Kenya’s upcoming presidential election could mark the seventh time its citizens have voiced their opinions at the polls, but polls in East Africa‘s powerhouse still have the international community grimacing.
With the August election already a tense two-horse race between Vice President William Ruto and former political prisoner and veteran presidential candidate Rail Odinga, onlookers are hoping to avoid a repeat of 2007, when a disputed result saw bloody battles in the streets and at least 1,100 people killed.
Beyond hopes for a peaceful democratic process, however, Kenya’s elections will dictate how the country’s stuttering economy rebuilds after the ruinous coronavirus pandemic. Taking place in the most stable country in the region, with all its economic and diplomatic might, it also has profound implications for growth and development across East Africa. Dozens of international business giants, from General Electric to Google, which have made Kenya their regional headquarters, as well as Africa-focused investors around the world, will be watching closely.
Ultimately, however, economic considerations could play second fiddle to the tribal allegiances that have historically shaped elections in Kenya. “Voters normally vote along tribal lines,” concedes William, 48, a gardener in Nairobi who supports Odinga, another member of Kenya’s fourth-largest Luo tribe. “This is the seventh time Kenyans have had the opportunity to vote. Since then, the Luos vote for one man.
Hardened by decades in Kenyan politics and familiar with those realities, both Odinga and Ruto chose running mates from the country’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, who have produced three of Kenya’s four presidents, including incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta. , and drew various parties into their growing coalitions.
Whatever the outcome, August 9 promises to end years of dysfunctional Kenyan politics, during which the vice president acted as the main opposition to the government. Ruto, 54, was originally chosen as Kenyatta’s successor but found himself sidelined after a 2018 pact, sealed by an infamous handshake, between Kenyatta and Odinga, 77, a former top electoral rival .
The pact ended the violence that followed the 2017 elections when Kenyatta propelled Odinga to the presidency. Kenyans hoped this would end repeated cycles of post-election violence. Today, the Kenyan president supports his former opponent against Ruto, who sits next to him at the cabinet table.
Ruto, in turn, presented himself as an outsider determined to seize power from the “dynasties” – Kenyatta and Odinga both come from powerful political families – and defend the “scammers”, market vendors at the Kenyan army of entrepreneurial motorcyclists. , Where boda bodas. Ruto’s running mate, Rigathi Gachagua, a businessman and former aide to Kenyatta, hopes, the vice president hopes, to excite poorer voters in voice-rich Mount Kenya. Gachagua is currently facing corruption charges, which he vehemently denies.
That could work well in a country scarred by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In Turkana County, northwest Kenya, Samuel, a driver in his 40s, said he would vote for Ruto, “because I too am a hustler”.
After finding peace with Odinga, Kenyatta’s Building Bridges initiative – a controversial constitutional amendment which he said would promote power sharing – was struck down by Kenyan courts. Ruto said the amendment, which would have created several new posts, including prime minister, another vice president, a judicial ombudsman and an official opposition leader, would establish an “imperial president” with his thumb on his back. judiciary and the legislature.
Odinga hopes his running mate, Martha Karua, a former justice minister and fearless women’s rights activist known as the Iron Lady, will lead him to victory across Mount Kenya and inspire the country’s women to support him on election day. She is the first woman to grace a big party ticket in Kenya.
The Ruto-Kenyatta row taps into a painful history in East Africa’s most prosperous country. Both men have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, which they have denied, related to post-election violence in 2007. In 2016, the case fell through due to lack of evidence. A year later, in the 2017 elections, dozens of people were killed.
A recent poll by TIFA, a polling firm, found that Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Alliance and Odinga’s Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition were neck and neck, with the latter holding a slim lead. “With so many Kenyans still undecided as to whether they will be chosen as President, or even if they will in fact vote, the outcome of this contest remains highly uncertain,” TIFA noted. Experts fear widespread misinformation on social media platforms is emerging, pitting different ethnic groups against each other. Meanwhile, major international partners remained neutral. Odinga and Ruto recently made identical trips to the UK and the US to meet with officials.
The economy at the center of attention
Whoever wins will inherit a struggling economy and a dissatisfied population in the face of a perfect storm of Covid-19, drought and war in Ukraine, which has affected the supply of fuel, food and fertilizer and aggravated an acute hunger crisis in East Africa. Around 90% of the wheat consumed in Kenya, used to make the daily staple food ugaliis imported from Russia and Ukraine, according to the African country’s Agriculture and Food Authority.
“The election is not going to be determined on the basis of any other critical issue other than the economy,” said Javas Bigambo, a Kenyan political analyst. “Any presidential candidate who fails to prioritize deliberations on the economy will be to blame himself.” From rising commodity prices, even before the coronavirus pandemic, to monopolization, he says, “people are struggling to survive.”
East Africa’s largest economy grew by an average of 4.7% per year between 2015 and 2019, but was hit hard by Covid-19, which disrupted trade and transport and put the essential sector of tourism under respiratory assistance. It is thanks to a resilient agricultural sector, according to analysts, that the contraction of GDP was limited to 0.3%. This sector is now in the doldrums, however, amid a decline in fertilizer supplies.
The economy rebounded well last year, growing 7.5%, according to Kenya’s 2022 economic survey, but growth will drop to around 5% this year due to food price inflation and fuel and poor performance of Kenya’s currency. With costs rising, many Kenyans are turning to savings and loans – easily accessible through Kenya’s world-class mobile money system – while others are falling into poverty. In the northern counties, a severe drought has killed livestock and sparked ethnic conflict. “The economic outlook for this country is not exciting,” says Bigambo.
Ruto and Odinga are committed to ushering in double-digit growth. “The economy is expected to grow by 10% and I will achieve the goal by ensuring that it is easy to do business in the country,” Odinga said at a recent campaign rally in the Mount region. Kenya.
Election Year Headwinds
The election itself, however, could make matters worse. “Historically, Kenya tends to register lower economic growth in an election year. In the 2017 election, real GDP growth slowed from 0.4% to 3.8%, and in 2013 it fell from 0.8% to 3.8%,” says Oxford economist Shani Smit. Economics Africa. “Meanwhile, investors tend to postpone major investment decisions due to rising political and economic uncertainty amid the election.” Some ordinary Kenyans have decided to stockpile supplies fearing post-election violence, hitting supply and driving up prices further in rural areas.
With many headwinds facing Kenya, Smit predicts a particularly tricky year for the struggling economy. “We expect weaker economic growth, soaring consumer price inflation, a wider current account deficit and lower gross foreign reserves in 2022. We also expect gross public debt – around 75% of GDP – will remain high in 2022 and for the budget deficit to remain large ahead of the elections.Previous campaigns have, she added, been characterized by higher debt levels, reduced revenues and a decline interests of risk-averse investors.
While unemployment remains a problem, around one million Kenyans under the age of 35 join the labor force every year, according to the World Bank. Ruto, pledging to support ‘scammers’, pledged a Ksh 100 million fund for ‘vegetable vendors, cart pushers and others at the bottom of the economic ladder’, while Odinga pledged a monthly stipend of Ksh 6,000 to the poor and unemployed.
Experts say the two favorites are expected to crack down on corruption, with Kenya ranking 137 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
For now, Kenyan newspapers are full of courtroom intrigues and political wrangling. A new electoral law, which allows for the creation of powerful cross-party coalitions, should favor Odinga, analysts say, although he recently lost a coalition ally in Wiper party leader Kalonzo Musyoka. In December, the law sparked a fight in Kenya’s parliament.
Bigambo says arguments between politicians are an unnecessary distraction. Today, he says, Kenya’s political class seems less focused on “managing the economy for the greater good” than on “the issue of managing succession”. “Since 2017 we have watched the public bickering between the president and his deputy and their allies, we have seen outright disrespect for each other,” he says. “All of this has made the governance of this administration in the second term a pain in the eye.”