Kenya Is Heading for a Repeat of Deadly Electoral Violence

A recent video of police brutality during Kenyan protests over the country's Electoral Commission shocked the world — but experts say it's just a taste of what's to come if the issue isn't resolved.
May 20, 2016, 4:16pm
Kenyans flee as police officers disperse them with tear gas and water cannons during an anti-IEBC protest on May 16, 2016. Photo by Dai Kurokawa/EPA

Kenya is at risk of a repeat of the deadly post-election violence seen in 2007 and 2008 if the government does not reform its controversial electoral commission, analysts and civil society groups have warned.

The east African nation has seen political tensions soar over the past three weeks as protests calling for the reform of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) have been met with intense police brutality.

Police dispersed protesters peacefully during early demonstrations, but the crackdown escalated on Monday, with police firing tear gas and beating protesters with batons.

The next general election is not scheduled until next August, but Kenya's opposition Coalitions for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) says a fair and free election cannot take place under the current IEBC, which is facing allegations of bias and corruption.

"There is a growing feeling that the commission as currently constituted does not have the independence, competence, and integrity required to run the next elections," said Dennis Onyango, a spokesperson for the opposition coalition's presidential candidate in 2013, Raila Odinga.

Onyango told VICE News the police brutality seen this week was "bad news" for the elections, and that the government was "testing the waters, trying to intimidate voters, and sending signals that it will not allow protest should the elections be stolen in 2017."

Related: 'It's Total Chaos and Madness': Video of Police Brutally Beating Protester Shocks Kenya

Public confidence in the IEBC is low. A recent survey found that 44 percent of Kenyans eligible to vote thought the current IEBC would not be a fair referee in next year's polls.

The ruling Jubilee Alliance says it will not disband the IEBC, whose mandate to conduct and supervise elections was established in the country's 2010 constitution, and which was formed the following year.

But analysts fear that if Kenyans head into the election believing it is already corrupt, it could reignite the violence that followed the disputed 2007 election which left more than 1,200 dead.

While the 2013 election, which saw Uhuru Kenyatta elected president, was largely peaceful, it also led to distrust of the IEBC.

The election was supposed to be done electronically, but all of the biometric voter registration kits bought by the IEBC failed to work on voting day.

When Kenyatta won, his main rival Odinga immediately challenged the result, claiming the technical glitches were evidence of election rigging.

The IEBC is currently being grilled over the failure of the electronic systems, as well allegations of corruption in awarding the contract to the company that providing the machinery, which cost almost twice its initially projected price.

The furor surrounding the IEBC comes little more than a year after it was embroiled in a corruption case involving British printing firm Smith and Ouzman Ltd, which supplied Kenya's 2013 electoral ballot papers.

Known as "Chickengate" — because Smith and Ouzman representatives had codenamed the backhanders they were paying "chicken" — a UK trial found company director Nicholas Smith and chairman Christopher Smith had paid out £400,000 ($580,000) in bribes to officials in Kenya and Mauritania for deals worth £2.26 million ($3.29 million) to make ballot papers.

Nicholas Smith was jailed for three years in February 2015, while his father Christopher Smith received an 18-month suspended sentence.

During the trial, IEBC officials, including chairman Issack Hassan, were named in emails between the UK company and their Kenyan agent. Hassan has denied any involvement in corruption and says the commission will only leave if Kenya's parliament finds them guilty of wrongdoing.

But the government has so far rejected calls from CORD, the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), churches, trade unions, and a host of foreign diplomats based in the country to hold discussions about the IEBC and accusations facing its officials. Odinga has said the protests will continue every week until the IEBC is reformed.

Despite the use of undue force by police, our peaceful pickets shall continue every week until the IEBC is reformed.
— Raila Odinga (@RailaOdinga) May 16, 2016

According to LSK president Isaac Okero, Hassan must stand down over his links to Chickengate because, while he remains innocent until proven guilty, his ongoing presence is causing serious discord in the country.

"My worry is that lack of public confidence in the commission will impact on the perception that the elections are not credible," Okero told VICE News. "We have only to remember our recent history. I think Kenyans are all fearful that there is a possibility of us returning to that. Nobody wants to go back there."

In a recent dispatch, Human Rights Watch Africa researcher Otsieno Namwaya warned that Kenya faces the specter of another disputed and violent election and the country "could roll back the gains realized in the last decade."

According to Nicholas Cheeseman, associate professor in African Politics at Oxford University, the ruling and opposition parties must compromise now to avoid violence at the elections, but the government is being "stubborn" in not wanting to give in to the opposition's demands.

"It is difficult to predict what happens next and whether the opposition and government can come to a compromise and return the country to political stability," he said.

In a nation where voting largely follows ethnic lines, the current debate could stir up rivalries that the government has sought to ease since the violence of eight years ago. President Kenyatta is of the majority Kikuyu tribe, while Odinga is of the Luo tribe, which has never had a member occupy the presidency and feels politically marginalized — though Odinga did serve as Prime Minister between 2008 and 2013.

According to Cheeseman, this longstanding perception means that the government's current stance on the IEBC is likely being seen among Luo communities as yet another example of historic ethnic repression.

"Some will think this is about stopping Odinga from getting the presidency and that these attacks are broader attackers on the Luo people," he said. "The fact that is believed by people on the ground is important."

Follow Anna Dubuis on Twitter: @annadubuis

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