From one crisis to another

One year in power for the Jubilee government in Kenya

By Anders Sjögren, senior researcher, the Nordic Africa Institute

As the recent terrorist attack in Mpeketoni on the Kenyan coast illustrates, fifteen months after the March 2013 elections Kenya is in a very fragile state. However, while the spate of violent attacks on civilians and escalating insecurity all across the country certainly constitutes the most acute governance crisis, it is far from the only one. The security challenge is embedded in overlapping and multiplying problems, such as continuous corruption, economic hardship and strong perceptions of ethnic favouritism. The latter observation points to the links between structural challenges and political instability. Kenya is politically, and by extension ethno-regionally, polarised: the government enjoys rather limited legitimacy in the opposition-leaning half of the country. By its critics, the government is seen as stumbling and falling, and even its supporters admit that its performance in key areas is wanting.[1] This article offers a brief examination of the structural and political challenges facing the Jubilee government – and in a broader sense: Kenya – after one year in power.

In order to recall the magnitude of Kenya’s challenges, it may be useful to take a step back. In the aftermath of the dramatic events of 2007-08, the consensus was that essentially, the political crisis and the violence was the consequence of decades of misrule, abuse of power, inequality and exclusion, and that fundamental transformations of the socio-economic structures and political institutions that had created those problems were necessary in order for this not to reoccur. This thinking became so established that it was made the intellectual foundation of Agenda 4 – covering the underlying/structural issues – of the National Accord, which constituted the core mandate for the Grand Coalition Government between 2008 and 2013. Issues under Agenda 4 included the examination and addressing of constitutional, legal and institutional reforms, poverty and inequality, youth unemployment and land reforms. These problems, which continue to pose fundamental threats to state, society and economy in Kenya, are obviously complex, as are the solutions to them – but both problems and solutions were widely regarded as having been clearly identified and necessary to address. The underlying idea about transforming state institutions and the political system – and in the longer run: the social order – was to take Kenya from impunity and exclusion to accountability and inclusion. The promulgation in 2010 of a new constitution was a significant symbol of change in this direction.

From the vantage point of mid-2014, these insights seem far away. Many considerations and priorities during the government’s first year in office were not guided by the need to reform the country, but by proceedings at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, where the President and his Deputy stand indicted for crimes against humanity. Much needed institutional and structural reforms have either stalled as a consequence of negligence, or are obstructed. Starting with security, there is a widespread sense that the Jubilee government has not addressed the relevant issues by adequate measures. The Westgate operation fiasco and the failure to investigate it strongly contributed to such perceptions. The recent Operation Usalama Watch, with its profiling of Muslims and Somalis, has also met strong protests. From the perspective of the need to anchor support for anti-terrorism policies among all sections of the population, this operation comes across as particularly poorly thought out and executed. Furthermore, the reforms initiated to introduce a measure of civilian oversight and control over the police force, historically a weapon of the executive to control political dissent, have been resisted and have to a large extent ground to a halt.

The human rights situation has deteriorated: draconian media legislation and harassment of critical voices in civil society are the most visible expressions of this.[2] There are also signs that many of the most significant features of the constitution – among which are those that would be instrumental in promoting inclusion and accountability – are deliberately and systematically being undermined by executive disregard.[3] Other important reform efforts have likewise come to very little. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) delivered its report mid-2013, but the findings were censured by parliament and have not been acted upon. Land reforms, another crucial instrument for addressing both economic recovery and socio-economic inclusion, have stalled. And while economic growth takes place, it is relatively modest, hampered by continuous systematic corruption (with protests raised especially against the tenders around the planned new railway system, and the President’s decision to pay so-called Anglo Leasing firms)[4] and growth is currently not directed at or setting off economic development in the sense of either redistribution or structural change.

These developments have generated grievances, resistance and tension. The government’s indecisiveness and inefficiency has reinvigorated the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), which initiated its call for a national dialogue on crucial political issues, proposed to involve all major political parties and civil society organisations, with a major political rally in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park on 31 May. Somewhat unexpectedly, three months after the disastrous internal party elections of the coalition’s biggest member, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), CORD had been able to reclaim the political initiative and the moral high ground. CORD’s demands for national dialogue centre on the topics of security, corruption, the cost of living and the implementation of the constitution. CORD has also demanded a fundamental reconstitution of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), whose mismanagement of the 2013 elections made the opposition doubt the possibility of free and fair elections.

Outnumbered in parliament, the opposition decided to mobilise in the arena of popular politics. It has held another major rally in Mombasa, and announced that if the government does not agree to dialogue, CORD will on 7 July hold massive meetings all across the country. 7 July (saba saba) is a date with strong political significance in Kenya. On that day in 1990, the police brutally supressed a mass-meeting held by the pro-democracy movement, and ever since, saba saba has constituted a reference to struggles for democracy.

Subsequent events have been dramatic. After first placing a ban on the 31 May rally, the police turned around to allow it. After the meeting, however, the government went back to its hard-line position, ruled out the proposal for a national dialogue and cautioned against further rallies, claiming that speeches during meetings promoted incitement. Matters have come to a head after the Mpeketoni massacres. In spite of al-Shabaab having taken responsibility for the attacks, the President in a speech to the nation on 17 June claimed to have evidence that al-Shabaab was not involved, but that local political networks, a thinly veiled reference to the opposition, were responsible, and that the attack had an ethnic (meaning kikuyu) target. This has raised political and ethnic tensions dramatically. At the time of writing, developments are uncertain, but, given the high stakes, they will impact significantly upon Kenyan politics and society for a long time to come.    

The government faces political challenges not only from the opposition. Fault lines also run within the Jubilee coalition at both elite and popular levels. Operation Usalama Watch antagonised Muslims and Somalis, and has made it more difficult to attract or retain the support of these groups; the government previously had a relatively substantial following among the Somali community. Even more significant is the looming dissent among the kalenjin. It is no secret that the alliance between Uhuru Kenyatta’s the National Alliance (TNA) and Deputy President William Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP) was always one of convenience for political elites in general and for the two leaders in particular, papering over deep-seated mistrust between the core communities that these parties represent (TNA is thought of as kikuyu dominated while URP is the main vehicle for kalenjin political aspirations). A number of URP politicians have continuously voiced concerns over poor treatment and raw deals, and suggested that the Jubilee government is essentially a TNA and kikuyu affair, sentiments which seem to resonate among sections of the kalenjin public. A fall-out between TNA and URP ahead of the scheduled 2017 elections is not inevitable, but it is certainly a distinct possibility. If that turns out to be the case, TNA needs to look elsewhere to replace the populous kalenjin vote-bank. Another possibility, of course, is that neither popular opinion nor shifting elite coalitions will decide electoral outcomes. As long as the government party is in charge of state security and finance, and exercises strong influence on the electoral commission, it may find ways to remain in charge of state power. As the last year has shown, however, the more difficult question is what to do with such power. The broader challenges may prove to be very difficult to handle; governments might rule without being able to govern.

The Jubilee coalition’s first year in power has been a difficult one for the government, marked by crisis management. It has also been a difficult year for Kenya. All of what has been discussed above attests to the reversal of the fragile reforms that were underway and a return to the old order characterised by impunity and exclusion, during which the state apparatus was an instrument for enrichment for a small elite and authoritarian control of dissenting voices. Kenya’s problems remain fundamental and interconnected: poverty, inequality, exclusion and malfunctioning public institutions. Change is necessary, but the solutions are as daunting as the problems: structural change through transformed institutions and policies – which in turn would require a political leadership willing and able to consistently push a developmental agenda. The prospects for any of this to happen appear to be remote.

[1] A recent opinion poll (released 16 June 2014) conducted by Transparency International, available at indicates poor ratings of government performance.

[3] For an overview, see Yash pal Ghai, Battering of the constitution

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