from Africa in Transition

Dangerous Times for Kenya

Supporters of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga carry banners as they walk along a street in Humura neighborhood, in Nairobi, Kenya August 10, 2017. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

Last updated August 10, 2017

Supporters of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga carry banners as they walk along a street in Humura neighborhood, in Nairobi, Kenya August 10, 2017. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
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Elections and Voting

East Africa

What Kenyans hoped would not happen has happened. A portion of the Kenya electorate does not accept the results as tabulated by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), which show incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta with 54.4 percent of the vote and opposition leader Raila Odinga with 44.7 percent. (While nearly all of the polling stations have reported, the IEBC has not yet issued the “official” results.) Odinga supporters have been rioting in the Nairobi slums and in predominately Luo parts of the country. (Odinga is a Luo.) Media is reporting that the security services have so far killed three, but the actual number of those killed is unclear; the Nairobi police chief is quoted as saying the police shot “looters.” 

It is premature to say how long the unrest will last or what its magnitude will be. Raila Odinga has told his supporters not to accept the election results but to remain calm. He has also said that he cannot control his supporters. His vice presidential running mate, Kalonzo Musyoka, urged Raila’s supporters to go home, but said that they might be called out in the future. Kenyatta and his Jubilee party are urging Kenyans to accept the IEBC results—which make him the victor. 

A very high percentage of Kenyans get their news largely from social media. The interior minister has expressed concern that social media might stoke ethnic tensions and raised the possibility that he would shut down social media websites. However, according to the Kenyan print media, officials are saying they do not intend to shut down the entire internet.

What is going on here? Raila Odinga is saying that Kenyatta’s Jubilee party hacked into the IEBC’s system to manipulate the poll results. He claims they used the log-in identity of Chris Msando, the IEBC’s information communication technology (ICT) manager, who was murdered a few days before the voting by persons unknown. He is also saying that his party’s parallel tally shows that he had 8.1 million voters, while Kenyatta had 7.2 million, making him the victor.

The IEBC’s responses to Odinga’s charges of hacking are similar but not the same. The IEBC CEO is quoted in the media as saying that not only was the system safe, but “there had been no attempt to hack into it.” On the other hand, IEBC Commissioner Yakub Guliye, chair of the ICEB’s ICT committee said that the system was intact, but that there had been attempts by outsiders to gain access. 

A real worry is whether or not the disputed election results spirals out of control and into ethnic conflict, as it did in 2007, when a contested election led to ethnic conflict that left some 1,300 killed and 600,000 displaced. Ethnic identities in Kenya are strong, and so, too, are rivalries between them, which can erupt into violence, especially over land and water use. Kenyatta is a Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in the country; it has dominated governance during most of the post-independence period. Odinga’s Luo are the second largest group, many of whom have a sense of grievance about their alleged marginalization. There are also many other ethnic groups, however, and alliances and coalitions among them can shift. Hence, it is not inevitable that the current election dispute will morph into widespread ethnic conflict, though there is certainly the danger that it might. Shutting down social media might help defuse ethnic conflict, but to do so would deprive the Kenyan people of an important means by which they hold their leaders accountable. Furthermore, the behavior of the security services will ultimately be crucial. Their mishandling of a demonstration could turn a protest into a bloodbath. Kenyans remember 2007, however, and none want a repeat. 

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