The Precarious State Of Kenyan Democracy

On August 15th, 2022, William Ruto was declared President–elect of Kenya following an election that was distinguished as one of the most transparent in the nation’s history. In a country that has experienced gruesome episodes of post–election killings and abuse, the conduct of this election season symbolizes a major milestone for Kenya. Nonetheless, with concerns over the competency of the election’s commission, refusal of losing candidate Raila Odinga to concede, and low voter turnout, this election season also symbolizes that much more must be done to ensure the stability and robustness of democracy in Kenya. 

Kenya is often described as one of Africa’s most stable democracies despite changes in its political system — from illiberal single–party rule to multiparty elections — and increasingly authoritarian trends in neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia and throughout the entire African continent. Still, Kenyan democracy is not without its own shortcomings. Most notable is the pronounced lack of confidence in democracy that has contributed to low voter turnout — particularly amongst the Kenyan youth.

In a statement to Zawya, Keyan governance expert Henry Maina explained that many Kenyans do not think that “democracy is working for them.” In his rationalization of low voter turnout, he voices the opinion that that the mindset of an average Kenyan is one in which “[he] think[s] that the [candidate that he] elect[s] [will] go ahead and do what they want, not what [he] want[s]. Even though there were many candidates, they are all cut from the same cloth. That means [he doesn’t] have a choice and therefore [he] will stay away.”

Feelings of apathy are joined by insufficient voter education, lack of trust in the political system, and youth unemployment and poverty. Ultimately, they all work together to create a disillusionment with democracy. With Kenyan youth — those that are age 35 and below — comprising of 75% of the country, and youth voter registration reaching its lowest levels historically, their lack of participation could result in vicious consequences for democracy. XN Iraki, an associate professor at the University of Nairobi, most clearly elucidates the range of possible implications, from increased political extremism to using violent means such as joining gangs and participating in terrorist activity in attempts by youth to feel seen.

To avoid democratic deterioration and restore trust in democracy, Kenyan leaders must commit to remedying past mistakes that still remain largely unaddressed. Foremost, leaders will need to collaborate with one another to devise an effective solution for previous catalysts of post–election violence: discrimination, poverty, and disenfranchisment. Moreover, Kenyan leaders, in particular Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta who backed him, will need to commit to a peaceful transition of power. This is essential to quell feelings of unease, tension, and anger that have arisen due to the unexpected results of this election. Lastly, despite laudatory transparency in this year’s election, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) managed to overshadow their accomplishments. Division within the committee over the validity of the election results will only serve to heighten public distrust in the electoral process. Such public discord necessitates a restructuring of the commission so that trust, communication, and cohesion are reestablished to improve the commission’s process and performance. 

Improving these issues, or failure to do so, will determine the trajectory of democracy in Kenya. The path Kenya chooses will very likely produce effects that reverberate across the region.