Region’s vote-stealing champion?

Ballot box

Sealed ballot boxes at Kitui Central Constituency, Central Primary School polling center during the last General Election on August 8, 2017.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The wheeling and dealing of Kenyan politics fascinates and perplexes many.
  • In Kenya, election analysts and bystanders are more likely to get whiplash.

For two weeks, the most common question about Kenya that I have been asked in Uganda is “who is going to win” the August 2022 general election. It sounds like an ordinary question — except it isn’t. Unlike many countries in Africa, the winner of the Kenyan election is not known before the election.

Contrast that with the lead-up to the violence-marred Ugandan election of January last year. I don’t remember anyone in Nairobi asking me, “Who is going to win?” Nearly everybody asked me, “Do you think Bobi Wine can beat [President Yoweri] Museveni?”

Musician-turned-wave-making opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi (more popularly known by his stage name, Bobi Wine), gave incumbent Museveni a small fright in that election. In the end, they put him under the hammer and he went home empty-handed — and with lots of bruises to show for his effort.

That question assumed that Museveni, now in power for 36 years, would triumph by hook or crook, and if Bobi Wine was, somehow, declared the winner, it would be an upset for the ages. Uganda belongs to the group of countries on this fair continent where the winners of the next two elections are known years in advance.

Mini and mega alliances

The wheeling and dealing of Kenyan politics fascinates and perplexes many. It simply has no parallel in the region. You have to go to Somalia to find something close. Ugandans, and the other East Africans, are confounded by how much political insult is hurled in Kenyan politics, and even more so by the fact that hardly anyone gets their skull cracked, or disappeared into a state dungeon and tortured for it.

It all forced me to have a second look at Kenyan politics and explore ways in which its elections are different from others in the region. Like its peers, they are, of course, also rigged. But because it is a country where the opposition can have a total and complete lockdown on their strongholds and limit the establishment’s ability to fiddle the vote there, that domination allows them to counter-steal if they chose to. Kenya is, thus, the only country in this neighbourhood on the way to being an equal vote-stealing opportunity country.

Kenyan elections are further unique in that observers and bystanders are more likely to be injured than the rivals to the incumbent before and after the vote. In Tanzania, you could get shot 16 times — like opposition MP and later presidential candidate Tundu Lissu — and get blinded and have your arms broken, as happened to former Museveni rival Dr Kizza Besigye in Uganda. In Kenya, election analysts and bystanders are more likely to get whiplash.

Keeping track of the frequency with which Kenyan politicians jump from one political bed to another; monitoring the mini and mega alliances; which “earthquake” is happening in which stadium; the fistfights and chaos in Parliament; the never-ending battles over politics in the courts; the political drama at funerals; and the sparring between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto will injure even the strongest of necks.

Longest campaign season

This happens in a long period of courtship, in which Kenyan politicians who are the easiest to get play hardest to get. They will go on about how their people are tired of being used by other communities. They will warn rivals not to step on their land. They will issue warnings to a presumptive front-runner to promise them development or else they will decamp to the opponent. They will tell of how they will unveil their own regional party. And then you wake up one morning and you see photos of them in monkey skins, spear in hand, dancing at the rally of the presidential candidate they were threatening to lynch!

Kenya also has not just East Africa’s but Africa’s longest unbroken campaign season. Even before the vote has been counted in an election, the campaign for the next one will already be under way. The sun never sets on Kenyan electioneering. And the long campaign season has two contradictory results. First, extended exposure makes the campaigns relatively transparent. However, it also makes them the region’s most expensive elections.

Recently, I was invited to a workshop by some clever Kenyans who study its democracy and elections. From media reports, candidates’ records and official information, they had estimated how much the last Kenyan elections cost. They looked at the spending by presidential candidates, governors, senators, MPs and members of the county assembly (MCAs). The figure was just over $800 million — nearly equivalent to Burundi’s national budget.

President Museveni was seen to be a buddy of Dr Ruto’s and he has been attacked by Kenyans who are not fans of the DP. A few days ago, the Ugandan leader emerged to say he won’t take sides in the forthcoming election. That he was neutral. He has probably seen the light: You don’t put your money on a horse in the Kenyan presidential candidate before the race; you place your bet when it nears the finish line.

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

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.