Kenya's Political Unrest from the Inside

Charles X. Ombwa is an Associate in the Brennan Center’s Development Department. This past Christmas, he visited his family in his native Kenya. What follows are his thoughts on the country’s recent election.

February 15, 2008

Charles X. Ombwa is an Associate in the Brennan Center's Development Department. This past Christmas, he visited his family in his native Kenya for the holidays. What follows are his thoughts on the country's recent election.

I arrived in Kenya on the night of December 26, 2007—just a few hours before voting commenced in the national election between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. However,I was unable to vote because I lost my elector's card shortly before leaving for Africa. In order to vote in Kenya, a person is required to have a national identity card (ID) or a valid Kenyan passport, be a registered voter, and have an elector's card. The issuance of elector's cards had stopped a few weeks earlier so, unfortunately, I could not get a new one.

My brother runs a small business in Kisumu in western Kenya about 200 miles outside of Nairobi, the capital. When I left Kenya to move to New York to be with my wife, Mwai Kibaki was president—elected in December 2002 under a coalition of parties, called the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). He was elected on the platform of tackling corruption, creating new jobs and changing the constitution to allow for reforms, and strengthening of institutions.

One of the main players in Kibaki's ascension to power was Raila Odinga, the son of Kenya's first vice president, Oginga Odinga. There was an agreement that the younger Odinga would be Prime Minister under Kibaki's government but Kibaki reneged on the deal saying the constitution of Kenya did not allow for such an appointment. Instead Kibaki appointed Raila minister for Roads, Housing and Public works.

In 2005 Odinga led a No vote against a draft constitution supported by Kibaki. The new constitution would consolidate power in the executive rather than share authority between the president, prime minister and cabinet. The No vote won by 57 percent. Shortly thereafter, Odinga and a group of ministers that supported the No vote were dropped in a reshuffle.

To remain informed, I read Kenyan newspapers online where reports of corruption in high places, nepotism and favoritism in government were articulated. I was eager to vote for Odinga's opposition Party the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) in anticipation of changing the government. Early opinion polls favored Odinga's ODM Party to win the presidency. His vision promised to bring new, younger people into government, create jobs, tackle corruption and change the constitution to reduce the powers of the president and strengthen the judiciary, among others. The race tightened as the election date approached with Odinga having a 2 to 8 percent advantage over Kibaki.

In October 2007, I got approval to travel to Kenya since I did not possess my green card yet. This was going to be the first time I'd gone back since I left my country, and the possibility of voting in the upcoming elections had a lot to do with my enthusiasm about the trip.

Voting went smoothly and turnout was high, about 70% of the 14 million registered voters. Except for my not being able to vote because of the missing card, it seemed all was going well with the election. But problems soon arose with tallying and relaying of results by the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) in Nairobi. In contrast to past elections where the winner is usually known the following day, the 2007 results took longer to tally—a full three days after Kenyans cast their votes.

When voting closed on December 27th, independent television stations started showing tallies from different constituencies (or electoral districts). At one point, Odinga was ahead by over 1 million votes but this quickly narrowed to just 200,000 votes when the ECK announced results from Kibaki's strongholds. The opposition challenged some of the results claiming they lacked the proper signatures or were phoned in as opposed to being delivered in person or faxed. They also accused ECK commissioners of doctoring results in favor of the president, alleging that in Molo constituency, the Kibaki votes had been inflated by more than 20,000. And both opposition and government groups accused each other of vote irregularities, specifically inflation and unusually high turnout—one area reported 115% voter participation!

When the ECK met to deliver the final election results, the chairman was shouted down by loud protests as he announced results for the Molo constituency. Protestors claimed the figure had been inflated and had with them the officer who signed off on lower vote figures in Molo as proof.

Amid the continued melee the ECK chairman left under police escort to an office nearby where he declared President Kibaki the winner of the elections with a final tally of 4.5 million votes to Odinga's 4.3 million. Kibaki was sworn in a few minutes after being declared the winner in a highly unusual and clearly expedited ceremony.

The ECK chairman told the opposition to challenge the results in court if they had concerns. Odinga supporters refused, saying the judiciary was not independent and it would be a waste of time. Instead they said they would put pressure on Kibaki to resign through peaceful street protests. Shortly after, the police outlawed all rallies and the minister of internal security banned live TV coverage citing security concerns.

I was at my cousin's apartment in Nairobi when local TV news reported on the outbreak of violence in the slums of Nairobi and other parts of Kenya where the opposition had support. Nairobi seemed secure but I was hesitant to travel to Kisumu to see my brother because it is Odinga's homeland. Kisumu witnessed most of the post-election violence with Odinga supporters fighting with police and other ethnic groups. It did not help matters when the ECK chairman told the media he did not know who won the elections and that he had been under pressure to release the results.

I returned to New York as planned, though my KLM flight made a 45 minute detour to pick up the original flight crew in neighboring Tanzania; they were staying outside the country due to the unrest in Nairobi. I have been following events in Kenya since I came back. Kofi Annan the former UN secretary-general and a group of Eminent Africans (former Tanzanian president Mkapa and Graca Machel, wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela) are mediating talks between Kibaki and Odinga, working on a power-sharing agreement. The media has reported that rangers at the famed Maasai Mara reserve paid homage to Annan's efforts to restore peace in Kenya by naming a newly born rhinoceros after him.

In the end, I was very saddened to see the election turn out in this way. However, my friends and family in Kenya remain optimistic.