How to Ensure a Credible, Peaceful Presidential Vote in Kenya


Kenya must hold repeat presidential elections before 1 November, after the country’s Supreme Court annulled a first vote that took place in early August. The Court’s decision was historic, unprecedented in Africa’s electoral history and applauded across the continent and beyond. It has, however, provoked a response from Kenyan political leaders that has introduced new levels of tension and uncertainty ahead of the fresh vote. Both camps – President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party and his rival Raila Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA) – have adopted inflexible positions; both mobilise supporters in the streets. An opposition boycott of the forthcoming vote or failure to hold it before the deadline could provoke a political or constitutional crisis. Graver still are risks of escalating clashes between protesters and security forces.

The immediate challenge is to find a formula, centred on electoral reforms, that persuades Odinga’s camp to participate, is acceptable to President Kenyatta and Jubilee, and does not involve changes to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) so extensive that it is hamstrung and unable to administer the polls in time. One way to break the logjam might be for both parties to embed representatives in the IEBC to observe election preparations. This, together with significant changes to electoral procedures – some of which the IEBC already has proposed, others of which should follow – could increase confidence in the vote. Kenya’s international partners, who retain a degree of leverage and good-will with players on both sides of the divide, could help mediate such an agreement.

Even if the parties find a path to elections, the threat of violence afterwards, whatever the outcome, is high. A firmer stand by Kenyan leaders against hate speech and pledges to campaign peacefully and take any complaints back to the courts after the vote would go some way to lower the temperature. Security forces should prepare to manage protests impartially; holding to account officials that overstepped in August would send a positive signal. International observers should also adapt their approach based on their experiences during the first vote, potentially reviewing the timing of their post-election assessments. With its decision, the Supreme Court made a bold statement about judicial independence and the need for improved and more transparent election administration; Kenyan leaders now need to move away from harsh words and towards compromise.

II.Deepening Fault Lines

In its detailed judgment released on 20 September, the Supreme Court’s majority criticised the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) for its conduct of the vote. In essence, they found no evidence of flaws in polling and counting but such widespread “irregularities and illegalities” in results tabulation and transmission as to render the process a violation of election regulations and the constitution. They cited in particular the announcement of final results before the IEBC chairman had received scanned returns forms from over 10,000 polling stations and the IEBC’s refusal to open its server to scrutiny and allow the court to investigate further.

Fault lines have deepened since the court’s decision. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga feels vindicated by a judgment that largely upheld his petition against the IEBC’s handling of results (official tallies showed his rival, President Uhuru Kenyatta, winning by 54 to 46 per cent). Odinga’s NASA party has presented a set of demands ahead of the new vote.

These include the replacement of several senior IEBC officials, notably its chief executive officer, Ezra Chiloba, more transparency in the electoral body’s IT systems and new returning officers – officials responsible for constituency tallying centres. NASA threatens to not only boycott the fresh vote but to prevent it from taking place at all if these demands are not met. “You cannot make a mistake twice and expect to get different results”, Odinga told reporters on 5 September. On 26 September, his supporters began a round of what they promised would be weekly street protests until Chiloba quits.

President Kenyatta, seeking a second and final term, initially adopted a measured response to the judgment, saying he disagreed with it but would respect it. Since then, however, his rhetoric has hardened. He portrays the justices as having subverted the people’s will, has labelled them “crooks” and has signalled his intention to clip their wings, a dangerous escalation against the judicial branch.

On 14 September, a parliamentarian from Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party filed a petition to remove Chief Justice David Maraga from office, only to withdraw it two days later in the face of public backlash. Ruling party supporters also have taken to the streets; on 19 September, they burned tires and blocked the Supreme Court’s entryway. Those actions, Maraga said, were designed to “intimidate the judiciary”. Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party reject NASA’s demands for reforms ahead of the forthcoming vote; Deputy President William Ruto, cites them as proof Odinga has no intention of participating. On 28 September, a group of Jubilee MPs sought to impose their own reforms, proposing legal amendments that would institute significant changes, including dropping the electronic transmission of votes as the primary mode of relaying results.

The IEBC has set the election date for 26 October. But considerable distance remains between the two camps over how the balloting will be conducted. An opposition boycott could lead to a lasting political stalemate. Failure to hold a vote before 1 November could provoke a constitutional crisis, given that Kenya’s 2010 constitution is silent on what would happen in such an eventuality. With memories of past election-related violence still raw, there is a real risk of further clashes between opposition supporters and security forces, with grave potential to escalate.

III.A Workable Compromise

The immediate priority is to find a formula that is both acceptable to both sides and workable for the IEBC. This will be no mean feat, given that both political parties appear to have settled into intransigent positions and the IEBC itself is now beset by infighting, with memos between the chairman and chief executive officer seeking to assign blame being leaked to the media.

In principle, the court’s decision should give all sides room to compromise. For Kenyatta, though the decision absolved him personally of any wrongdoing, the scale of the problems it identified casts a shadow over the August 8 results. A new vote, with improved electoral procedures, would be an opportunity for him to try to secure a clearer mandate. For Odinga, the court decided in his favour, vindicating his longstanding complaints about the integrity of Kenya’s electoral system. It did not, however, identify systemic fraud or evidence that the widespread irregularities and illegalities affected the outcome. For the IEBC, the judges did not find any electoral official individually culpable, but did identify major problems with its handling of results and demanded it adopt significant remedial measures, which the IEBC must do in full if it is to restore public confidence.

Little time remains before the expiration of the statutory 60-day deadline for holding a fresh election. Both Jubilee and NASA should approach forthcoming talks with the IEBC in a spirit of compromise to find a path forward. Both must avoid acting unilaterally or in ways that undercut the credibility of the vote or prospects for compromise. In that light, Jubilee’s proposed amendments to electoral legislation should be shelved and such changes made only if they enjoy cross-party consensus.

One way forward might be for both camps to embed an agreed number of party representatives in the IEBC to observe every stage of preparations. This would include, in particular, active monitoring of tallying and results transmission. A compromise along these lines would echo a 1997 deal pursuant to which then-President Daniel arap Moi agreed to the opposition appointing representatives within the electoral commission to avoid an opposition boycott. It could assuage fears of vote tampering and go some way to reassure NASA that the vote will be credible, even in the absence of sweeping changes in the IEBC’s ranks.

The IEBC already has proposed significant changes to protect the integrity of the vote. These include requesting the United Nations Development Programme to print ballot papers and results forms, a response to concerns raised by the Odinga camp over the independence of the Dubai-based Al Ghurair Printing firm which was awarded the tender for the August vote. The commission also has agreed to embed United Nations and Commonwealth experts within the electoral commission to monitor the IT system.

Before the election is held, the IEBC should take further steps to address problems identified by the court. Particularly important is that it develop and publicise its plan for the electronic transmission of votes from all 40,883 stations as required by law. It should heed the judges’ suggestion that it put in place a backup system in case the electronic transmission system fails. And it should clarify how it will handle the polling results transmission from the 11,115 stations not covered by 3G mobile network in the last election. Electoral commission officials in many of these areas sent in results without accompanying scanned forms for verifica