What Happens Next in Kenya’s Political Crisis Is Anyone’s Guess

Updated on
  • Electoral commission says vote rerun will go ahead on Oct. 26
  • Opposition candidate Odinga withdraws from presidential race

Kenyan Opposition Leader Won't Run in New Election

Two months after Kenya staged its presidential election, the East African nation’s political future remains a guessing game.

The drama began last month when the Supreme Court -- in a first for Africa -- annulled the Aug. 8 election because of “illegalities and irregularities” and ordered a fresh vote. That followed allegations by opposition candidate Raila Odinga that the original vote, won by President Uhuru Kenyatta, was rigged.

Opposition supporters stand on a street sign during protests in Nairobi

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

The latest twist came Thursday when the opposition insisted that the announcement by Odinga, 72, that he was withdrawing from the new election was valid, disputing an assertion made by the electoral commission hours before that he had not submitted the right form to do so formally. While the commission says the vote will go ahead on Oct. 26, the opposition says it won’t. The uncertainty has prompted Kenyan stocks to fall the most in Africa since the Sept. 1 annulment and yields on its Eurobonds to jump.

“We are in uncharted waters and nobody, I mean nobody knows how this will end,” said Anzetse Were, an independent economist in Nairobi, the capital. “If anybody tells you they know how this will end, they’re lying to you.”

Election controversies have become routine in Kenya since it became a multiparty democracy in 1991. The most catastrophic followed a disputed vote in 2007 that deteriorated into clashes across the country and claimed at least 1,100 lives.

Nationwide Protests

In the current dispute, Odinga’s National Super Alliance has called on supporters to stage daily nationwide street protests starting Monday. Interior Secretary Fred Matiang’i on Thursday announced a ban on demonstrations in the centers of Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, Odinga’s stronghold.

“There is no precedent, there is no legal provision, there is no constitutional provision for what is happening now in Kenya,” Robert Besseling, executive director of EXX Africa Ltd., a political risk advisory firm, said Thursday in an interview in Cape Town. “There is no way that you can lay out a definite forecast for Kenya’s electoral process at the moment.”

Trouble this year started before the actual vote, with the torture and murder in late July of the electoral authority’s technology manager, Chris Msando, a key official in charge of the electronic voting system, by unknown people.

Once the results started rolling in showing Kenyatta winning handily, Odinga said the tallies were fake and the result of hackers gaining control of the electoral commission’s computer network. The authority’s chairman, Wafula Chebukati, conceded there had been an attempt to breach its system but said it failed.

Defying Court Order

Then came the historic Supreme Court ruling that annulled the vote and ordered a new election had to be organized within 60 days. Central to its decision was the electoral commission’s refusal to obey a court order to allow access to its servers to judge Odinga’s hacking allegations.

The commission’s “contumacious disobedience” of the order, the Supreme Court said in its ruling, “leaves us with no option but to accept the petitioners’ claims that either IEBC’s IT system was infiltrated and compromised and the data therein interfered with or IEBC’s officials themselves interfered with the data or simply refused to accept that it had bungled the whole transmission system and were unable to verify the data.”

Kenyatta responded angrily, calling the court judges “crooks” and describing their judgment as “a judicial coup.” He’s adamantly opposed to the wide-ranging changes to the electoral commission, including of personnel, that Odinga is demanding.

With no prospect of his desired changes at the commission, Odinga announced he was pulling out of the rerun, saying “all indications are that the election scheduled for Oct. 26 will be worse than the previous one.”

Electoral Law Amendments

This week, Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party pushed amendments to the electoral law through parliament and the senate that enable commissioners to appoint a new chairman and reduce the number of people required to make a quorum. The changes, which must be signed by Kenyatta, also allow for manual transmission of vote results.

The commission’s statement later that day that Odinga hadn’t formally withdrawn muddied the waters further because it wasn’t signed as is normal practice. When asked about the oversight Thursday, IEBC spokesman Andrew Limo said: “Maybe because it was late.”

Peter Wanyande, a professor of political science at the University of Nairobi, said the lack of a signature by the commission chairman means “it’s not valid.”

The commission also said that instead of a straight contest between Kenyatta and Odinga, all other independent candidates previously excluded from the rerun will be on the ballot, in line with a High Court ruling on Wednesday.

“I have no idea how this is going to end -- there are just too many variables,” Ahmed Salim, vice president at Teneo Strategy, said by phone from Dubai. “If the election doesn’t happen, after Nov. 1 we are really in a constitutional crisis.”

— With assistance by Michael Cohen

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