Africa

ISS TODAY ANALYSIS

Kenya’s new president William Ruto faces contentious, uncertain road ahead

Kenya’s new president William Ruto faces contentious, uncertain road ahead
William Ruto, president of Kenya, addresses the nation in Nairobi on 15 August 2022. (Photo: Michele Spatari / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Despite disruptions when the results were announced, Kenyan polls seemed credible, and the courts will be the final arbiters. 

Kenyan elections inevitably end dramatically. So it was no surprise when fistfights erupted at Nairobi’s national tallying centre on Monday. Four out of seven electoral commissioners walked out, ‘disowning’ the commission chairperson’s declaration of Vice-President William Ruto as the narrow winner of the 9 August presidential election.

After six days of painstaking counting, Wafula Chebukati, Chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), announced that Ruto had won with 50.49% of the 14 213 027 votes cast — securing the 50% plus one vote needed to win. (Plus, at least 25% of the vote in at least 24 of the 47 counties — he passed that mark in 39 counties.)

Chebukati said Raila Odinga garnered 48.55% of the votes. The other two candidates received a combined 0.67%. Odinga dismissed the results as “illegal and unconstitutional” because Chebukati had “blatantly disregarded” the constitution and the law. This required the IEBC to make decisions unanimously, or at least by a majority of commissioners, he said, whereas Ruto’s win was declared by only three of seven commissioners. 

Odinga said he’d ask the Supreme Court to overturn the result. Fortunately, he also asked his supporters to remain calm and peaceful. So far there’s been little violence in the wake of the elections — unlike in 2007 when over 1,000 died. One IEBC returning officer did however disappear last week and was later found dead, evidently tortured.

The Supreme Court will need to unpick the legality of Chebukati’s decision and Odinga’s challenge. But the IEBC chairperson’s announcement doesn’t appear at odds with the reality of the 9 August voting. The electronic voter registration and transmission system results were carefully cross-checked over six days against paper results from the 46,229 polling stations and 47 county tallying centres. These were shown to all the parties’ agents and posted on the IEBC website. 

The local Elections Observation Group said its parallel voter tabulation estimates of a random sample of 1,000 polling stations were “consistent with IEBC’s official results.” And when IEBC Vice-Chairperson Juliana Cherera and her three fellow dissident commissioners revealed on Tuesday why they’d disowned Chebukati’s results, their explanation made no sense. 

They said the combined percentages for all four candidates announced by Chebukati totalled 100.01%, and the 0.01% discrepancy amounted to 142,130 votes. This could be enough to reduce Ruto’s total to below the 50% plus one vote threshold to avoid a run-off. Yet, as hundreds of Kenyans mockingly reminded Cherera on social media, 0.01% of 14,213,027 is 1,421, not 142,130, and 1,421 votes weren’t nearly enough to reduce Ruto’s total to below half. The 0.01% was merely a rounding-off error.


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Chebukati later said that Cherera and the other dissident commissioners tried to pressure him to declare that neither candidate had achieved a majority, so a run-off was needed. He also insisted that as the national returning officer, he wasn’t obliged to follow the majority of commissioners. 

So it’s hard to see how the Supreme Court would uphold Odinga’s challenge this time — unlike in 2017 when it annulled president Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory over him. That was because IEBC mishandling of the election forced a re-run (which Odinga then boycotted because he said the IEBC had not been reformed in the meantime). 

Many Kenyans believe Cherera and Co, appointed by Kenyatta, were doing his bidding. He backed his old rival Odinga in the contest, abandoning his vice-president. So the election was also a defeat for Kenyatta, who hoped to help instal an ally in State House to look after his interests. Instead, he now has someone in the highest office who probably feels betrayed by him. Kenyatta’s own Kikuyu ethnic community largely abandoned him, it seems. 

In the Kikuyu heartland of Central Province, “former Kenyatta supporters overwhelmingly backed Ruto over Odinga, despite Kenyatta’s support for the latter,” said Kenya specialist Nic Cheeseman, democracy professor at the University of Birmingham. The Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, were a key swing vote in this election. For the first time, there was no serious Kikuyu candidate on the ballot, so both Ruto and Odinga chose Kikuyus as their running mates. 

But Ruto beat Odinga not only in Kirinyaga county, the home of Odinga’s would-be vice-president, former justice minister Martha Karua, but also at Kenyatta’s own polling station, analysts said. “It was not so much about Karua but about president Kenyatta who many voters in the region felt had betrayed his deputy and instead opted to support his fierce rival Odinga,” Kenyan political analyst John Charo told The Africa Report.

Ruto boasted in his victory speech that he had “raised the bar” by campaigning on issues other than ethnic affiliations. He even praised Odinga for doing the same. There was some truth in that. Ruto presented himself as the candidate of the underdog. His catchy slogan about championing ‘hustlers’ against ‘dynasties’ — a sharp swipe at Odinga and Kenyatta, both sons of post-independence leaders — seemingly resonated, especially with younger voters struggling to find jobs.

Cheeseman believes economic factors play a big part in elections, especially in these polls. “But there is no doubt that ethnicity continues to be an important factor, though in complex ways, reinforced by other factors such as lived experiences and horizontal inequalities,” he said. 

“Odinga carried the vast majority of the vote among his Luo community in Nyanza, as did Ruto in his strongholds in the Rift Valley. In other provinces, such as Western and Coast, with no ‘homegrown’ candidate standing for the presidency, the vote was much more likely to be split.”

How might Ruto govern? To his allies, he is energetic and efficient; to his critics, ruthless and corrupt. And though the case has been suspended, he remains indicted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting his supporters to violence after the 2007 poll. 

Ruto inherits a divided country and debt reaching 70% of GDP, prompting the African Development Bank to assess Kenya as being at “high risk of debt distress.” This is due largely to extravagant projects Kenyatta undertook. Ruto has promised to cut back on such projects and create a more open government. 

How much of this will happen — and whether the hustlers will get their hustle or the elite will continue to luxuriate — remains to be seen. DM

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.

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