Kenya poll highlights East Africa’s fragile democracies



Kenyans vote Thursday in a repeat presidential election that has East Africa’s economic power on edge once more, AP reports:

The Supreme Court shocked Africa last month by nullifying the president’s re-election citing illegalities and irregularities. The opposition leader has since dropped out of the race, saying adequate reforms haven’t been made. Top election officials say they can’t guarantee the vote will be credible. The elections are set to take place amid fears of intimidation and violence.

Kenya made history when its Supreme Court nullified the result of the August 8 presidential poll as “neither transparent nor verifiable,” VOA adds:

But the chaotic aftermath of that decision could convince other African countries to shy away from such reforms. Analysts say the county has already taught lessons to other African nations seeking to further democratize.


“From the first time you had, based on a new constitution, a court ruling that basically held the executive to account, as should be the case in a constitutional democracy,” noted Jakkie Cilliers, chairman of the board of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.

“Once the practical implications became clear, the result was the threat of violence and instability. But on the whole, the court ruling still presents a new benchmark, where rule of law, constitutional democracy, sets a new rule, a new bar, I think, that other courts and other countries and other emerging democracies are going to look at,” Cilliers said.

Days before Kenya’s rerun election, civil society is pushing for the nation’s Supreme Court to call off the polls, warning that if the electoral commission is ill-prepared, an election could set the country “on the brink of bloodshed and hurtling towards catastrophe,” writes Sara Jerving, Devex’s Nairobi-based East Africa correspondent:

In a statement published on Monday, a group calling themselves “We-the-People” (right) consisting of civil society organizations and trade unions, among others, said that the country is not prepared to hold a “free, fair and credible” election on October 26. The statement called on Wafula Chebukati, the chairperson of the IEBC, to push the Supreme Court for a delay.

Chebukati, church leaders, civil society groups and western diplomats are now desperately trying to broker talks between Odinga and Kenyatta to reach a deal ahead of polling day, The FT adds.

“Kenyans know that political violence often goes unpunished, particularly when the instigators are powerful people,” notes BBC analyst Fergal Keane. “So, often, does brazen corruption. The long struggle is not between political elites at the polling booth,” he adds. “It is a fight waged by a still resourceful civil society, independent judges and honest political campaigners to demand accountability.”

“This potentially could have been the election that consolidated Kenya as one of Africa’s most vibrant democracies and now what you’ll have is an election with no winners,” said Murithi Mutiga, a researcher at the International Crisis Group.

East African democracy is not in the best of health, according to Bloomberg’s Samuel Gebre  and Omar Mohammed:

Rising authoritarianism conflicts with the official attitude of the six-nation East African Community (EAC) to which Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda belong and that touts democracy as a guarantee of regional stability. It comes as West Africa, parts of which have long been bedeviled by dictatorship and military rule, has seen peaceful transitions in Nigeria and Ghana and a president ousted after popular protests in Burkina Faso.

“It is a tough time in the region….Democracy is under threat,” said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the UK’s University of Birmingham:

Cheeseman said there was “reasonable” concern over a regional “authoritarian club” where leaders “meet and share strategies.” Kenya and Tanzania, which have stronger institutions and no history of large-scale civil war, were in “a far better place” to withstand the challenge than Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

“Although the democratization push seems to be paying dividends in some quarters, we are seeing reversals in several African countries,” said Peter Wafula Wekesa, a political scientist at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Democratic recession

“It appears to me the whole region is in a steep democratic recession partly because of the loud silence from their western allies,” a Ugandan activist wrote to Stanford University’s Larry Diamond. “In the past, the state was a little reluctant to be this brute and violent and had some measure of shame. It is all gone.”

The region’s government’s are also adopting China’s playbook on internet censorship, notes Nick Bailey, Freedom House Program Associate for Africa. The collaboration between Beijing and repressive regimes on the continent is especially striking in East Africa, where local governments are escalating their efforts to censor the internet and social media, often with technical support from China.

Ugandan legislators have each pocketed 29 million Ugandan shillings ($8,000) as a payout for consultations on legislation to extend the president’s rule, a parliamentary spokesman said on Tuesday, a move opponents denounced as a bribe, Reuters reports.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni “has remained in power, for five consecutive terms, solidifying his control increasingly through repression, including the arrest, imprisonment, and even alleged assassination attempts of political opponents and social activists,” U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said this week.

He criticized current efforts to amend Uganda’s constitution “for the obvious purpose of perpetuating the increasingly autocratic rule of a serving President, who has used the security forces to silence his opposition and who has systematically undermined the possibility of a free election.”

“Such an outcome would be a tragedy for democracy and the rule of law in Uganda, at a time when corruption, economic stagnation, and internal strife are propelling Uganda backwards.” Leahy added.

In the eyes of these leaders their longevity, and that of their counterparts in the region, constitutes in and of itself a justification for remaining power, notes Professor André Guichaoua of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

“Widespread structural insecurity plagues the entire region as a result. The insecurity is fueled by governments’ failure to lay down formal, mutually beneficial, political frameworks for cooperation and regional integration,” he writes. “Yet such frameworks would allow them to develop the human resources and agricultural and mining potential of the region in an equitable manner.”

East Africa is a region where attempts to restrict civil society through the introduction of new laws have become common place, note analysts Susan Dodsworth and Nic Cheeseman. Yet, while the general trend across East Africa has been towards the closure of political space, there has been substantial variation in how effective attempts to resist that closure have been. One point of variation is how successful locally led campaigns have been in persuading their national legislatures to defend them, they wrote in a recent paper for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Defending Democracy: When Do Parliaments Protect Political Space?

The focus on regular elections as a benchmark for East African democracy may be misguided, according to Yolande Bouka, a political analyst and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Denver.

“What matters is what happens between elections,” she said. “What kind of laws does the legislature pass and under whose directive. We have seen laws that curb the freedom of the civil society, laws to curtail freedoms. Leaders may use institutions and tools according to the rule of law but for autocratic purposes,” she said.

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