Kenya’s 2017 general elections and the Supreme Court ruling

Guyana is by no means the only country that espouses political democracy but where, nonetheless, general elections are usually marred by controversy over the electoral process, charges of ballot rigging and attendant protestations that have sometimes been violent and which are driven by political and ethnic differences.

Kenya has been, since the country’s independence in 1963, pretty much in the same situation, plagued by tribal differences over ‘who rules.’ For the East African state, general elections, rather than being a manifestation of the country’s democratic credentials, have been, instead, staging grounds for political protest and violence and sometimes bloodshed on a frightening scale. The current President and Opposition Leader of the country, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, whose respective fathers, served as Kenya’s first President and Vice President have led their respective factions into successive general elections, each of which has been characterized by varying degrees of controversy, confrontation and bloodshed.

If domestic and international observers had been under no illusion that the most recent poll would pass without incident, there had been some measure of hope that the retinue of high-profile Observer Missions that included a Carter Center team led by a former United States Secretary of State and two other missions led by two of Africa’s (democratically elected) former Presidents might at least ensure a poll that would stand up to a level of  scrutiny sufficient to satisfy the rival political parties and their supporters and get the nod from the various Observer Groups.

The problem was that Opposition Leader Raila Odinga refused to take the word of those Observer Missions regarding the outcome of the poll which returned Uhuru Kenyatta to office, opting instead to take his chances in a Supreme Court in which his party appeared to have little reason to be confident. At least, however, this time, it appeared that the country might avoid the excesses of protest, violence and deaths that had marred the 2007 poll.

The September 1 announcement by the Kenyan Supreme Court that the poll had been “invalid, null and void” appeared to take Kenya, including, it seemed, both of the main political protagonists completely by surprise. If in the immediate aftermath of the court’s ruling President Kenyatta appeared chastened, asserting in a televised address to the nation that he respected the Supreme Court’s decision even if he did not agree with it, he was later to vent his true feelings at a rally of his supporters in Nairobi, dismissing the Supreme Court judges as “crooks” and issuing a chilling warning to the country’s Chief Justice David Maraga that he was dealing with the “serving President” of Kenya.

President Kenyatta’s critics have already accused him of stirring up his supporters in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, seeking in effect to create an uneasy environment in the days and weeks leading up to a rerun of the poll. While he has as much as said that his party will face the polls again following the Supreme Court ruling, there is now the real fear that in the wake of his Nairobi outburst both the pre and post-elections periods could be characterized by political tension, even violence.  A re-run of 2007, the bloodbath and the displacement of thousands of people, could inflict long-term damage on Kenya’s socio-political tapestry.

There is, of course, a significance to the Kenya Supreme Court ruling that goes beyond Kenya itself, extending into the wider issue of elections’controversy and the role of elections observers in helping to validate elections processes in other countries.  Just a matter of a few days after the August 8 poll, with Odinga’s supporters crying foul and with deaths resulting from police/protestor confrontations mounting, the elections observers were providing verdicts that would not only have pleased President Kenyatta and his party but would also have been met with relief (and satisfaction) by the Kenyan business community and the international community, given the credentials of the observer teams.

The Carter Center team, for example, was led by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who, in the wake of the poll had declared that “Kenya has made a remarkable statement to Africa and the world about its democracy and the character of that democracy.” Former Presidents John Mahama, and Thabo Mbeki, of Ghana and South Africa, respectively, who led the Commonwealth and African Union Observer Missions, respectively,  both praised the process, the former reportedly describing the counting system as “credible, transparent and inclusive” and declaring that Kenya had “the potential to be the most inspiring democracy in Africa.”

It took Muthoni Wanyeki, serving as Amnesty International’s East Africa Regional Director during the election to assert that with its decision of the 2017 poll the customarily pliable Kenyan Supreme Court has redeemed itself.”

The broader question, of course, has to do with the likely implications of the Kenya Supreme Court ruling, the verdicts of the International Observer Missions, notwithstanding, for the credibility of future foreign monitors, who over time, had come to be widely believed to be credible. It will be recalled that much of the observer oversight in Guyana’s October 1992 general elections by the Carter Center and the Center’s role in keeping track of the political process here thereafter, has kept the focus on the legitimacy of the electoral process. The question that arises now is whether the trusted observers might have gotten it wrong in Kenya last month, and whether what happened there might have implications for their broader standing as reliable elections’ watchers.

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