On August 9th, 2022 Kenyans will vote for a new President. It will be the third time a President will be leaving office after his term is over. President Daniel arap Moi ruled the country for 24 years, ten after the Constitution was changed to open the country to multipartism and to cap presidential terms to two. He argued that, after changing the Constitution, he qualified for a new start, which he was granted.
His successor, President Mwai Kibaki, ruled for 10 years despite a contested second term that he held in a government of national unity. Now, President Uhuru Kenyatta is also leaving office after 10 years. His second term was contested, too, although without violence, and was confirmed in a vote re-run. His father, Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, had led the country for 15 years and died in office. Incumbency seems to be a major factor in Kenya as Mwai Kibaki was once Moi’s Vice President.
The two leading candidates are the current Deputy President, William Ruto, 55 years old, who was once charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) together with President Uhuru Kenyatta. The other is former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga,77, a former detainee in the Moi era and son of Kenya’s first Vice President, Oginga Odinga. Ruto and Raila were running mates in the 2007 polls. They were once members of KANU, the party of independence that lost power in 2002.
There are also two other fringe candidates. One is George Wajackoyah, flamboyant and controversial, calling for the legalization of marijuana and the export of snakes to China. The other is David Mwaure, more religiously inclined. There were over 60 candidates, but most fell by the wayside after failing to satisfy the new election requirements.
A Different Election
This year’s election is different from others before it. This time around, the economy is the main issue because of high living costs, with the war in Ukraine playing a significant role. Data from the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) puts the 12-month inflation rate at 8.32% in July, above the CBK margin (between 2.5% and 7.5%). However, going by the prices of basic commodities, it could be higher. A prime example is a packet of maize flour, Kenya’s staple food: in only one year, its price has increased from about 120 to 200 Ksh (Kenyan shillings) —a 67% price increase.
In other contests, the attention was more focused on personalities, fuelled by ethnicity as a dividing line. Just last year, the key issue was the class divide pitting the so-called ‘dynasty’ — a group of politicians who have held political and economic power since independence — against the ‘hustlers’ or the commoners, who feel the road to upward mobility is permanently closed, a movement led by Ruto. However, he seems to have rattled the dynasties or their semblances who have grouped to stop his presidency.
For now, the key issue is high living costs, driven by three factors. One is the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, which brought a semblance of normality. This, in turn, created demand for goods and services and, therefore, inflation. Earlier, the pandemic had devastated the economy as businesses closed. Luckily, the informality of the Kenyan economy spared it from the worst.
The other inflation driver is the crisis in Ukraine. This reduced oil supplies, raising its price to 159 Ksh a litre in August 2022 from 129.72 Ksh in December 2021 —an increase of about 23%.Kenya imports its oil despite the discovery of significant oil reserves in 2011. This crisis has compounded the effects of the Covid-19 recovery, raising prices even further.
The third factor is lower agricultural production, caused by poor rains and, some might add, low productivity as fertilizers have also become unaffordable to farmers because of the war in Ukraine.
High living costs are exacerbated by the informality of the economy, with 80 % of Kenyans working in that sector who have virtually no savings to fall back on. Unlike in developed countries, there are no welfare checks except for those who are over 70 years old. Borrowing from online platforms or relatives and friends may have given some families a dinner.
As such, inflation could play a role in shaping popular opinion and voting patterns. The debate between the running mates on July 19th was about high living costs. Moreover, the government is reacting by subsidising maize flour and oil. The presidential debate on July 26th also focused on these issues.
Some argue that even before the crisis in Ukraine or Covid-19, Kenyan democracy was maturing. Elections now seem to have less effect on economic growth; while electoral violence has reduced, as widespread violence on the scale of the 2007-08 debacle is not expected in this run. The post-election violence in 2007-8, the vote nullification, and the re-run of the presidential polls in 2017 by the Supreme Court probably forced the country to mature faster.
Higher literacy rates, globalization, and the Internet may have also played a role in changing Kenyans’ views. Others argue that former shocks like misrule, droughts, violence, poverty, and helplessness have mellowed the average Kenyan, leaving no energy for violence.
Most likely, voting will go on peacefully and no matter who wins, life will go on. In fact, some hold that the next President will have it easy, ruling a society that has been exhausted by economic shocks, history and, as some might say, leaders who have overstayed on the stage.
This year’s polls carry great expectations, similarly to the 2002 polls which ended KANU’s four decades in power. Back then, Kenyans were weighed down by the political burdens of a party that did not tolerate alternative views. The economy was in the doldrums, too. No wonder they chose an economist, Mwai Kibaki. Ruto is a botanist, Raila an engineer. Kibaki did not disappoint on the economic front, but reneged on political promises. The feeling of exclusion led to violence as he won the second term.The heavy burden is now the economy espoused by high living costs. Kenyans hope the winner shall bring a sense of optimism in a country reeling from the triple shocks of Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and below-average rains.
On top of that, the future President will have to deal with a problem different from Kibaki’s, over-inclusion. What shall he give all those who have flocked to the two major coalitions, Azimio la Umoja Kenya One led by Raila, and Kenya Kwanza led by Ruto? Shall he borrow more despite Kenya’s debt-to-GDP ratio reaching 70%? Shall he confront corruption — now called state capture — when the perpetrators might have played a big role in his electoral victory? How shall he create more jobs and restore national confidence? Will the next President usher in an economic winter that will freeze the socio-economic classes tobecome a permanent feature of our country? Or will he unfreeze the socio-economic classes in favour of a meritocratic society? Overall, will the polls give us an economic dream or a nightmare? How shall he instil hope and confidence for the future just as Kenyans felt following independence from the UK? These questions shall all be answered after August 9th.