and its port at Mombasa the main entry point to a hinterland stretching all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is also a major security partner of the US in the politically volatile region, whose member countries include South Sudan and Somalia.

Nanjala: I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to wax lyrical about foreign bases and Kenya as a key strategic ally in the war against terror, and being the second largest economy in East Africa and a key trading partner etc.

I think the wonks amongst us who are reading this already know these things. From my end, I don’t believe in hiding my humanity in abstractions. I believe that feminist foreign policy should be grounded in making the personal political at the global level. In this regard, I think people in the US should care about the Kenyan election because Kenyans are people, and we all have to share this earth, and one very simple way of extending empathy towards people is to make an effort to understand the general contours of issues or events that shape their lives.