From dream to nightmare: The Kenyan 2007 elections

In this article, the authors analyse the Kenyan elections and their violent and bitter aftermath in the broader context of struggles at both elite and popular levels for and against the democratisation of the Kenyan state.
On the evening of 30 December 2007, Mwai Kibaki, in the company of only the Chief Commissioner of Police, the Chief Justice and a handful of loyal politicians and friends waiting in the State House compound, was hurriedly sworn in as the President of the Republic of Kenya. The swearing in ceremony took place only 20 minutes after Samuel Kivuitu, the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), had announced Kibaki as the winner of the 27 December Presidential election. The announcement by Kivuitu was made in disregard of objections raised by the main opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), to the figures announced. ODM claimed to be in possession of the genuine results, which in their view would prove that ECK had, in a number of constituencies, grossly manipulated the process by adding tens of thousands of votes to Kibaki’s numbers, to the total effect that the outcome of the presidential election was fraudulently tilted in Kibaki’s favour.

As the leaders of the ODM held a press conference the same evening, protesting against what they regarded as the illegitimate and illegal swearing in of Kibaki and calling for countrywide demonstrations, the live broadcast from the press conference was suddenly interrupted, and indefinite bans were slapped on future live broadcasts as well as on political rallies and demonstrations. The protests against Kibaki’s swearing in that erupted spontaneously around the country were met with police brutality that resulted in many civilians shot dead and an even greater number wounded. The freedoms of assembly, expression and the right to information were severely restricted only hours after Kibaki had taken the oath, and they remain so to this day. Hence, within just a few hours, the democratisation process in Kenya had been reversed into authoritarian rule.

In the following, we analyse the Kenyan elections and their violent and bitter aftermath in the broader context of struggles at both elite and popular levels for and against the democratisation of the Kenyan state. For a summary of the distinctive features of the Kibaki government (2002-2007), see Kenyan politics 1963-2007: A background to the elections. We start by discussing the main political alternatives and the run-up to the elections, before analysing in greater depth the actual elections themselves and the subsequent political crisis.

Political alternatives and election campaigns
The two years that followed between the 2005 referendum (see the background) and the 2007 elections were essentially played out as one long low- (and eventually very high-)intensive election campaign, revolving around the main protagonists Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. In terms of party affiliation, Kibaki’s government mutated first into Narc-Kenya in 2006, and in September 2007 into the Party of National Unity (PNU), an alliance that among other parties incorporated KANU, the former main opposition party. A split in ODM between Kalonzo Musyoka and the other top leaders resulted in Kalonzo forming the Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya (ODM-K) in August 2007. These three main contesting parties and presidential candidates aside, a number of minor parties and presidential hopefuls also entered the races.

Were there any differences between the candidates and parties? Could the outcome of the elections really be expected to be of importance in addressing the development problems of Kenya? Or was the race, as has been frequently suggested by various political commentators in Kenya, merely yet another round in the competition for access to the pork barrels of state power between competing gangs of tribal barons with little or no significance for the interests and concerns of ordinary Kenyans? The question is a real one. Experience shows that much electoral politics in Sub-Saharan Africa has revolved precisely around narrow competition for state power between wealthy, male political elite groupings, which have disconnected themselves far from the concerns of the popular majority. No doubt, Kenyan politics to some degree remains ethnicised and elite driven, with a strong class and gender bias with regard to both process and outcome. Further, many parties remain ideologically shallow or outright opportunistic outfits. We still argue that such a perspective, even in its more elaborated and sophisticated versions, is too crude to capture the dialectics within and between different forms of elite and popular politics, the difference in policy content between political contenders, or the degree to which the conditions for Kenyan politics have actually changed, to the effect that long standing patron-client relations have been challenged or broken. The latter point was forcefully illustrated by the parliamentary elections. In a country such as Kenya, characterised by deep-running social, regional and gender inequality, ideologically charged issues have always been at the forefront. The problem, however, is that political parties have failed to articulate them. In the 2007 election, however, the alternatives were clear ones.

Kibaki and his hastily created Party of National Unity (PNU) presented a conservative election platform based on continued stability, economic growth, and increased efficiency in public administration and social service delivery. Politically, the party was in favour of only gradual changes of the status quo, such as long-discussed constitutional reforms. Must of its campaign was based on assumptions of the personal popularity of Kibaki, especially among older voters in the countryside.

The intent of the ODM, according to indications in its party programme and position and policy speeches, is to be a social democratic party. Now that free elementary education was implemented in 2003, the party wants to go further, adding free secondary education, public health insurance, and social assistance for the impoverished within the framework of the USAWA poverty reduction programme, as well as establishing a labour exchange office in every district. Regarding the fight against corruption, ODM intends to establish a Truth, Reconciliation and Retribution Committee, empowered to grant amnesty to those who have engaged in corruption, based on their confessions and repayment of funds improperly received. The leadership of the ODM announced that they would be first in line to clear their names and act as a good example for others.
   Perhaps the most important election issue, however, was the decentralisation of power and resources from the central government in Nairobi to the regions and municipalities. ODM advocates a radical increase of power to local government within the framework of a new constitution, in contrast to the cautious stand of PNU. Equally significant for assessing differences between the parties are their views on the form of government. The ODM wants to introduce parliamentarism and a two-house legislature, while PNU wishes to preserve the presidential system.

But aren’t all of the ODM’s commitments nothing more than campaign promises? And even if the party’s intentions are genuine, is the ODM at present a genuine social democratic party? No, not yet. This kind of relatively new mass movement naturally contains many different conflicting tendencies. Perhaps its largest group is made up of run-of-the-mill opportunistic politicians, largely devoid of ideology. However, the party also includes Kenya’s old academic leftwing radicals (including Raila Odinga himself) and many people from civil society, who together make up a core constituency within ODM advocating social justice as a precondition for development, and not merely a result of it. In addition, ODM clearly represents a popular demand for equality, having scored definite victories in the six poorest of Kenya’s eight provinces. Finally, these kinds of demands and expectations among the youthful electorate exert a powerful influence on the direction of ODM, regardless of the opinions of individual politicians.

Persistent citizens and thieves in the night: from dreams on Election Day to the nightmare of the announcement

Until and upon Election Day, 27 December, things were by and large reminiscent of the successful election of 2002 and the referendum in 2005. After an intensive election campaign, Kenyans patiently stood in sometimes kilometre-long queues, waiting to cast their votes. The election seemed to be going relatively well, with the administrative hassles and delays apparently not dampening the enthusiasm of voters. One of us heard young people singing “haki yetu, haki yetu!” (Our Right, Our Right!) to keep spirits high. Reports indicating a record high turnout were coming in from all over.

In this election, 65 per cent of the voters were below 30 years. This fact, together with the intensive political debate in the country in recent years, as well as many years of civic and voter education, had created a great sense of political awareness amongst Kenyans, leading to fundamental changes in the political culture. A strong opposition wave amongst voters eliminated many kingpins and local bosses, including about 20 ministers and three sons of Daniel arap Moi, the previous president. Consequently, this was not an election characterised by top-down patron-client relationships. Rather, it was nothing less than a popular democratic revolution. Judging from the early election returns, Kenya would now have a whole new generation in parliament, the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, as its new president, and most likely, a new constitution within six months. People began talking about the New Kenya. But late in the evening of 28 December, people began noticing peculiar swings in the presidential election returns.

The crude, systematic and shameless election rigging became apparent in the live broadcasts from the Election Commission’s media centre on 29 and 30 December. In spite of ODM having got 99 parliamentary seats against PNU’s 43, Raila Odinga winning the Presidential race in six out of eight provinces and having been in the total lead until the very last hours, Mwai Kibaki suddenly received massive numbers from constituencies in his stronghold and sailed past Raila during the very end. The figures finally announced by ECK from many of these constituencies differed by huge margins from what had earlier been confirmed as the final results. Despite persistent protests from the opposition, Kibaki was declared the winner and sworn in 20 minutes later as the country’s president, all before any appeals could even be heard. Many people were in a state of shock, while others cried in front of the television. “This can’t be happening in Kenya in 2007.” “It’s like a nightmare that doesn’t end.” In certain villages in the countryside, traditional mourning ceremonies were initiated, as if a beloved person had died. This time, however, the deceased was Kenyan democracy. In addition to the flagrant theft of the election, freedom of assembly was abolished. Freedom of speech and the right to information have been severely impaired by threats and pressure.

The EU observation team expressed scathing criticism. According to them, the elections failed to comply with international standards, and the final tally, and thus the election results, were described as not credible. The team of local observers, KEDOF, expressed similar views with regard to the counting and tallying process. And more recently, the observation team from the East African Union likewise expressed grave concerns about the way in which tallying had been conducted and cast doubts on the outcome. The ECK Chairman, Samuel Kivuitu, had during the long wait for the results accused certain people of “cooking” results in favour of the incumbent. Kivuitu was later asked by journalists if he believed that Mwai Kibaki was freely and fairly elected President, to which he responded “I don’t know”. One clerk and several commissioners with ECK have later told the public about serious irregularities during the tallying process; the clerk fled to an unknown European country, citing threats to his life. Only one head of state has so far congratulated Kibaki upon the victory: Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, himself widely regarded as having repeatedly benefited from rigged elections. 

Protests and violence

The announcement of Kibaki’s victory immediately resulted in nation-wide protests and riots. Supposed Kibaki-supporters as well as most kikuyu living outside Central Province were attacked. Their property and houses were looted and burnt down, large numbers were chased away from their homes, many were injured and some killed. Correspondingly, many people from Western Kenya, Nyanza and Rift Valley were targeted in Central province.

Although protests and violence were widespread, the extent and intensity of violent clashes varied. The Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice (KPTJ) network, which, alongside the Law Society of Kenya, has rapidly emerged as the most significant voice within civil society, distinguishes between four major forms of violence for the purpose of analysing the sources of different conflicts and for establishing the responsibility for different forms of human rights violations. One kind of violence consists of the spontaneous demonstrations and rioting around the country as a response to the announced results. This has taken the form of not only political demonstrations, but also looting and burning of property by many criminal elements. Some people took the opportunity of the chaotic situation to settle scores with enemies in the neighbourhood.

The second form comes by way of new and reactivated militias, organised and/or paid by high-ranking politicians. KPTJ points out three militias currently operating in the country. One is the reactivation of Mungiki, mainly around Nairobi and in Central Province. The second is the Chinkororo group in Kisii region, Nyanza Province, mainly beholden to former government minister and Kibaki ally Simeon Nyachae. The third is the militia currently operating in Rift Valley Province, suspected to be connected to the opposition side. There are strong suspicions of more militias in the making.

The particularly broad scope and deep intensity of the violence in Rift Valley is however not only due to militia activities. The complexity of overlapping forms of violence there needs to be related to previous rounds of communal conflicts that erupted around the 1992 and 1997 elections, as well as off and on ever since. The complex of conflicts and violence in Rift Valley has many layers, one strand being conflicts over land between what is sometimes described as “indigenous people” (mainly kalenjin) and “settlers” (mainly kikuyu); another is long-standing clashes between farmers and pastoralists; and yet another is played out as cattle-raiding between different pastoralist groups. Conflicts over land-based resources have been intensified by political instigation, particularly around elections, for the purpose of evicting perceived sympathisers of this or that political party or candidate. 

A third type of violence is the extraordinary use of force exercised by the Kenya Police Force and other security forces against civilians. This has occurred mainly in Kisumu and the rest of the Luo Nyanza region and in opposition strongholds in low-income areas of Nairobi, and in particular Kibera. The police have sealed off parts of cities or entire towns. After imposing a curfew, they have entered there, executing (in all senses of the word) shoot-to-kill orders, resulting in a high number of extrajudicial killings. According to human rights groups, basing their statement on post-mortem examinations, at least sixty people in Kisumu, many of them children, were killed from being shot in the back by bullets used by the police.

The fourth type of violence, finally, is beginning to emerge from the three first types. This is inter-communal violence resulting from previous post-election grievances, triggered for instance by the arrival of internally displaced people, generating a second round of ethnically inspired violence, and as such taking on a life of its own.

What will to happen now? And what ought to happen? It may be easier to approach the discussion of this from the answer to the second question. From a principled democratic position, the best thing would be for Kibaki to resign. In our view, this would also be the best way to quickly stop some (but not all) forms of violence in the country. It would pull the brake on the demonstrations and rioting, as well as, of course, state instigated violence. It would possibly cool down, but certainly not completely stop, the more complicated cases of inter-communal violence with deeper roots than the elections, such as in the Rift Valley. If this route appears to be unrealistic, as it currently is, the second best alternative would be a re-run of the presidential election. From a democratic position, again, anything less will not be acceptable. Earlier calls for re-counting or re-tallying the votes have been overtaken by events. Both sides claim to have their own correct tally, and it is unlikely that a credible result could be achieved that way. A re-run would obviously involve enormous difficulties, such as waiting for the current emotionally charged atmosphere to calm down, reforming or replacing institutions totally lacking in credibility such as the ECK, resolving the complicated issue of re-franchising the vast number of internally displaced persons and so on. One way of approaching these difficulties would be for the parties to agree upon a transitional coalition government with a specific mandate and restricted timeframe. Apart from running routine administration work, the task of such a government would be limited to working out – within, say, one year – relevant parts of a new constitution, or at least reforms in order to ensure that credible elections could take place. This should then be followed by a re-run.

The basis for our argument in proposing such alternatives is the moral and analytical position that there will be no stability if immediate (election theft) and underlying causes (inequality and presidential authoritarianism) of violence are not addressed. Obviously, all crimes and human rights abuses must be urgently investigated and those found responsible must be punished. But any call for peace needs to link such a call to demands for truth and justice. And truth and justice need to expand investigations of not only the elections, but also its aftermath. This is not only the morally impeccable position, but also the realistic one. This argument has been stressed repeatedly, mainly by the KPTJ network which is an attempt to give voice and direction to civil society. Also, the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) has declared the pronouncement of Kibaki as President not only illegitimate but even illegal and in breach of the constitution. These actions are much welcome alternative perspectives on the crisis in a situation where press freedom is under siege through (self-)censorship.   

The alternative to peace through truth and justice is in our view untenable. The last two weeks have seen enormous national and international mobilisation around negotiations, with different mediation teams trying to get the two sides together without any success so far. The many proposals for forming a “government of national unity” without specified obligations, and as an outcome of elite horse-trading, not only deliberately turn a blind eye to the hard-core stance by the government side and gloss over the deep-seated mistrust between the parties, they also make a mockery of the will of the Kenyan people and sabotage the future for anything resembling free and fair elections in the country. In effect, these proposals wittingly or unwittingly misrepresent the capacity for the outcome of such elite-level negotiations – “ceasefire without truth and justice” – to uphold sustainable peace and stability. Opposition supporters will not forgive and forget. If the government is allowed to get away with the election theft, the consequences will be too ghastly to contemplate. As the areas of confrontation are multiplying, violence may spiral out of control. Kenya runs a serious risk of becoming caught in a cycle of corruption, repression and violence for a very long time.
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