Although most leaders from the international community remain transfixed on the situation developing in Mali, on the other side of the continent, a more optimistic picture is emerging from the East African state of Kenya. Upwards of 14 million people are expected to head to the polls today, 04 March 2013, to cast their ballots for six different positions, including the highly coveted role of president. It is this contest, which will see eight different candidates vie for control of country’s highest office, which some analysts have described as a ‘make or break’ moment for Kenya. Some naysayers are concerned that the country may see all out battles in the vein of the bloodshed which filled the streets following the last election in 2007. However, aside from localised violence in the country’s restive east, at present, the only large-scale “battle” is that of the political kind, complete with last-minute mud-slinging and the usual scathing accusations from contesting parties.
Other than the violence in the east, the elections process has thus far proceeded without large-scale security setbacks, and voters have preferred to convey a more jubilant tone, as thousands of people were spotted singing, dancing, and generally celebrating their historic moment. Such optimism was perhaps best summed up in the simple, yet meaningful, political cartoon released by Kenya’s most influential newspaper, The Daily Nation, on 04 March 2013, which showed a man casting a ballot for only one candidate: “peace”. These joyful scenes notwithstanding, international investors are still advised to remain particularly cautious with regard to the aftermath of the Kenyan election, which could not only be marred in bouts of tribal violence, but may also see a severe reversal of fortune for Western businesses.
Tribal Tensions: Toward Another Round of Violence?
Despite assurances from officials that the violence which stained Kenya’s previous election is not likely to resurface, there always lurks the threat of small-scale eruptions of ethnic conflict. This threat may be compounded by the, at present, too-close-to-call results, which has Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) at a near tie with his closest rival, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance. Whilst most Western news outlets previously suggested that recent polls had pointed to a win by Odinga, Kenyan political analysts are not so sure. Prior to the election, Odinga was believed to have held a slight lead with 46% of the electorate showing support for the candidate, whilst Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance was favoured by 40%. However, other recent polls suggest that Kenyatta may lead Odinga in the race by about “740,000 votes”. A win by Kenyatta, despite the best wishes of Western officials, is not entirely out of the question. Whilst some contenders were quick to downplay the effects of “tribalism” on the country’s political landscape – James ole Kiyapi, a contender from the Build and Restore Kenya Party, most notably called it nothing more than a tool to “marginalise others” – most Kenyans are still expected to continue to vote along tribal lines.
Voting for one’s tribe is so engrained in some communities, that some tribesmen even, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), continue to the colonial-era practice of “oathing”, whereby villagers only vote for leaders from their own ethnic group. The powerful Kikuyu tribe has been particularly noteworthy for this practice, and some rural Kikuyus are said to have already pledged their oaths more than one year ago. This tendency to practice ethnic-based voting, then, gives Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, a nice advantage over his rival, Odinga, who belongs to the third largest tribe, the Luo, which makes up only 10 % of the Kenyan population. Nevertheless, Odinga may have an advantage in that he may be able to benefit from the lack of unity among Musalia Mudavadi’s Orange Democratic Movement. Indeed, although Mudavadi is himself a member of the Luhya tribe, which accounts for a reported 16% of the Kenyan population, most analysts believe that this ethnic group does not tend to vote on a unified front. In the end, this suggests that the election may be too close to call, resulting in a run-off, which is scheduled to take place on 11 April 2013.
A Look Ahead: Security and Business Implications
Whilst most analysts believe that election violence reminiscent of the events which unfolded in 2007 – 2008 is unlikely, small eruptions of localised conflict are expected. Indeed, despite boasts from the Kenyan Government that it has managed to deploy some 99,000 police officers to provide precautionary measures ahead of the election, The Economist suggests that at least two-thirds of these are actually government officials, including “wildlife rangers” and “prison wardens” who have been trained at the last minute to prevent ethnic violence. Arguably, the lack of a well-prepared and united security system suggests that Kenya may be unable to prevent all election-related violence, particularly in economically deprived sections of the capital, Nairobi, and ethnically diverse Nakuru, which is home to a large population of both the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes. In addition to these areas, the country’s restive eastern Mombasa region may also be haven to both ethnic and separatist-motivated attacks. At time of publication, at least fifteen people, including four Kenyan police officers were killed – some even “hacked to death” – at polling stations allegedly by members of the separatist Mombasa Republican Council.
And then there are the business ramifications. Even if the country manages to bypass post-election ethnic violence entirely, there remain concerns about the country’s ability to attract business, particularly if Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance wins the polls. Indeed, the Jubilee Alliance is something of a “who’s who” of (alleged) human rights’ violators. Aside from Kenyatta himself, who has been accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of committing crimes against humanity during the fallout of the 2007 election, his ally, the Minister of Higher Education, William Ruto, has been accused of plotting “crimes” against supporters of President Mwai Kibaki’s National Unity Party. For Kibaki’s part, however, the president believes that the media is “exaggerating” the threats of impending violence. Nevertheless, should Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance emerge victorious, international businesses, particularly those based in the West, are likely to be severely impacted, as the ICC may attempt to muster up sanctions from its member states. Ultimately, this may lead to yet another victory for Chinese-operated firms, which are reluctant, on paper at least, to meddle with the African continent’s political affairs.