The world watched anxiously as Kenyans prepared for presidential elections last week, concerned that the country would be unable to produce a credible vote free of violence. While some fatalities were reported in sporadic clashes between police and protesters, close observers see steady progress toward stabilizing a fragile democracy in a volatile region. Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for Africa and a U.S. Institute of Peace a senior advisor, and Jonas Claes, a USIP expert in preventing electoral violence, comment on the election and Kenya’s prospects for more peaceful politics.

pre-election rally
Pre-election rally. Photo Courtesy of Flickr/The Commonwealth

Kenyans on August 8 re-elected Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of the country’s first president, to a second term with 54.2 percent of the vote, according to the country’s electoral commission. Raila Odinga, losing his fourth bid for the presidency at the age of 72, captured 44.7 percent.

Their parties are personality-driven coalitions of ethnic blocs jockeying for power and resources at the national and local level.

In 2007, allegations of fraud fueled a deadly post-election conflict that took as many as 1,300 lives and disrupted the economy. This year, at least 24 deaths were tied to post-election violence as protests broke out in opposition strongholds and police responded forcefully. Odinga, who has called the official results a “sham” and “fraudulent,” is yet to concede, setting the stage for possible continuation of clashes.

Still, Carson and Claes say, Kenya’s steady expansion of electoral and governance reforms has eased the country’s conflicts around politics.

Do you consider this a successful election, politically or otherwise?

Carson: It was certainly an improvement over 2007 and 2013. International monitors—including former Secretary of State John Kerry for the Carter Center—said it was a largely free, credible and transparent process. This was an enormously complex undertaking with over 1,600 candidates at the national, state and municipal levels. There were a few procedural glitches at the end but no signs of rigging or tampering. The national election commission did a remarkable job. If there’s no greater violence than we’ve seen so far, it will be regarded as a political and technical success.

Claes: The new technology used to improve the voter identification system worked well. Unfortunately, many of the conflict dynamics that made 2007 so violent remain in place. Polarized politics were further entrenched, playing on frustration around land issues, resources and ethnic loyalties. That said, at the core of these elections was a process with real integrity. That damped violence and will ease acceptance of the results.

Odinga said repeatedly that he could only lose if the election was rigged. What effect does a statement like that have in Kenya?

Claes: No question it raised tensions. It probably contributed to the instability and violence that we did see. Even before election day, Odinga’s party submitted an 8-page document listing concerns about the process and the election commission. The party mentioned that previous tallies had been fraudulent and asserted it wouldn’t accept any cheating this time. When the vote count indicated Odinga would lose, he claimed—without apparent evidence—that IT systems had been compromised. The violence that broke out in Nairobi last weekend was clearly linked to his fraud claim.

What might happen if Odinga continues refusing to concede?

Carson: His decision to challenge the outcome at the Supreme Court is a good development. It reinforces the principle that election disputes should be decided under the law and not on the streets, and helps to defuse some of the tension. It also signals that cooler heads are starting to prevail in Odinga’s inner circle. His earlier rejection of court action extended the tensions of the campaign, opened the door to more violence and jeopardized the stability that Kenya needs to move forward economically and politically.

Claes: Odinga called for a general strike but, as of now, clashes and violence are waning and life is returning to normal. What Kenyatta does next will be equally important. He said he wants to collaborate with Odinga, but it remains unclear what that means. A creative solution needs to be found for Odinga to save face and make the loss more acceptable. Kenyatta will have a hard time reuniting the country.

The murder, days before the vote, of election official Chris Msando—one of the few people with access to the computerized voting system—prompted fear of more violence. Could this crime still have repercussions?

Carson: The crime generated a great deal of concern about how the electoral process would run, and whether the election might be seriously compromised by the use of information taken from Msando. Although some initial speculation centered on the government or individuals linked to the ruling party, no one knows who murdered Chris Msando or why. It’s important, however, that the murder be investigated thoroughly. The truth is, though, that Kenya has a poor track record of solving and prosecuting what may be described as political crimes. It could still have political repercussions, depending on what police find out. Otherwise, it lingers in the background.

Did Kenya take any significant new steps to avert electoral violence this time and how successful were they?

Claes: The rollout of reforms under the 2009 constitution made a big difference. It dispersed some of the power concentrated in the presidency to the counties, reducing national-level tensions. It strengthened judicial independence and local accountability. USIP research shows these elements help curb electoral violence. At the same time, corruption and conflict has also devolved to the county level with the shift of resources.

Carson: USIP has been working with number of organizations on the ground in Kenya to monitor and curb hate speech by political leaders, and worked with youth groups to promote civil political discourse. That’s helped. A technical change worth highlighting is that vote tallies are now validated and posted at the district level—in effect, a guarantee against alteration in Nairobi. Trust in an election’s fairness is critical to reducing violence.

What role has international attention played in damping election-related conflict in the 2017 elections?

Carson: The international role in observing the election process was an important element, alongside local monitoring groups, in helping to validate the legitimacy of the outcome. International observers were also in a position to urge Kenyan political leaders to encourage their followers to respect the election outcome, avoid violence and to settle any electoral disputes in court. International delegations led by South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki and former Ghanaian President John Mahama also urged Kenyan government officials to issue messages of national reconciliation and to avoid excessive use of force in putting down any post-election protests.

Beyond crisis management, what does Kenya need to do to avoid electoral violence in the future?

Carson: The country needs to continue building trust among ethnic, regional and religious communities. Kenyan civil society groups have put a lot of effort into that, and it clearly played a part in cooling violence this cycle. At this point, the memory of the terrible violence of 2007 acts as a restraint on the nation’s politics, but memories fade. The election commission still needs some fine-tuning, too, to ensure confidence in its impartiality and professionalism.

What’s the most important next step for Kenya, politically?

Carson: The government has to maintain stability and peace and be sure the security services don’t overreact to provocations. Kenyatta has to deal with the legitimate concerns raised by the opposition, especially on corruption, improving employment opportunities and broadening the benefits of economic expansion to Kenyan communities that have felt marginalized. He also simply needs to reassure those who voted against him that they are valued members of society.

Claes: First, we need to see acceptance of the election results. In the longer term, Kenyatta has to initiate a move toward politics that are issue-based and service-oriented rather than built on tribe and personality. Unfortunately, there’s no indication that this is going to change anytime soon. In fact, right now, his Jubilee Party has brought together in a marriage of convenience ethnic Kikuyu and Kalenjin voters who have the deputy presidency. The Kalenjins expect to get the presidency in 2022. If the Kikuyu do not support a Kalenjin candidate, tensions will rise once again and we may see renewed violence soon.

Related Publications

How Kenya’s Women Are Preventing Extremism and Violence

How Kenya’s Women Are Preventing Extremism and Violence

Thursday, March 5, 2020

By: Nicoletta Barbera

A group of women gathered recently in Kiambu, an overcrowded Kenyan town, to build their local response to a national problem: recruitment, especially of young men, by extremist groups such as al-Shabab. Kiambu’s women form one of several groups nationwide that are launching local dialogues—typically among community members and authorities—to build well-rooted efforts to counter extremist influence. These groups are part of a network called Sisters Without Borders, which has risen from Kenya’s grassroots over the past five years. On the upcoming International Women’s Day, the story of Kenya’s sisters is worth noting as a success for women building peace and confronting terrorism in their homelands.

Type: Blog

Gender; Violent Extremism

Conflict Prevention in Kenya: Combating Corruption through Nonviolent Action

Conflict Prevention in Kenya: Combating Corruption through Nonviolent Action

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

By: Tabatha Thompson; Hussein Khalid

The relationship between corruption and violent conflict is complex and significant. Corruption affects access to basic services, contributes to resource scarcity, and fuels organized crime. It was included on a European Commission checklist for the root causes of conflict, and it was cited as a potential driver of extremism in the 2019 report of the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Focusing on several social movements in Kenya, this report reviews the efforts of collective civic action to combat corruption and advance transparency, accountability, and good governance.

Type: Special Report

Nonviolent Action; Democracy & Governance

Can Election Violence Really be Prevented?

Can Election Violence Really be Prevented?

Friday, November 16, 2018

By: Adam Gallagher

Kenya and Liberia held elections in 2017 that were closely watched by the international community, as both countries’ history of violence led to fears over election security. Although Liberia’s election was largely peaceful, Kenya’s was marred by intense violence. What worked in preventing election violence in Liberia that didn’t work in Kenya?

Type: Blog

Electoral Violence

What Works in Preventing Election Violence

What Works in Preventing Election Violence

Monday, October 22, 2018

By: Jonas Claes; Inken von Borzyskowski

Drawing on extensive field research in Kenya and Liberia around the 2017 elections in those countries, this report uses local survey data to evaluate the effectiveness of seven prevention measures thought to reduce the risk of election violence. Its recommendations, directed primarily to the international community but offering...

Type: Peaceworks

Electoral Violence

View All Publications