Kenya’s August elections will undoubtedly be among the most pivotal political events in Africa in 2022. In a turbulent region, Kenya’s stability, economic muscle, and diplomatic leadership are more essential than ever before. The country’s recent history features hotly contested, sometimes violent elections in which candidates and their allies have used identity politics that are based on ethnicity and tribal affiliations to divide the electorate and turn Kenyans against one another.
Political leaders and activists in Kenya have been attempting to avoid anarchic elections since the debacle of the 2017 elections which saw the elections end with electoral disputes and violence. The handshake in March 2018 between President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, was intended to signal an end to the bitterness which followed the 2017 presidential elections. It was hailed as a landmark in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which sought to lay the foundations for national healing, including pledges to end historical and electoral injustices and unite Kenya’s citizens.
However, supporters of the Deputy President, William Ruto, regarded the BBI proposals as a means of blocking his own run for the presidency in 2022. Ruto’s supporters launched various petitions in relation to the legality and validity of the proposed amendments, and in May, Kenya’s high court overturned the President’s bid to amend the constitution.
The main frontrunners for the presidency in 2022 are Raila Odinga and William Ruto. They have already accused each other of foul play, attempts to disrupt campaign events and accepting dodgy campaign funding. The stage is set for a bruising political fight.
For his presidential campaign, Ruto positioned himself as an agent of change, a champion of the people against the highly privileged dynasty families that have dominated the Kenyan political landscape like Odinga’s. Ruto repeatedly highlighted the large socio-economic inequalities that plague Kenyan life. This resonated with the Kenyan people as many were stuck in the informal sector which was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and governmental corruption. Odinga is a known quantity who is engaged in his fifth campaign for the presidency. In the past five years he has gone from the incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta’s bitter rival to Kenyatta’s preferred successor.
A storm is brewing as the elections grow closer. Ruto’s narrative which emphasizes class inequality among Kenyans and has bred a ‘hustler vs dynasty’ paradox which has the potential to be catastrophic. The decline of job and livelihood opportunities as a result of the pandemic also led to an increase in petty crime, gender-based violence and a deepening distrust in governmental institutions. The police are also an aggravating catalyst for chaos as they often use illegal, heavy-handed tactics. The country is therefore preparing for elections in a context where there is high levels of animosity between the police and the public.
There are steps that need to be taken in order to decrease the probability of violence and destruction during elections. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission proposed a law ahead of the 2022 General Election to bar warmongers who incite ethnic conflicts from contesting. Political leaders must make considerable commitments to the fight against inequality instead of using the issue to divide the masses. Kenyan civil society should be supported to work with communities across ethnic and political divides to help foster a less divisive political culture.