Good, Bad, Ugly Lessons from Kenya’s Election for Ethiopia

In their journey to democracy, political inclusiveness, equity and social justice, Africans are beset, or so they are told, by the age old instinct of tribalism. They cannot let go. When they vote, many fail to take into account important points related to policies and convictions. Not even the issue of competence may weight much.

There is some truth to such an assumption, but it is by no means exclusive to the continent. The sort that asserts the lack of democracy and good governance that is all too prevalent in African countries is occurring not just to the people, but by the people.

Nonetheless, attacking Africans for a purported lack of political sophistication plays into a general narrative created by African governments themselves. Close to 88pc of the national elections held in Africa since multiparty democracy in the early 1990s saw incumbents stay in office, often by silencing protestors on the streets and spilling blood. Of course, there are exceptions to this, such as Botswana, Ghana, and Nigeria.

The latest in this debacle is Kenya, where no less than 45pc of its 19.6 million voted for change. The veteran opposition, Raila Odinga, was that change or, thought to be. He is the leader of the political alliance that dabbles in leftist rhetoric but does not go far enough. His opponent is the son of the founding father of the nation, the late Jomo Kenyatta. Uhuru, the leader of the Jubilee party and the incumbent candidate, has been in power since 2013. He bagged 54pc of the votes when results were announced on August 15, prompting congratulatory messages from his peers in the region, including Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

The Kenyan government may claim that the 2017 presidential election is free and fair, that enough has been done to ensure the independence of the electoral commission, and independent bodies my echo a similar line, but apparently, Kenyans are not listening. They still find the defeat of Odinga by almost 10 points suspect, as they had more reasons to reinforce such views. The opposition candidate has taken his complaints to the nation`s Supreme Court, contesting that the electronic system deployed for the tally had been hacked.

Indeed, Africa is too young a democracy to have a ferocious media and transparent electoral systems voters could trust. What most African governments` fail to notice is that it is too soon to ask for complete trust from their constituents. There is an elephant in the room within every single country, usually in the form of violence that took place during an election season or an authoritarian regime that has been in power for far too long and stubborn to concede power when defeated in the polls.

The 2015 general election in Ethiopia had similar problems. And close to three years into the future, there are reasons for worries. When the Revolutionary Democrats and their allies claimed they, together with their allies in the peripheries, had won every single seat in the parliament, they did so with a straight face.

It is not clear where it leaves them now that there have been political instabilities in two of the countries most populous regions. It is also not clear how they are planning to handle the upcoming 2020 general election, or even the Addis Abeba City Council and wereda elections that will take place next year.

Of course, Ethiopia and Kenya follow different models in their economic and political approaches. The former is parliamentary, while Kenya is presidential in its political system. Ethiopia`s growth model is static in sharp contrast to Kenya’s private sector focused liberal economic policy framework. Unlike Kenya, Ethiopia has also institutionalised the politics of identity, mainly along linguistically based cultures.

And although politics along linguistic and cultural fault lines is a norm in Kenya, successive establishments since independence have tried to forge an assimilated national identity. At least that is what the official rhetoric has been.

But, for a curious observer, they have a lot in common when it comes to their electoral politics than what may appear on the surface. They both have incumbent parties in power for so long whose leaders’ political instinct is to capitalise on identity politics just to win the day.

Deadly outbreaks of violence right after announcements of results from the polls are also norms in both, largely due to voters’ deep suspicion over the integrity and credibility of democratic institutions. National electoral commissions are primary subjects of this apathy in managing what should be perceived by the public as free, fair and credible, followed by the courts in their ability to resolve contentions on results above the political fray. The bureaucracy, law enforcement and the military most certainly are not seen as independent arbiters of the contest for political power, as they decidedly side with those in the position of power.

Neither is it uncommon to see incumbent politicians and their parties in both countries use the state machinery at their disposal to their advantage and practice patronage politics to buy votes. When they lose, they are stubborn to accept their defeats gracefully. And the oppositions’ habit of contesting every result and reluctance to concede defeat, even when incumbents win by comfortable margins, reveal the subtle similarities.

In both countries, those in the position of power are considered untrustworthy, and voters have deep fears of their knack for unrestrained exercise of brute force, often refusing defeats on the polls.

Uhuru’s claim to victory and his opponent’s challenge at the courts will be over soon. To its credit though, Kenya seems to be on a hopeful journey to be a beacon of democratic rule in East Africa, and a place where its neighbours can take lessons in electoral politics, whether presidential or parliamentary.

Elections are about the transparency of the elections and trust on the ability of democratic institutions to arbiter the process. No doubt democratic institutions need to stand the test of time to establish credibility.

The attempt at transparency though is something the Kenyan case has demonstrated as useful experience to emulate. With increasing deployment and use of technology, votes can be cast, counts made and result tallied without gross and systematic rigging of elections.

The use of technology may not be the definite answer to address post-election crises in fragile societies where fiercely independent and vigorous democratic institutions are rare. However, the Kenyan election has shown technology could be one more tool to ensuring the credibility of the electoral process and deterring those who desire to skew results in their favour.

For instance, the use of a biometric voting system, which uses a device that takes the fingerprints of each voter, can help avoid duplicity of votes, if not abate the repeated accusations registered dead individuals get. The deployment of smartphones loaded with intelligent and interactive apps to ensure the integrity of voting, counting and tabulation by voters, candidates’ agents, observers, journalists, civil society and electoral officials can be another useful consideration for adoption.

It requires an extensive Internet coverage, at least third generation mobile networks even in the most remote places of the country. In Kenya, telecommunication companies have a combined coverage of 78pc of the country’s geography, and for the rest, electoral officials used satellite connections to reach them.

Encouraging talented young minds to come up with highly interactive software to report voting irregularities, misconduct by electoral officials, abuse by party agents and misuse of public resources by the incumbent can take the process further in ensuring the integrity of the electoral processes. If anything, they can be excellent tools for documenting the use and abuse of power as much as the failures of contesting parties to live up to the expectations of their supporters.

Published on Aug 26,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 904]



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