Kenya’s Odinga Evokes Ghost of 2008 Chaos, Urges Fair Vote

Updated on
  • Raila Odinga warns he won’t be able to rein in supporters
  • Opposition willing to accept vote delay to ensure credibility

Raila Odinga.

Photographer: Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

Kenya’s elections may prompt violence that evokes the unrest that killed at least 1,100 people following a disputed vote a decade ago if the electoral authorities fail to ensure this year’s process is credible, opposition leader Raila Odinga said.

Any outbreak of clashes would be difficult to control, even though Kenyans “don’t want to go back to 2008,” Odinga said in an interview Wednesday in the capital, Nairobi. The 72-year-old former prime minister is seeking to stop President Uhuru Kenyatta from securing a second term in the Aug. 8 election.

Kenyan elections are a source of nervousness for investors in East Africa’s biggest economy. A dispute between supporters of rival parties over the outcome of a presidential election in December 2007 sparked two months of violence that, in addition to the deaths, forced 350,000 others to flee their homes. The clashes also caused Kenya’s economic growth rate to slump to 1.7 percent in 2008 from 7.1 percent a year earlier.

“The other time we told people to stop, but when the situation develops, it becomes very difficult for an individual to do anything,” Odinga said. “Things just completely get out of hand. It’s not in my hands” to stop the violence, he said.

The opposition National Super Alliance, which Odinga heads, already suspects “something sinister” is afoot at the Independent Electoral & Boundaries Commission after the body dismissed two senior officials in the space of a week. One of the people removed was the head of the procurement office, which has yet to secure 130 million ballot papers needed for the legislative, gubernatorial, presidential and other elections taking place in two months.

‘Polarized Environment’

The chances of unrest at the August ballot have been heightened by an “extremely polarized” political environment, the National Democratic Institute said in April. The Washington-based advocacy group said delays in installing new members of the IEBC hindered the body’s ability to organize the elections.

NASA, as the opposition coalition is known, might accept the vote date being pushed back if it meant ensuring the elections would be credible, Odinga said.

“We would like to have credible elections,” he said. “We don’t mind pushing it back. It’s better a delayed election than a flawed election. We don’t think this country can live with another flawed election.”

Kenyatta, 55, is seeking a second, five-year term after winning the 2013 presidential election with 50.07 percent of the vote, when Odinga received 43.3 percent. The opposition disputed the outcome of that vote, citing alleged rigging.

‘Setting Tone’

Odinga is “setting the tone” that his side may not accept the results, especially if they lose by a small margin, said Lisa Brown, a risk analyst at Rand Merchant Bank in South Africa. By raising questions about the electoral body, his alliance can create public doubt about its ability to carry out the polling as well as any run-off, she said.

“Given the fragility of the economy, Odinga’s rhetoric around rejecting the outcome, and the fact that NASA might not be able to prevent violence, does cloud prospects around economic recovery after August,” Brown said.

Odinga and Kenyatta may have near equal support among ethnic voting blocs in the country, and if the opposition coalition boosts turnout in swing counties by 10 percent on voting day, it may be able to force a run-off, according to Emma Gordon, senior analyst at Bath, England-based Verisk Maplecroft.

Kenyatta is a member of the Kikuyu community, the largest ethnic group in the nation, while Odinga is Luo, the third biggest. There are more than 40 ethnic groups in the nation of 47 million people.

A Kenyatta victory will probably “spark urban rioting in key opposition hot spots,” albeit at “levels only slightly higher than seen in 2013,” Gordon said in a report last month.

‘Wrong Direction’

Kenyatta would take 47 percent of the vote if elections were held now, pollster Ipsos Kenya said in a survey published May 30. That compares with 42 percent support for Odinga, according to Ipsos. Respondents in 76 percent of the households said economic conditions have worsened, citing the rising cost of living, while 71 percent said the nation is headed in the wrong direction.

NASA can garner about 8.4 million votes in its strongholds against the ruling Jubilee Party’s estimated 7.2 million, Odinga said. The tide of voters in so-called battleground counties, with an estimated 5 million voters, “has changed more in our favor than theirs,” Odinga said.

“You cannot say that 71 percent of the population say the country is headed in the wrong direction and then the leader of that government is still leading in the polls,” he said.

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