The Kenya general elections will be held in early August – when Kenyans will have an opportunity to elect a new President and representatives to the National Assembly, Senate, and devolved County Assemblies. These elections will be Kenya’s seventh since the introduction of multi-party politics in 1992, and the third since the promulgation of a new constitution that significantly altered the structure and architecture of the Kenyan state in 2010. Although there are four presidential candidates cleared to contest the forthcoming election, there are only two frontrunners: Raila Odinga, the longstanding leader of Kenya’s opposition politics and former Prime Minister (2008-2012) representing the ‘Azimio- One Kenya’ Coalition; and William Ruto the current Deputy President representing the ‘Kenya Kwanza’ Coalition.
The Presidential Candidates Policy Towards the EAC – thin on detail?
Although the leading presidential candidates campaign domestically on divergent and opposing policy platforms, there has been no substantive articulation of their foreign policy visions for the East African Community. A review of their manifestos highlights a lack of significant policy divergences in their approach to foreign policy and the East African Community (EAC). In their manifestos, the two top coalitions commit to a pan-African approach to foreign policy founded on non-alignment, respect for territorial integrity, peaceful co-existence, and economic and commercial diplomacy.
The Regional Significance
The elections have substantial regional significance. The polls and the Kenyan electoral process signify the level of political and constitutional progress and highlight the differences between Kenya and its neighbours. Many features that are the hallmark of the Kenyan electoral process, such as the practice of contestant debates and other institutional guardrails such as the growing independence of the judiciary and vibrant civil society, may not be as prevalent across other EAC states. Thus, many across the region will closely follow and monitor the quality of the forthcoming elections and whether the polls strengthen or diminish Kenya’s democratic ideals.
Kenya has a long history of electoral violence. Since the introduction of competitive multi-party politics, almost all elections have witnessed varying degrees of electoral violence. With an economy struggling to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country can least afford to go through any other socio-economic disruptions as a result of electoral violence. Moreover, as witnessed in the 2008 post-election crisis, any troubles to the Kenyan economy will, without a doubt, affect the rest of the EAC region.
The last three elections have been contested in some way. The disputed results of the 2007-08 elections resulted in post-electoral violence, a political crisis, and caused an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Kenya and economic ramifications across the region. The African Union convened the Kofi Annan-led mediation process, culminating in a power-sharing arrangement that ended the crisis and opened a window of opportunity for further radical constitutional reforms. Among the outcomes of these reforms was the new Constitution (2010) that created the Supreme Court, whose mandate includes exclusive adjudication of presidential election petitions.
Judicial and Political Intervention
The 2013 and 2017 elections were contested at the Supreme Court. Although the court upheld Kenyatta’s victory in 2013, it nullified his election in 2017 and ordered a repeat contest boycotted by Odinga. The nullification of the 2017 election carried much significance for the region as it was a watershed moment for Kenya and a rare precedent for the EAC region and Africa. Despite the court ruling and Kenyatta winning the subsequent election, Odinga continued to contest the legitimacy of the Kenyatta presidency. In March 2018, President Kenyatta and Odinga reached a political settlement, commonly referred to as the ‘Handshake’ deal, which heralded the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) as a means of quelling the tensions and violence that had gripped the nation after the 2017 elections. The initiative set in motion a process that would culminate in the various constitution and legislative review proposals that would have significantly altered the 2010 constitution. Vehemently opposed by Ruto, the Supreme Court would also significantly blow the Kenyatta – Odinga political union by declaring the BBI process illegal.
Predicting a winner in this election is an arduous task. Opinion polls show the leading contestants, Ruto and Odinga, in a neck and neck contest separated by a slim margin of undecided voters. Thus, it is most likely that any loser in this close contest will seek the intervention of the Supreme Court. As with the 2017 election, there is a likelihood that judicial intervention will be insufficient in addressing any tensions that may arise from the election. With the preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, an upcoming United States (US) midterm election, and a change of leadership in the United Kingdom, any ensuing electoral crisis is likely to receive little attention from Kenya's influential western partners. Thus, should a crisis ensue, it may be to the EAC and the African Union that Kenya turns to for intervention and arbitration in search of a political solution.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Kenya has had mixed fortunes in its relationship with EAC states during the Kenyatta presidency. The relationship with Uganda has been characterized by regular political and economic friction. Trade wars between the two have been prevalent throughout the Kenyatta presidency. Ruto’s alleged dalliance with Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) was also a source of diplomatic tensions with Uganda in the last years. After accusing Kenya of interference in its internal affairs and a longstanding maritime boundary dispute, Somalia cut diplomatic ties with Kenya in December 2020. However, relations were restored six months later following mediation by Qatar. Relations with Tanzania (Kenya’s second-largest trade partner after Uganda) worsened throughout the better part of the Kenyatta presidency. These relations were at their worst during the presidency of the late John Pombe Magufuli through regular trade wars, sibling rivalry, and Magufuli’s preference for strengthening ties with Southern rather than East Africa. They would even become more fragile during the Covid-19 period, when Kenya placed entry restrictions on Tanzania, following the then Tanzanian administration’s denialism of the pandemic. Nonetheless, relations with its southern neighbour would be reset after SamiaSuluhu’s ascension to the presidency. Relations with Ethiopia have been optimal throughout the last decade. This relationship translated to significant economic benefits, such as the entry of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telco, into the hitherto protected and restricted Ethiopian telco industry.
To promote regional peace, Kenya continues to support multiple initiatives toward peace in South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)/Rwanda conflicts. Another considerable achievement attributed to Kenyatta is the recent ascension of the DRC as a seventh member state of the EAC. Indeed, during Kenyatta's leadership of the EAC Summit, the ascension of DRC into the EAC was fast-tracked. With a population of 92 million people – almost half the EAC’s total population, DRC’s ascension is a boost for strengthening trade and political ties across the region.
Kenya’s next President would need to build on the last ten years by guaranteeing continuity rather than pursuing a radical shift from Kenya’s relationship with the EAC states. They must continue to support the South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Rwanda/DRC peace processes; invest in transnational infrastructure linking Kenya and neighbouring EAC states; and further actualize the principles of the EAC common market through the elimination of various non-tariff barriers that have continued to limit trade, especially between Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.