The ICC’s termination of the case against Deputy President William Ruto alters the risk of violence in Kenya’s 2017 elections and enhances the Jubilee Coalition’s prospects of maintaining power.
In Kenyan civil society, there is a broad consensus that “Kenyans are all Kenyan, until election time comes”. In other words, when elections occur, many people in Kenya begin to look to ethnicity as their primary identity whether that be Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Lou, Luhya or the many other smaller ethnic groups. Amongst other issues, particularly that of land, various groups tend to hold negative perceptions of one another which is often manipulated by politicians during elections and can facilitate violence, as witnessed in 2007.
Nonetheless, in recent years Kenya has experienced relative political stability, largely owing to the unity of the Jubilee Alliance Party (JAP). The coalition saw some of the most populous ethnic groups, namely Kikuyu and Kalenjin, previously at odds during the 2007 elections, unite and successfully secure office. This coalition put an end to incidences of violence between the two communities, particularly in Rift Valley, the most affected area.
One of the main risks to JAP’s unity and likelihood securing office again in August 2017, were looming ICC charges and the potential imprisonment of Deputy President William Ruto. Yet, this risk has now been set aside with the termination of the cases facing Ruto, and his co-accused, journalist Joshua Sang, on 5th April 2016. The relationship between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ruto has anchored the coalition and promoted peaceful relations between their respective ethnic groups, Kikuyus and Kalenjins. Both leaders recognize that if their ethnic voting blocs remain unified and work together, the chances of securing office will substantially increase.
Ethnicity is still heavily politicised, however, particularly as the political system became more decentralised with the introduction of devolution, in line with the 2010 constitution. Although JAP remains intact and clashes between Kikuyu and Kalenjin are very unlikely, local and national level competition with the opposition coalition, CORD, led by Raila Odinga (a Lou), and associated groups, remains intense and could result in incidents of election violence.
Tensions and risk of violence
The recent voter-registration process brought to the fore the risk of violence between JAP and CORD supporters during the elections, in Nairobi and other areas. During the process, it is alleged that a vernacular Kikuyu radio station was used by a competing politician to encourage supporters to transfer/register in Nairobi County to boost his electoral prospects in an area largely controlled by CORD supporters, led by Governor Evans Kidero. Whilst it is not illegal for voters to transfer to other constituencies, the registration process caused tensions which resulted in reports of violence in Kariobangi South. Given this, it is likely that during the ballot process, the movement of JAP supporters into CORD strongholds could trigger clashes which may manifest along ethnic lines.
It should also be noted that often fatal inter-communal violence continues to occur on a regular basis in Kenyan counties such as Baringo, Turkana, West Pokot, Samburu and others, owing to a variety of factors yet to be resolved.
Further still, as the elections draw nearer and leaders aim to appeal to disillusioned voters, the likelihood of using ‘hate speech’ to incite ethnic tensions also increases, particularly in hotly contested areas in northern Kenya. Previously during 2013’s elections, as the ICC indictment loomed over Kenya’s prospective leaders, Kenyatta and Ruto, the international community closely monitored hate speech, anxious to avoid a repeat of 2007. Yet, with major powers distracted by the refugee crisis in the EU, the US’s elections, and ongoing geopolitical concerns surrounding Islamic State and the war in Syria, ensuring stability in Kenya is likely to be knocked off the priority list particularly as instability in nearby Burundi and South Sudan has highlighted a western reluctance to intervene in African countries.
Simultaneously, Kenyan politicians fear the ICC’s watchful eye less and less, owing to its lack of success. Already in 2016, allegations of hate speech have circulated on several occasions against William Kabogo, Mutahi Ngunyi, Johnstone Muthama, Moses Kuria and others.
Although violence is likely in 2017, it is unlikely to be as severe as 2007. Prospects for severe wide-spread violence are undermined with the potential for rapid and heavy-handed government security responses. Kenya’s government is likely to mimic the security strategy of neighbouring Uganda during their February 2016 elections. In spite of the high likelihood of violence during the electoral process and post-election, political rallies and protests were met with tear gas and live rounds, and quickly quelled. Police were deployed to areas most at risk, including Kampala. Kenya’s government is likely to employ similar methods to ensure superficial stability in 2017.
Who will win?
It remains probable that JAP will stay united and win the election, violent or not. But, the main threat to their re-election – a low turnout in their strongholds Rift Valley and central Kenya – is a growing concern. The coalition’s poor performance, highlighted by several corruption scandals, is undermining enthusiasm amongst their traditional support base. This is also equally true of CORD. Voter apathy was highlighted in February by the poor voter registration levels in which just 1.4 million of the targeted 4 million voters managed to register.
Regardless, JAP strongholds are unlikely to deviate to other parties. During a recent by-election in Kericho County, a Kalenjin area, KANU’s Philip Sang (part of CORD) failed to snatch the seat from JAP’s Aaron Cheruiyot. This occurred despite Isaac Ruto, defecting from URP (one of the main parties in JAP) and endorsing Phillip Sang, thus highlighting that Kalenjin remain relatively united behind JAP.
In order for CORD to pose a substantial threat to JAP and have a realistic chance of securing office, Odinga will have to address the growing rifts and factionalism in the coalition. By example, CORD politician, Moses Wetangula, senator of Bungoma County, recently launched his own presidential bid despite the fact that Odinga is keen to secure office. As long as such divisions persist, CORD are unlikely to secure office in 2017.
Kenya’s election will be a close one. Its victors will be those that successfully mobilise their supporters in the coming months, effectively coordinate their election campaign, and maintain unity in their coalitions. CORD score poorly in these areas relative to JAP, who also enjoy the advantages of incumbency. Given this, President Kenyatta should see another term in office.