Kenya’s Supreme Court had voided the result of the presidential election held in August, but following a voting rerun – over two months and dozens of political violence-related deaths later – the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) finally declared Uhuru Kenyatta as president-elect.
Since then, however, allegations of fraud have left the country in political crisis, with the Kenyan Supreme Court now beginning to hear cases against Kenyatta.
These developments shine a light on the fragility of Kenya’s democratic project. Kenyatta claimed “victory” after a prolonged and extremely hostile electoral period. He won the first round of votes by a 10-point margin, but anomalies and allegations of fraud by the opposition party National Super Alliance (NASA) prompted Kenya’s highest court to order a second voting on October 26. He defeated opposition leader Raila Odinga by default. Odinga, convinced that the IECB was extremely partial against him, withdrew his candidacy on October 10 and called on his supporters to boycott the repeat vote. Odinga’s non-participation effectively reduced the voters’ turnout to a mere 38.8 percent, over 90 percent of which voted for Kenyatta. As such, the latter’s presidency is likely to suffer a legitimacy crisis.
Vehemently refusing to recognize the election outcomes, Odinga consistently alleged widespread irregularities in the run up and conduct of both the August 8 and October 26 electoral rounds. His strongly-worded statements sparked protests among his supporters who were violently suppressed by security forces. But the hitherto unsolved murder of IECB digital security officer Christopher Chege Musando just days before the August ballot, reported death threats against officials of the election supervising body, and the IEBC’s admittance to supposedly unsuccessful attempts to hack the commission’s servers, all seem to lend evidence to Odinga’s accusations of massive fraud.
However, the brutal crackdown on dissent may not only further aggravate opposition supporters’ grievances. It is already adding fuel to simmering ethnic tensions as well. Unrest has been brewing between the powerful Kikuyu ethnic group, to which Kenyatta belongs, and the marginalized communities such as the Luo, which Odinga comes from.
Not that the current elections are an exception in Kenya’s recent political history. Previous general elections were no less violent. In 2007 and 2013, electoral contests degenerated into brutal conflicts resulting in thousands of deaths, largely perpetrated by state security forces during excessively forceful crackdowns. Kenya’s history of disorderly elections, then, makes the current atmosphere of incredulity over the electoral process rather unsurprising.
The electoral chaos in Kenya is indicative of the country’s state of democratic consolidation, where civil society is pitted against the courts and self-absorbed ruling elites. This makes Kenya exemplary of Africa’s political trajectory, for the problems that are so openly observed in the country are just as blatantly laid bare in other aspiring democracies on the continent. With elections marred by allegations of corruption, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), find themselves in similar unpromising political conditions.
Following the victory of Senator George Weah in the October 10 elections over his rival from the ruling party, Joseph Boakai, Liberia’s Supreme Court suspended preparations for a run-off vote between the two. Most recently, the Court moved to halt ongoing hearings into allegations of electoral fraud and irregularities, which the ruling Unity Party had filed before the National Elections Commission – likely even further delaying the run-off.
Weah had defeated Boakai by 38 to 28 percent, respectively, with the result that the losing candidates, including Boakai, have embarked on a transparent campaign to discredit their opponent. Among other things, Weah was accused of being in touch with convicted warlord Charles Taylor, despite Weah firmly rejecting those claims as “propaganda.” Allegations of outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf interfering on Weah’s behalf have also been rebuffed by election observers from the EU, who found no evidence of irregularities. In fact, the vote’s conduct was assessed as “good or very good.” This week, officials from the US embassy in Liberia backed up this evaluation, lending additional credibility to the first round the elections.
Just like Kenya, Liberia is now in a state of political uncertainly amidst the postponement of the ballot. Its future hangs in the balance as concerns are rising that the Supreme Court is used as a tool to deliberately scuttle the election results. The fact that the four parties that submitted the complaint are discussing a “merger” to create a common front against Weah in an attempt to bolster Boakai’s presidential claim, seems to justify this concern.While this is done under the guise of protecting democracy, it is clear that the motivations are, in fact, to undermine legitimate election outcomes.
A similar tactic has been effectively employed in the DRC, where Congolese President Joseph Kabila has been overstaying his presidential term. Breaking a brokered agreement stipulating elections to be held before the end of the year, Kabila has refused to stand down. The Congolese electoral commission warned that elections could not take place until the end of 2018 at the earliest, in a transparent bid to prevent Kabila’s opponent in any election, Moïse Katumbi, from running.
Except that Kabila’s forceful approach is about to backfire. The ruling further infuriated the already frustrated opposition party and the many Congolese citizens anticipating regime change. With every day that Kabila overstays his welcome, the opposition is growing stronger. Katumbi is widely expected to win the first round of a future presidential poll, and vowed to return to DRC in December to stand in the delayed vote – an announcement likely to add more pressure on Kabila. Alongside other opposition figures, Katumbi is calling on the populace to resist the President’s desire to stay in power by mounting civil disobedience campaigns.
As the examples of Kenya, Liberia and the DRC illustrate, weak institutions and excessively powerful political figures at the helm for unnecessarily long periods of time, are making electoral transfer of power painstakingly complicated and violent. The Courts, meant to protect democracy, are used to undermine it in all three countries. However, Kenya’s failure to set an example to other African states of what a truly peaceful electoral exercise could look like is one of Africa’s biggest democratic disappointments. As things stand now, the Continent’s outlook on democratic governance looks bleak indeed.