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'The people have done their part': An election observer’s account from Kenya

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'The people have done their part': An election observer’s account from Kenya

Noxolo Gwala

15 Aug 2017

3min min read
  • Elections
  • Democracy
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Kivumbi 2017" is a catchy slogan associated with the Kenyan elections that aptly describes the context of this high-stakes poll. Put simply, Kivumbi means to strive towards a certain goal. Undoubtedly, the period leading up to Kenya's Election Day was fraught with struggles: numerous court disputes brought forward by the main opposition formation, the National Super Alliance (NASA), over the management of key electoral processes such as the procurement of ballot papers, and the proliferation of “fake news” on social media platforms are just two examples. In summary, it took approximately 38 court disputes, expensive campaign rallies and numerous pleas for the maintenance of peace in order for the 8 August elections to materialise. 

When I landed in Nairobi two weeks ago to join the East African Community (EAC) Election Observer Mission, two news headlines brought home the precarious nature of this poll. First, there were reports of a 19-hour gunfire exchange at Deputy President William Ruto’s home in Uasin Gishu County. A Somali hawker had managed to overpower security personnel guarding the premises and find his way to the armoury. The hawker was eventually killed by the General Service Unit, a paramilitary wing of the country’s national police service. Second, there were reports that a key Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) official, Chris Msando, was missing. A day later, the IEBC confirmed his death and that he had been tortured. 

Conversations in the run-up to Election Day focused on the security of citizens and the integrity of the electoral process. Less attention was given to the relay of essential information regarding the voting process. Over 200 000 votes from Tuesday’s election were declared spoilt. However, it is difficult to ascertain whether this was due to voter ignorance or intentional ‘protest voting’ against the candidates or current political system. 

The electoral process continued smoothly until NASA’s presidential candidate Raila Odinga announced that he was disputing the provisional results being transmitted by the IEBC. That moment revealed the true meaning of Kivumbi. Historically, the challenge of elections has not been about how citizens vote – it has been that presidential candidates find it easy to publicly denounce the will of the people. 

This is not unique to Kenya. A similar trajectory unfolded during The Gambia’s 2016 presidential elections where former president and ruler of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, refused to leave office even though he had initially conceded defeat. Much of the same narrative can be found in the homogenous Kingdom of Lesotho, which hosted snap elections in May 2017 after the prime minister lost a vote of confidence in parliament. 

In light of the tense environment pending the official announcement of results, the EAC's observer mission, in its preliminary statement, urged Kenyans to maintain peace. It appealed to political contestants involved to accept the outcome of the elections and encouraged the aggrieved to use legal means to resolve disputes. 

On 11 August, the IEBC officially declared Kenyatta as the president elect. He received 54.3% of the total votes cast while Odinga secured 44.7%. The opposition refuted the results and violent protests broke out, notably in the Mathare and Kisumu constituencies. 

"Election observer groups present in Kenya have spoken in a unified voice, advising that disputes should be raised and resolved legally."

The IEBC’s results transmission process has been a key area of contention. In his statement disputing the provisional results last week, Odinga claimed the IEBC’s servers were hacked and that electoral fraud was committed. An element to the dispute is that the IEBC reneged on its initial promise to provide all political party agents and candidates with scanned copies of the crucial 34a and 34b results forms, which would allow them to verify the results being transmitted on-screen. The opposition claimed the results displayed did not tally with the forms. 

Election observer groups present in Kenya have spoken in a unified voice, advising that disputes should be raised and resolved legally. Allegations of vote rigging require a comprehensive investigation into the credibility of the system used to transmit results. One remains hopeful that the opposition will indeed take the legal route as advised.

As I head back to South Africa, my beloved country where local parliamentarians held their own “miniature” election on the same day as Kenya’s, I am comforted that opposition parties accepted the outcome of the motion of no confidence vote against President Jacob Zuma despite how bitter it might have been to swallow. In the most basic terms, the painful yet true meaning of democracy is that the will of the majority prevails, regardless of whether their decision is correct. 

We will continue observing, from afar, whether Kenya’s leaders will make use of legal avenues available to them to settle their disputes, and respect the Constitution and will of the people. The nation’s stability, growth and prosperity now rests in the hands of its leaders – the people have done their part graciously. 

(Main image: Getty/AFP)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.