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Jan 23, 2013 | 15:00 GMT

In the Run-Up to the March Election, Kenya Braces for Violence

In the Run-Up to the March Election, Kenya Braces for Violence
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

With Kenya's presidential election a little more than a month away, authorities are hoping to avert a repeat of the violence that followed the 2007 election. Primaries last week led to violence in the western Nyanza province of Kenya, the epicenter of previous episodes of electoral unrest. Irregularities at the polls and the difficulties some candidates had in obtaining nomination certificates stoked worries about what might unfold during the March 4 presidential election.

A return to chronic political violence in Kenya, even if temporary, could disrupt the flow of investment and trade to Kenya and complicate Nairobi's bid to consolidate its position as the political and economic hub of East Africa. The electoral situation, however, seems less on edge than it was in 2007, and political violence should have less of an impact now than it did during 2007. 

Tribal affiliations largely define Kenya’s political landscape. Traditionally, Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes have dominated Kenyan decision-making through mutually reinforcing alliances. This arrangement is heavily contested by the Luo tribe, which dominates the Nyanza province. The Luo, who believe their population base is commensurate to that of the Kikuyu or Kalenjin, want to have a significant say in national politics but rival tribes have consistently blocked them. Current Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki is a Kikuyu politician, and it was his close victory in 2007 over Raila Odinga — a Luo candidate who launched accusations of election fraud — that eventually led to widespread violence that paralyzed the country in internal conflict for three months. Odinga became prime minister as part of a deal to form a coalition government to end the strife, but he is running for president again as Kibaki is set to step down at the end of his second term.

Kenya's Tribes

Kenya's Tribes map

In the run-up to elections this year, both Odinga and his Kikuyu opponent, Uhuru Kenyatta — the son of Kenya's founding president, Jomo Kenyatta — have forged alliances with other political players to ensure a wide base of support. Odinga has brought Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and former Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula to his side; these politicians represent elements of the Kamba and Luhya tribes, respectively.  Odinga's move has already increased his support base in regions outside of Nyanza.
 
Kenyatta, on the other hand, has formed an alliance with William Ruto of the Kalenjin tribe. Both Kenyatta and Ruto are facing International Criminal Court charges related to the violence in 2007. They depend on each other politically to avoid prosecution, but this discredits them among a portion of the electorate. One effect of these alliances has been to split the Kikuyu vote among supporters of Kenyatta and Musyoka, thus inflicting a political loss on Kenyatta that is reflected in recent polls of Kenyan voters; these polls suggest Odinga's support hovers over 50 percent, while Kenyatta's support appears to be just below 40 percent. In the Rift Valley, home to the Kalenjin population, these scores are the exact opposite, illustrating the importance of Kenyatta’s alliance with Ruto.
 

Polls Predicting Different Results

It should be noted that these polls, while representing the best gauge of voter sentiment available, are not necessarily reliable. If they are accurate, the upcoming election could result in less of a political standoff than in 2007, perhaps inhibiting violence. During the 2007 election, Kibaki secured 50 percent of the vote and Odinga claimed 40 percent. While this is a clear victory, earlier leaked results had shown that Odinga had a narrow lead — this prompted accusations that Kibaki rigged the election, resulting in demonstrations and violence throughout the country.
 
Most of the violence was concentrated in the Nyanza region, where Odinga’s Luo supporters are most densely present, but it also impacted the Rift Valley. While unrest is likely to occur before and after the 2013 election, there may be a significant change in how organized and systematic the violence will be. The main actors in the previous round of election violence — supporters of Odinga who claimed to have been cheated out of a victory — would have no grounds to act out if Odinga’s alliance wins. And even if the results mirror those of the last election, Kenyan authorities have installed measures that should prevent the violence from reaching the same levels and that should, at the very least, discourage politicians from instigating it.
 
Another factor that may reduce the intensity of violence is the new constitution and the decentralization of power that Kenya adopted after the 2007 election. The president's powers have been diminished and the national government's control over the budget has been reduced. Decision-making within the national government was broadened as a result of a moderately credible coalition government. New counties were created and empowered with local taxation authority, making local government authorities capable of delivering goods and services. In the past, the presidency made most decisions and controlled patronage systems. The presidency, while still powerful, is not as lucrative a prize as it once was. Gains can be made from merely being part of a wider government.
 

Security Forces Ready to Respond

Kenya’s security forces have been put on high alert, and while their capabilities perhaps have not greatly increased since the 2007 election, expectations of what could unfold have already allowed them to allocate resources more effectively in an attempt to quickly end any violence. The more overt presence of foreign observers, as well as a ban on the release of early results, should also limit the scope of rigging or of claims of rigging. Kenya has also prepared the judiciary to deal swiftly with any cases relating to or affecting the election; judges are receiving special training to deal with the election situation, and their leave has been cancelled. These measures, combined with the polls' prediction of a different result from the 2007 election, should lower the impact of political violence, though it will likely occur nonetheless.
 
Still, those doing business in Kenya are alarmed by the potential of violence and have already expressed their concerns. Rwandan traders who depend heavily on the northern corridor that runs through the Nyanza region and Nairobi to Mombasa lost $47 million in cargo during the violence that followed the 2007 election. They have requested guarantees from Kenyan port authorities regarding the safety of cargo, lest the traders opt instead to use the southern corridor, which already carries about half of Rwanda's ocean-bound trade through Tanzania. For Kenya, the transport of products from Uganda, and to a lesser degree Rwanda, to the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa is an important source of economic activity. Meanwhile, insurance costs for foreign business operators in Kenya have increased by 50 percent over the last 12 months. While this increase is in part due to the risk of violence originating from al Shabaab-aligned militants in Kenya, the potential recurrence of election violence in 2013 is also a major factor in the rising costs.
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