Kenya: Where politics doesn’t sleep

William Ruto and Raila Odinga

Deputy President William Ruto (left) shakes hands with ODM leader Raila Odinga during the Mashujaa Day celebrations at Wang’uru Stadium in Kirinyaga County on October 20, 2021.

Photo credit: DPPS

What you need to know:

  • Kenya has probably surpassed the United States as the country where, immediately after one general election ends, the campaign for the next one starts.
  • Why is election campaigning such a perverse fact of Kenyan daily life? And why do people turn out in large numbers?

Kenya’s next general election is 10 months away but you wouldn’t know it from how frenetic the campaigning is. It seems like the vote is taking place on Friday.

It felt exactly the same way this time in 2019 and 2018. Kenya has probably surpassed the United States as the country where, immediately after one general election ends, the campaign for the next one starts. Campaigns for the 2027 and 2032 votes are already on. If a political term was seven or even 10 years, it would be exactly the same. 

In this, Kenya is alone in East Africa and is firm in the lead pack in Africa.

It also remains one of the great Kenyan mysteries. Why is election campaigning such a perverse fact of Kenyan daily life? And why do people turn out in large numbers? It can be funny. As the daily politicking goes on, there is always a group of politicians urging the rest “to focus on development” and leave campaigning for the “election season”. And almost always, they say that when they are campaigning.

The criticism that this never-ending campaigning distracts the government from the business of running the country is valid, but there is a flip side. This political tradition means Kenya is at a point where you can’t have a dark horse emerging and giving the frontrunners a run for their money. 

It’s unlikely that a candidate still in his political diapers, like Uganda’s Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, can come on the scene and give a big man a fright as he did in the January 2021 polls. In that sense, amid the chaos, there is quite some predictability to Kenyan politics.

Daily gladiatorial event

Fresh and rookie candidates will emerge and ruffle feathers a bit, and cause excitement at the presidential debates, but the political machine will eventually grind them down and they will be spat out at the polls. There are now some pointers to this Kenyan peculiarity. Part of it seems to be a result of something good. 

Kenya is the most politically litigious country in Africa. Virtually every government and presidential decision end up in court. It might soon come to a point where a president can’t sneeze without the risk of being sued for spreading germs by not covering his mouth properly with the right size of a handkerchief.

Opposition to the government is spread way beyond the official opposition in Parliament to civil society and a myriad other groups in quite robust ways. The result is that a Kenyan government has its legitimacy challenged on a daily basis like few others on the continent. And when your legitimacy is attacked so frequently before the people, your defence of it before them also has to be regular. 

It has turned politics into a daily gladiatorial event in a colosseum, with the masses in the stands demanding the heads of the vanquished.

The very dispersed democratic entities and fragility of parties has created two distinct seasons in Kenyan politics. You tend to have a long courtship season and an equally long political mating season.

Path to the presidency

For about two years, politicians and intending politicians show up in their finest feathers, make a lot of noise, announce their intentions and circle rivals, feeling where the ground is firm. After two years, if they feel they have some traction, they throw their hat in the ring.

Then it goes into the two-year political mating season. Politicians shop for parties, threatening to form their own, issue warnings about how their areas can no longer be taken for granted by presidential aspirants, and so on. There are many photo ops, funerals attended, and tantrums in Parliament, but it is all is a negotiation.

A year to five months to the election, consummation takes place. Politicians eyeing State House or parliamentary seats, or the governor’s mansion, must register a party or join one. The ‘A’ players seeking to move into State House must complete the coalition formation, without which, it seems, there is no longer a path to the presidency.

The coalition forming is also often noisy, with large rallies, grand posturing, allegations of being cheated or being disrespected, and threats by some of the actors to ditch and decamp to a rival coalition. If it was possible for a party to win the presidency alone without cutting deals with regional and ethnic political barons, none of this drama would happen.

In the process, campaigning and the rally, have become a way of life. They are not things you do only a few months to an election. People turn out in large thousands to capture political goods by threatening incumbents with disloyalty, or to collect on promises made and whose delivery has been delayed. Kenyan voters really don’t cede all their power to MPs; they keep a slice of it which they exercise directly at these maddening rallies.

To reverse the proverb, when Kenyan politicians learnt to fly without perching, the voters learned to shoot without missing.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3


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