Kenya's Existential Elections

By Ahmed Salim

With a few days left until Kenyans cast their votes in what is shaping to be a historic election there is a realization that the outcome of the election will transcend the borders of Kenya and have a direct impact in the rest of the East African region and Africa. By now you have read a significant amount of articles, reports, analysis and economic forecasts about what exactly will happen on Election Day. You have also read many pieces that question whether there will be an outbreak of unrest similar to the post-election violence that occured in 2007-2008. The truth is we are not sure what will happen, there is an extraordinary amount of uncertainty surrounding this election and beyond. We may not understand the consequences of who wins and who loses perhaps six to ten months after the President-elect is sworn in. Nevertheless, despite the uncertainty that surrounds this election there are a few things that we know will happen the morning after the dust settles from this election. 

This Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA) Outlook places Kenya's elections in a regional context. It identifies the key players to watch, in addition to the presidential candidates, namely President Mwai Kibaki, the Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, the media and of course the good folks at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). This Outlook provides a snapshot on what is at stake from a regional perspective. "Kenya remains the anchor state and the geopolitical pivot of the East African Community," says Aly Khan Satchu, CEO of Rich Management and well-known economist in the region. For this reason, Kenya's elections will be existential and absolutely crucial at the individual level through Mr. Raila Odinga and Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta, at the national level through Kenya and Kenyans and at a regional level through East Africa. The region needs a dynamic and engaged Kenya for its own long-term welfare and prospects. However, will the country be too bogged down in understanding and implementing the devolution process and unable to pay attention to issues outside of its borders? Countries like South Sudan and Ethiopia will surely hope not. 

In the midst of this uncertainty surrounding the election conduct and results, there are certain things that we know will happen the day after everything is said and done. 


The implementation of the devolution process is expected to radically change service delivery and government-citizen relations in Kenya. Devolution will be critical in trying to promote equity and social development by decentralizing representation and government through the reduction of central authority. How will the government pay for this? Mr. Satchu calls the process an "equivalent of economic shock therapy" that could slow down the economy and increase inflation. The process will also have unintended consequences such as exacerbating regional inequalities and bring about new marginalized minorities. 


While the fight for Kenya's presidency will be the most visible battle in the election, other battles will be taking place with some intense politicking. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) suspects, "in some counties competition for governorship will be fierce, and the potential for violence is high, especially since many local conflicts are about access to power and resources." The President-elect may have thought the campaign to be elected was arduous, but the real test of his or her mettle will be their relationship with the 47 Governors who will have their own interests, motives and political affiliations as well as the executive power that they wield. 


No matter what the outcome, all polls point to a Kenya intensely divided after the election. The next President will have to embrace a dose of pragmatism, realpolitik and serve as Healer-in-Chief. The country, already divided by internal ethnic divisions, saw an intensity in divisions as a result of the ICC question. In order for Kenya to move forward, the next President will have to spend some political capital on reconciliation. 


Surprisingly missing from the campaign debates is the Somalia question. How long will the Kenyan Defense Force remain in Somalia? How will a Kenyatta presidency unfold if the West and international partners isolate it? Can they risk isolating Kenya especially after all the progress made in the country by Kenyan and African Union troops? The next President will have to navigate these rocky issues while expecting that a vengeful al-Shabaab could cause some headaches within the country. Somalia and al-Shabaab may have been invisible during the political campaigns. They will surely reassert themselves very quickly once the President-elect takes the oath of office. 

Download SID Trend Monitoring Report: Kenya's Existential Elections and Why They Matter