As the August 9 Kenya general election closes in, one can’t help but notice that it is turning out to be quite different from previous ones.
Going back to just the 2013 and 2017 elections, the billboards of the combatants are notably fewer. In those previous two elections, the billboards were out of control, and there was no place you could turn in Kenya without being assaulted .
One reason, no doubt, is that the campaign messaging has shifted in a big way, especially, to social media, as the masses continue to migrate to the digital universe. But that wouldn’t explain all the changes.
In 2017 we drove around many parts of Kenya, especially the Rift Valley and the wider Western Kenya. It was common to run into campaign crowds and convoys blocking the roads in relatively remote places and to see portraits of the contenders plastered on trees.
We have done the same trip, moreover twice, so far, and have not encountered anything close.
In 2013 and 2017, with the post-election violence of 2007/2008 still fresh in minds, there was a lot of fear about another outbreak of mayhem. There were all sorts of elders councils, private sector platforms, religious organisations, and civil society coalitions cobbled together to prevent violence. They were in the news almost as much as the politicians who were shouting themselves hoarse for the people’s vote.
This time, they are considerably fewer. Even opinion polls, that tend to get people worked up, are being greeted with less venom this time. In the past, supporters of a candidate who trailed in the opinion polls would threaten to eat the pollster’s children, and burn down their grandparents’ house in the village. Also, polls used to be announced with the kind of fanfare that might be rolled out for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Not any more.
The Kenyan-Asian business community has always been a good source for gauging risk. They are very sensitive to the likelihood of turmoil and have a good nose for sniffing danger. One of the biggest surprises is that this time, a member of the community who I have turned to for many years, gave me the most optimistic take he has ever doled out in an election period. “There might be something small, which is inevitable, but don’t expect any election violence this time,” he told me.
In 2007, the country was caught out, so it is probably a smart thing to still repair the hole in the fence and stock up a fortnight’s supply of maize flour and beans, just in case. However, this year we have the strongest signs yet that Kenya’s elections are losing their drama, and they could be in decline. They could soon become like West European elections, where if you are in a faraway corner of the world, you only learn that there was a vote months later when the new Prime Minister’s fragile coalition collapses.
One obvious explanation, that has been remarked upon many times, is the continuing rise and dominance of the devolved counties, which have stolen a large amount of attention from the central government, and supplanted it in importance in the lives of many Kenyans.
Secondly, it might still be troubled, but Kenyan democracy largely works, and its politics is getting predictable. When things get predictable, they soon become boring, and part of the furniture.
Furthermore, Kenya has burnt through most of its political surprises; some of the strangest coalitions have been formed and have passed; incumbents have stepped down; dozens of parties have been born and died; every type of election theft has been carried out, and the courts tasted the forbidden fruit – in 2017 they overturned the presidential election. The courts have also been a pain in the neck for the executive, and in the near term, they will likely continue to be a counter to state excesses. You can’t make such a bet in many other places in this fair continent.
Kenyan companies have added to the disruption. They have grown so big that the state is no longer the only creature standing tall on the hill. When Equity Bank Group’s profits alone are bigger than that of the combined Ugandan banking sector, the scale of the game becomes clear.
It’s likely if Raila Odinga wasn’t in this election, with all his historical mileage, and facing off with Deputy President William Ruto, the election would have been quite innocuous. If one looks ahead to 10 years when the leading candidates are otherwise nondescript characters, the presidential campaigns will be reported on the inside pages of newspapers (if they are still existing), and the tussle over the Nairobi, Kiambu, or Kisumu governorship would be the ones on Page One.
Kenyan politics also hasn’t helped itself much. It has eaten its way out of glory, as the revulsion against the venality of many of its politicians has driven a big wedge between it and the country.
This is welcome news. It’s a good thing when politicians become irrelevant.