Tuesday, January 8, 2008


Kenya’s political situation – causes, effects, future scenarios

The New Year has been ushered in by mass demonstrations and the sound of gunfire in Kenya. This political turmoil comes in the wake of the results of the 27 December 2007 presidential poll.

Incumbent president Mwai Kibaki won the election with 4,58 million votes over his rival, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), who received 4,35 million votes. The requirement for winning the presidential race was a minimum of 25% of the votes in at least five of the eight provinces.

The election outcome…. Why so controversial?

Odinga’s supporters say that the election was rigged and unfair. Violence erupted as ODM supporters refused to accept the outcome of the election. They believe that their leader, Odinga, was cheated through vote-rigging, and that Kibaki’s win represents a Kikuyu win, a sensitive issue in a country with entrenched ethnic rivalries dating back to colonial times. Ethnic tensions have been a feature of Kenya’s socio-political landscape, to the degree that in 1998, the human rights organisation Amnesty International warned that ethnic tensions among Kenyans were “a powder keg waiting to explode”.

Kibaki and Odinga’s supporters are said to be divided along tribal lines, sparking fears of ethnically-motivated attacks against the Kikuyu people, whom Odinga’s supporters feel have been overrepresented in the government and political sphere, while Kenya’s other tribal groups have been marginalised. Kibaki is Kikuyu, while Odinga belongs to the Luo tribe. Of more than 30 ethnic groups in Kenya, the largest are the Kikuyu, Luhya, Kamba and Luo.

Speculation about the integrity of the election process has been further fuelled by a public statement from the chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Kenya, in which he indicated that he was forced by the government to prematurely declare Kibaki the winner.

The impact

Burning and looting has ensued in Nairobi and other major towns, with ODM supporters attacking Kikuyu property, and Kikuyu people retaliating. There has been bloodshed, particularly in Eldoret (a town in western Kenya) and Mombasa (a coastal town, popular with tourists). Both Western Kenya and the coastal region are regarded as ODM strongholds.

As at 3 January, an estimated 300 people had been killed, and 100,000 displaced. A church was torched near Eldoret, and 30 people died in that incident.

Having reopened after the holidays on 2nd January, the Kenyan Stock Exchange suspended trading the next day because of renewed violence in the capital. Auctions of tea and coffee (Kenya’s main agricultural exports) were also suspended.

To understand the events that have followed the presidential poll, it is necessary to understand some background of Kenya’s history and the fragmented nature of the political environment.

A brief political history

Kenya gained independence from Great Britain in 1963. The first prime minister of the independent government was Jomo Kenyatta, who became prominent among his generation of African post-colonial leaders. Kenyatta held office until his death in 1978. Although of Kikuyu descent, he attempted to overcome ethnic divisions in his government by appointing members of various ethnic groups to key government posts. However, a significant number of Kikuyu people were employed by the government during his tenure.

Daniel arap Moi (of the Kalenjin ethnic group) succeeded the popular ‘Mzee’ Kenyatta as president of Kenya in 1978. Moi initially maintained the status quo of Kikuyu political dominance, but in due course, he started to apportion properties and favours to his Kalenjin supporters. A coup d’etat was attempted in 1982, after which the opposition party was banned. Moi became one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents. Pressure from foreign donors forced him to hold multiparty elections in 1992, which he proceeded to win, along with the subsequent 1997 elections. His opponents claimed that both elections were rigged. These events tarnished public perceptions of impartiality and fairness in the election process for many Kenyans.

Mwai Kibaki became president of Kenya when Daniel arap Moi stepped down after more than two decades in power.

The Kibaki presidency

Kibaki succeeded Moi as president, having led the coalition party that won the December 2002 general election, the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). Kibaki had the support of former president Moi, who endorsed Kibaki’s candidacy, saying that he believed Kibaki to stand for national unity.

Although Kibaki presided over Kenya’s economic boom and can be credited for some of the country’s successes, he lost a fair amount of popularity and credibility with the electorate over the years. Kibaki took some controversial decisions during his term, including the firing of cabinet members who opposed him and the appointment of his loyalists in their stead.

The NARC party saw some fundamental changes in 2007, when five of its senior members defected to a smaller opposition party (Shirikiso Party of Kenya).

Kibaki announced in September 2007 that he would run for president under the banner of the Party of National Unity (PNU), a coalition of KANU and other parties.

Kibaki vs. Odinga…. A long-standing rivalry

Raila Odinga led the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had broken away from the ruling KANU party before the 2002 elections. Odinga was said to have presidential aspirations even at that time, and the subsequent separation of his LDP from KANU resulted from dissatisfaction that Mwai Kibaki, and not Odinga, had been selected as Moi’s successor.

In the negotiations that ensued, Odinga was offered an executive prime minister position under the Kibaki presidency, a decision that required an amendment to the constitution. This process did not go smoothly, and Kibaki was seen to have reneged on his promise to Odinga. As a result, the proposed constitution was rejected by an LDP-Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) alliance.

Kibaki dismissed all seven of the LDP ministers who had rejected the proposed constitution, and they subsequently merged with the opposition to form an alliance called ODM-Kenya. This alliance became an official political party in 2006.

Odinga broke away from ODM-Kenya around August 2007, and the party was divided into two rival factions. Odinga’s camp retained the name Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

The presidential race was tight, with opinion polls in the run-up to the election showing an even split between the two men. Analysts drew parallels between it and South Africa’s ANC presidential race, which also took place in December 2007.

Implications for the Kenyan economy

In the run-up to the elections, the business sector was largely dismissive of the possibility of any adverse impact on the economy from the elections. The Central Bank governor of Kenya also gave reassurances to that effect. Kenya has a large and independent business sector, and what is considered by many to be a mature democracy, so the risk of a political fallout was widely seen as minimal to nonexistent.

So where to from here?

While the country is still in a state of turmoil currently, it is not envisaged that after the dust settles there would be any radical changes to economic policy. The country has seen strong economic growth and improvements in the business environment in recent years, and it will be in the government’s interest to maintain that trajectory. However, restoring relationships with the donor community, and the international investor community, as well as improved governance, will be critical to the continued success of the Kenyan economy.

The main sectors of the Kenyan economy are manufacturing, commerce, transport and communication, the hospitality industry and agriculture.

Transport and communication was one of the fastest growing sectors in 2007. This sector is at risk, as perceptions of safety in Kenya have deteriorated world-wide and may lead to a significant decline in international tourist numbers. Already, a number of international tour operators have cancelled packages to Kenya’s coastal towns in the aftermath of the violence reported.

Although the hospitality sector (hotels and restaurants) only generates 2% of national output, it has been one of the fastest growing sectors, and it is likely to also be impacted negatively.

Given its position as the economic hub of the East African region, a significant share of Kenya’s manufactured goods is exported to its neighbours. With business closures in the first week of January, and rising fuel costs, the entire region is likely to be hard-hit. The unrest has affected public transport throughout the country and cut off essential supply lines for food, fuel and medicine to neighbouring Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, eastern DRC, and Southern Sudan.

The effects of Kenya’s post-election events will reach further than Kenya’s boundaries, and may go as far as impeding Africa’s efforts at reversing the image that the Western world frequently paints of the region as one that is beset by wars, ethnic strife and corrupt public officials.

Future scenarios

i) Re-tally

Kenya’s attorney-general has called for an independent probe into the vote tally, while the chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Kenya has stated that he was forced by the government to prematurely declare Kibaki the winner. This is an indictment on the president, which threatens to further erode his credibility and may escalate civil strife, even if a re-tally shows him to be the rightful elected president.

ii) Re-election

A re-election would be a lengthy process, but it would, of necessity, be transparent and fair in order to withstand international scrutiny and to satisfy Kenya’s populace. However, a re-election would not necessarily address the socio-political tensions that have emerged out of the December election and, depending on the outcome; civil unrest could either abate or intensify.

iii) Interim arrangement

An interim power-sharing arrangement is another possibility; one which would facilitate a transition to a new election, and possibly a new or amended constitution over an agreed period of time.


The unrest in Kenya has brought to the fore simmering tensions that may have remained beneath the surface for many years. The concerns of Kenyans regarding corruption, the unfair distribution of key government positions, and ethnic federalism will have to be addressed decisively by the new government, irrespective of which leader ultimately emerges as the clear and accepted winner.

Sources: Africana Encyclopaedia, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah; Henry Louis Gates Jnr.

Standard Bank Group Economics. Kenya report. December 2007

Economist Intelligence Unit. Business Africa. December 2007

Mail & Guardian. January 4 to 10, 2008

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