Kenya elections: ethnicity and sovereignty stand out

In March, the world stood by, shocked as Uhuru Kenyatta, due to face trial at the International Criminal Court, won the presidential elections in Kenya. DiA blogger Rashlin Bhachu explores the strategy behind Kenyatta’s campaign and what this says about the east African country

Kenyans queue to elect in this year's polls. Photo by DEMOSH

Kenyans queue to elect in this year’s polls. Photo by DEMOSH

Never before has an election in recent African history been watched with such close scrutiny.  The political strata was keen to see who would lead the East African nation after the Kibaki era, the development sphere feverishly prepared for any violence that would erupt and the business sector hoped for a smooth running to protect a steady GDP.

Like many, I awoke on 4 March with my Twitter feed ablaze with the hashtag #kenyadecides: pictures documenting the long lines of people waiting to cast their vote, unverified reports of violence within the capital and hourly updates of the situation on the ground. Frequently receiving updates from colleagues, friends and relatives, everyone urged for #peace, #peace and #peace.

Thus, despite what Uhuru Kenyatta’s win means for the nation and for the rest of the continent, one thing is clear: African development is clearly beginning to surpass Western influence and sovereignty is clearly alive. Alas, the election in itself was bizarre, for lack of better words. It has shown how influential a well-spoken and persuasive leader can be on the populace.

Looking at Kenyatta’s credentials presents a conundrum in itself: as the son of the founding father of the Kenyan nation, he firmly holds the position as one of the richest men in Kenya, due to the vast monopoly on land that his family retains. He is also due to face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused of fuelling communal violence in the aftermath of the 2007 elections. More than 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 forced from their homes. Given the history of corrupt politicians, surely this would raise alarm among most people vying for political change. But Kenyatta oozed confidence in every interview, election rally and press conference, suggesting that if Kenyans choose him then they also refuted the decision of the ICC.

Kenya is a country whose political arena has been bound by ethnicity, which led to much of the violence in the aftermath of the 2007 elections. And ethnicity does not immediately disappear, regardless of how far the country has come constitutionally and democratically.

So perhaps by being convicted by the ICC, Kenyatta landed himself the golden ticket. In the aftermath of the post-election violence in 2007-08, Kikuyu and Kalengin peoples committed widespread atrocities against each other, which has become firmly embedded in Kenya’s collective memory. Kenyatta chose rather tactfully to use this emotion to his advantage by allying with William Ruto, another Kenyan politician who has not only been indicted by the ICC, but is Kalenjin. Railia Odinga on the other hand, Kenya’s prime minister in the post-2007 era and Kenyatta’s opponent, kept referring to the looming ICC case throughout his campaign, casting himself, according to the Zimbabwe Sunday Mail, into the role of western puppet.

Two factors stood out with these historic elections:

1) Ethnicity

By siding with Ruto, who is of a different ethnic group to him, Kenyatta suggested that ethnicity was an issue of the past as the two could now work together. But by strategizing in this way Kenyatta managed to secure himself the vote in several regions as people would most likely align themselves with their own kind, be it race or ethnicity. The Kikuyu (Kenyatta) and Kalenjin (Ruto) make up most of Kenya’s population, so when branched under the same alliance, they would undoubtedly have the majority. On the other hand Ralia Odinga, who is part of the much smaller Luo people, lagged behind when looking at votes region by region.

2) The ICC

Many outsiders would think that being charged for crimes against humanity would deter you from running for office or at least impede your campaign. But this only seemed to strengthen Kenyatta’s case. He rose up to the allegations with charm and charisma. No matter how he looked to the West, within Kenya he represented freedom (“Uhuru” in Swahili), and a member of the influential Kikuyu tribe.  Playing on human psychology was easy: by standing up to these charges and boldly advocating that he would go to the Hague regardless of the election outcome, Kenyatta was showing that he had nothing to be afraid of.

Consequently, despite the negative media reports streaming in from the western world, threats made by leaders if Kenya voted in favour of Kenyatta and the looming trial at the Hague only made Kenyans band closer together and push for Kenyan sovereignty, which in this instance meant Uhuru Kenyatta.  This result was a demonstration of human emotion and national pride. And as Kenya enters a new era of politics and democracy, it will be interesting to see how the country performs and whether it will indeed be a beacon of light for East Africa.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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