‘Election Time Is Scary’: When a Presidential Vote Puts a Whole Country on Edge

Misinformation on TikTok and ethnic tensions are making for a tense election in Kenya, which often suffers violence around voting.
kenya-election
PHOTO: SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty Images

“Election time in Kenya is a scary time for my family,” says Mark Omollo, a 37-year-old volunteer community worker from Nairobi. “My mother and younger siblings have already left the city for our rural home in western Kenya in case there is an outbreak of violence.”

In August 2017, Omollo’s cousin, Simon Odhiambo Owuor, was stabbed to death by a mob who were out protesting against the results of the presidential election in Nairobi’s vast Mathare slums. 

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On that day, protests broke out and rival political gangs began to target people based on their ethnicity. The mob mistook Owuor for a member of the Kikuyu tribe, who traditionally support President Uhuru Kenyatta, and attacked. No one has been charged for the murder. “Elections should not be a matter of life and death,” Omollo added.

Kenya, the economic powerhouse of east Africa, is set to hold another presidential and parliamentary elections on the 9th of August. Every election since Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963 has been marred by claims of rigging and deadly ethnic violence. 

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PHOTO: LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

More than 1,000 people died and thousands more were displaced in post election violence following a disputed election in 2007-2008, which was filled with hate speech and misinformation.

Social media, which has largely gone unscrutinised, is the new battleground in the 2022 vote, as politicians ramp up activity on Facebook and TikTok to woo voters. In the six months leading up to the 30th of April, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, took down more than 37,000 messages for violating the company's hate speech policies and 42,000 more for breaching its violence and incitement policies.  

Meet the candidates

There are officially four candidates in the presidential race, but the contest is shaping up to be a two-horse race between William Ruto, 55, and 77-year-old Raila Odinga, a long-time opponent who is taking his fifth stab at the presidency.

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Roots party Presidential candidate George Wajackoyah. PHOTO: Simon MAINA / AFP

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Also running is first-timer George Luchiri Wajackoyah, who has gained popularity especially with young people by proposing to legalise weed and the export of snake venom to make anti-venom drugs, while David Mwaure Waihiga, a lawyer, is running on an anti-corruption platform.  

Dynasty drama 

Outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta failed to endorse his deputy Ruto – instead, he’s accused him of being corrupt and power hungry – and has thrown all his weight behind Odinga. This is even though they have previously fought bitter campaigns against each other – Odinga accused Kenyatta of rigging the vote in the 2017 election and boycotted the the repeat vote. After supreme court judges upheld Kenyatta’s win, Odinga declared himself the “People’s President” in a highly controversial symbolic ceremony. 

Polls suggest that Odinga will win by a slim margin, but the election will likely go into a runoff in the autumn.  Odinga, a shrewd mobiliser promises a “second liberation” for the country, with sweeping changes to the constitution. He has picked a female running mate to win over female voters, and has the backing of the political elite and the state. 

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Raila Odinga. PHOTO: James Wakibia/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Alienated by Kenyatta, Ruto began to drift away and openly feuded with his boss and establishment figures. He branded his campaign as a fight between “hustlers”, ordinary Kenyans struggling to fend for themselves, versus “dynasties'' composed of wealthy families such as the Kenyattas and Odingas, who have monopolised politics and the economy in Kenya. Kenyatta and Odinga are both sons of the country’s first president and vice president respectively. He has also accused Odinga of being a “state project,” a puppet of the elites, which Odinga denied, saying, “I am the people’s project.”

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Cost-of-living crisis

Like past elections, debates about corruption, high cost of living, access to health, equitable share of resources, justice, insecurity have dominated campaign rallies, but this time the economy has taken precedence amid a spiralling cost-of-living crisis.

Both teams have released ambitious manifestos promising free education and healthcare, and extra support for women and young people. But most of these promises will be hard to implement. The country’s economy is in a bad state with rising public debt and looming economic shocks from the war in Ukraine,  and global oil and commodities price inflation. 

Legitimacy

Speaking to VICE World News, Bob Mkangi, a constitutional lawyer, says fringe candidates like Wajackoyah and Waihiga will mean the election goes to a runoff, but that this may be helpful in settling political scores. However the election body must demonstrate to all Kenyans that the elections are free and fair after the fiasco in 2017 saw a repeat election called by the court because of widely reported ballot stuffing. “As Kenyans, we are better off with a runoff vote than another repeat election called by law courts,  as that has grave political ramifications,” he said. 

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A police officer guards a primaries vote. PHOTO: James Wakibia/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The public’s confidence in the electoral commission has been low since the disastrous 2017 vote. A KPMG audit of the voter register flagged over one million discrepancies, including half a million duplicated records, 246,465 dead voters and 226,143 voters using fake identities.  If these issues are not dealt with,  any final results are likely to be disputed in court again. “Lately we have seen evidence of external influence in the electoral management process. This does not instil confidence”, Nerima Wako-Ojiwa, executive director of Siasa Place, a youth organisation that monitors Kenyan governance. 

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Social media

TikTok is being used to fuel political tensions in the country, Kenyan analysts warn. In June, Odanga Madung, a Mozilla fellow and researcher released a report “From Dance App to Political Mercenary: How disinformation on TikTok gaslights political tensions in Kenya”, detailing how the Chinese app is helping shape the vote. According to Madung, over 130 TikTok videos from 33 accounts reaching millions were being used to spread political disinformation.

“Kenya’s democracy carries a tainted past of post-election violence. Now, political disinformation on TikTok – in violation of the platform’s own policies – is stirring up this highly volatile political landscape,” his report found. TikTok took action by removing a couple of hundred accounts from its platform, and adding more staff to monitor such content.

Wako-Ojiwa warns that political spinning and sponsored hashtags are disrupting this electoral cycle. “For the political elites, their sponsored hashtags will trend momentarily but for many young people watching the manipulation online,  believe that their vote will not count in this election, and that is contributing to voter apathy,” she said.  

As mounting evidence points at a deliberate misinformation campaign, the results could be deadly.