Election Preparedness: Institutionalising Presidential Transitions in Kenya

By Javas Bigambo

Elections have a natural way of disrupting the status quo, especially when the people’s will is respected and sealed through new social contracts for governance. Democracy is sustained through regular, predictable, dependable and transparent elections.

In political democracies, no doubt, each time a country goes to a general election, it does so not just to sustain its democracy but also to re-negotiate and reclaim its nationhood. Ideally, elections serve to advance the aspirations, goals and values of the majoritarian collective. 

In most elections, the institution of the presidency is at the centre of electoral politics. The attendant power that it wields makes it a hot contest between opponents at the end of each electoral cycle. The incumbent is either keen to retain the seat or pass on to a preferred successor, while the opposition wants to ascend to the seat.

Writing on the performance of African political parties after the ‘Third Wave’, Carrie Manning (2005) noted that since the early 1990s, many countries in Africa embraced multi-party democracy. However, few of the elections conducted during the period were successfully democratic. The incumbents returned to power after extensively manipulating the electoral process.

Across the African continent, there were only a few cases of successful competitive electoral democracies in countries such as Botswana, Senegal and Mauritius, which had held competitive elections before the opening of democratic space in the early 1990s. The list also includes countries such as Benin, Malawi and Zambia, which had successful transitions through elections

Kenya’s nation- state has been a constitutional democracy since its founding in 1963. And just like in other African countries, the institution of the presidency has been at the centre of politics.

Politics of presidential transitions

The politics of presidential transitions can easily be seen through the duopoly of manipulation and political guardianship shaped by self-preservation, ethnicity, protectionism, favouritism, safeguarding primitive accumulation of wealth, and ring- fencing the political elite club that the presidency seems to be. Arguably the immediate post-independence Kenyatta regime’s key concern was securing the interests of the emerging political class through capital accumulation.

Whereas pluralism has engendered an environment of competitive elections in Kenya and other democratic ornaments such as tenure limitation, the electoral culture has remained the same, a few successful regime changes notwithstanding. 

Behind the veneer of constitutional democracy ideology is the binary between ethnic fundamentalism and elite capture of Kenya’s political space. Ethnicity has been weaponised for subjugation and emotional control. This instrumentation of ethnicity in Kenyan politics has consistently paid enormous dividends to the few elite, who use it purely for personal gain. That is precisely where the problem starts, with infinite consequences.

Since the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992, ethnic violence has reared its ugly head repeatedly around election time. Even in elections considered peaceful, as was the case in 2002 and 2013, the threat of politically instigated ethnic violence remained real.

This has continued to make presidential transitions in Kenya, a game of political survival where opponents are defeated and not ideological perpetuation or propagation of ideal nationhood.  Many political bigwigs who never succeeded in earth-shaking presidential elections were relegated to political oblivion. These include Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, Simeon Nyachae, George Anyona, among others.

In over five decades now, elections in Kenya have often been the metonymy of violence and insecurity. While many general elections have been conducted in post-independence Kenya, some specific electioneering events and elections stand out. They are crucial in analysing election preparedness and presidential transitions across the election cycles. 

This article examines the remarkable presidential transitions in Kenya and the critical need for institutionalisation. 

Tracking Kenya’s presidential elections 

Firstly, is the fourth post-independence election in Kenya held in 1983. During the campaign, all contestants had to get clearance from the ruling party KANU. One of the contenders, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and some of his former KPU party members were denied permission due to the one-party state constitution in force. 

The campaigns lasted for one month, and candidates had to prove their loyalty to President Moi. However, only 48% voted during the elections, making it the lowest figure since independence. In addition, 40 % of incumbents were voted out.

Secondly was the 1988 general election. This happened at the peak of regime consolidation under President Moi. Constitutional amendments weakened the local opposition and saw control of the presidency rise and the manipulation of the legal system. 

‘Mlolongo’, a new queue voting system, was introduced where separate queues were formed for each candidate and voters joined according to their preference. The people in each queue were then counted, and the presiding officer announced the results. However, there were incidents of violence during the campaign, and several candidates complained of being rigged out by the queue-voting system.

Thirdly, the 1992 election marked a new multi-party dispensation. Several leaders began to oppose the one-party system in the first quarter of 1990. In July of that year, public anger exploded in the Saba Saba uprising, after anti-Moi forces organised a pro-democracy rally resulting in several deaths. Pressure from local and international bodies culminated into constitutional amendments in 1991 that restored the right to form alternative political parties. However, President Moi still won the 1992 and subsequent 1997 elections.

It is noteworthy that the ethnic divide significantly contributed to widespread pre-election violence in the 1992 and 1997 elections, in which hundreds of people lost their lives. 

The eighth post-independence election in 2002 was perhaps the most significant in Kenya’s presidential transition history. The Constitution had stretched Moi’s tenure to the elastic limit. He could not seek re-election, which marked the first time a presidential transition took place through the ballot.

The run-up to the elections was marked by several significant events, including the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) asserting its independence and authority by rebuking political parties and candidates who violated the election code of conduct. This allowed for a free and fair election process.

The other significant event was the fallout in the ruling party KANU after President Moi chose Uhuru Kenyatta as his successor, and triggered a rebellion within party ranks. A group of cabinet ministers called the Rainbow Coalition opposed Moi’s choice and joined forces with the opposition to form the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). 

With KANU facing a united opposition for the first time, the mood for change was in the air. The campaign period was relatively peaceful, with non-partisan security by the police. Kenyans flocked to NARC rallies in droves with a new anthem, “Yote yawezakana bila Moi” (All is possible without Moi). NARC was perceived as the people’s saviour from want, corruption, misrule, mismanagement of public resources. NARC defeated KANU ending its 40-year rule.

The defeat of Moi’s preferred candidate was overwhelming and settled by a united opposition easily accounted for the subsequent smooth hand-over of power and the relative calm during the first two years of opposition leadership

The fifth and perhaps a turning point that dented Kenya’s history was the December 2007 elections. The incumbent Mwai Kibaki faced off with the leading opposition candidate Raila Odinga. While the actual voting was peaceful, the announcement of the presidential election results triggered violence. 

The opposition protested widespread irregularities, presumably doctoring of the presidential votes. Kenya descended into inter-ethnic violence that left over 1,000 people dead and 600,000 displaced from their homes.

In retrospect, the 2007/8 post-election violence resulted from social tensions that had built up over many years. A key factor was successive political leaders’ skewed allocation of state positions and resources.

It is noteworthy that a constant factor contributing to the related electoral violence is the ethnic divide. The centrality of ethnicity in political formations and disputes during the Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta regimes indicate the translucent veil of tribal groups always precedes the dictates of the constitutional order of presidential transitions through democratic elections. These are sustained and propagated on the whole by ethnic capitalism. 

In its organic form, political violence is an anecdotal illustration of intolerance, intimidation, and barbarism, through which insecurity instils fear among the electorate so as not to register as voters or not to turn out to vote as such political violence is always pre-meditated, targeted and financed. However, the aftermath of the 2007/08 post-election violence put into sharp focus the electoral and presidential transition dynamics in Kenya.

Codification of presidential transitions

Indeed, presidential elections and the envisaged consequence of transitions have always made general elections consequential in Kenya. Since the advent of multi-party politics in Kenya, presidential changes have been constitutionally instigated. However, the Constitution of Kenya 2010 has codified the transition procedure to avert the hurried transfer of power, as was witnessed in December 2007. 

However, not all presidential transitions in Kenya have occurred through the ballot. Under the repealed 1963 Constitution, then Vice President Daniel Arap Moi ascended into office through inheritance of leadership based on constitutional edict, without direct election by the people, after the death of President Jomo Kenyatta. 

While acting, President Moi used the three-month period to consolidate his position and marshal enough support to easily secure KANU’s final seal of approval as President in the November 1978 presidential election.

Regarding transition in the Presidency as a function of democratically held elections, Article 141 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides for the assumption of Office of President. Article 146 (1) provides that upon vacancy in the Office of the President, the Deputy President assumes office for the remainder of the term and necessitates no election for the President’s office.

The vacancy may occur through death, resignation, and lack of capacity. These circumstances would automatically trigger a transition in the office of the President. While this Article prescribes how the President-elect assumes office, the most significant challenges facing Kenya are primarily how succession politics are conducted due to the heavily vested interests and cutthroat competition.  

The stakes and the cards in presidential transitions

Holders of the Presidency are always obsessed with entrenching their legacies, buoyed by superiority complexes and bewildered with the thought that someone they dislike may rise and inherit the most coveted office. The consciousness of personal interests as the axis of presidential transitions is the root of comprador politics in this regard.

From 1998, Moi engaged in a carefully calculated strategy to manage the presidential succession in his and his party’s favour. He settled on Uhuru Kenyatta as his preferred successor, contrary to the aspirations of his long-serving Vice President George Saitoti. It is mysterious why Moi was determined to move the ocean to have Uhuru elected despite him being a political neophyte, devoid of personal political networks, experience, strategy or organic political ambition. 

Moi coerced the entire KANU party structure to toe the line, branding Uhuru Kenyatta as a “Moi project”, a tag that was used against him in the general elections. He was trounced by a thunderous landslide by NARC’s (opposition coalition) candidate Mwai Kibaki, in what is settled in Kenya’s history as a groundbreaking presidential transition that established democratic principles in Kenya’s politics forever.

Another major presidential transition took place during the 2013 general election. The incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was not seeking re-election. Prime Minister Raila Odinga ran against Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta. Mr. Kenyatta trounced Raila, despite his indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity following the post-election violence of 2007/08.

The subsequent general elections in 2013 and 2017 were hotly contested, highly financed and publicised. Even though the presidential transition politics were ever at a fever pitch and the election outcomes contested, the disputes were settled by the Supreme Court. All parties were at peace, ultimately, with the decisions. 

This demonstrates that however vicious the presidential competitions are if governance institutions are well resourced, independent and competent, presidential elections will not be rife with fears of clashes or bloodletting and related violence. 

How do we curate the vicious presidential transitions?

In Kenya and elsewhere across Africa, elections are a threat, primarily, to state capture fundamentalists, the self-styled elite choreographers of doing business with governments and with politicians who advance personal business interests with government ministries. These interests fuel solid competition for the presidency in Kenya and beyond. 

Of course, political processes always have outcomes, whether intended or unintended, and presidential contests are as such. At issue are both the form and the substance of presidential transitions in Kenya.

The big question is how do we ensure that presidential contests are a matter of practical, verifiable and demonstrable ideas, far from the tribal cards that are always at play?

Firstly, presidential candidates and their parties should have their political manifestos/ agenda ready and presented to the public a year before elections. This will provide for adequate public discourse and scrutiny. 

Secondly, there must be a mechanism of auditing the implementation of political manifestos of the ruling party a year to the election by an independent multi-agency body headed by the Auditor General. This will give premium to the seriousness of political commitments made by political parties and their presidential candidates through their manifestos/ agenda.

Thirdly, while Kenya has enacted numerous legislation inspired by foundational principles of good governance in the Constitution, governance challenges abound in all public sectors. The perception of using public office to plunder public resources and utility of political office for personal gain sustain motivations for accessing political office, more so the presidency. It would be helpful device mechanisms of ensuring actual checks and balances in public offices. 

Fourthly, the power of Parliament to determine budgetary allocation for constitutional offices, including constitutional commissions, should be checked. This is informed by the political vendetta meted on public and constitutional offices that try to be visibly independent. They include the Judiciary and constitutional commissions such as the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, which have had their operational budgets significantly cut through political machinations and as a form of punishment. 

The Controller of Budgets should moderate proposed budgets by constitutional bodies and public institutions. This can be done by the amendment of relevant laws and Parliament not having the monopoly of power to vary budgetary proposals. 

Fifthly, the number of political parties should be regulated. The registration of multiple parties in electioneering periods, or utility of fringe political parties to propagate ethnic bargains at the expense of the universality of national politics fragments the body of politics to serve narrow or sectarian political interests. This environment breeds politics railroaded by cartels and special interests.

Sixthly, key political parties and politicians should not have direct control or influence over the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission. The essence of the constitutional protection of IEBC’s independence was to ward off political influence. This is yet to be achieved, going by the direct attacks, attempts at intimidation, and constant calls for the removal of various commissioners, especially in electioneering periods.

Regarding election-based violence, there is a need to undertake thorough planning for general elections and monitor all forms of early warning systems for violence and incitements. This should include assessing the capacity needs of the police, establishing coordination mechanisms at different levels among all relevant governmental and non-governmental actors. Additionally, presidential elections, including election security and public order management, have to be given particular scrutiny. 

Lastly, more steps need to be taken to ensure responsible and objective media coverage of political campaigns and elections, with the intent to illuminate the form and substance within the twists and bends of presidential transition politics.

Successful and peaceful political transitions fortify democracy. This is a principle that the consciousness of the citizenry should properly and eternally guard. High standards of democratic elections, respect of independent institutions and care for free, fair and verifiable elections should be non-negotiable principles. These will be guarantees of peaceful and cherished presidential transitions. 

Mr Bigambo, a political scientist and lawyer, is managing consultant at Interthoughts Consulting

1 comment

  • Certainly it is hard to shake off the intuition that the more political parties are in evidence, the more consolidated the democracy. Yet it may well be that parties are markers of democracy, inevitable expressions of its advance, without being causally connected to all that is presumed good about democracy. If the foregoing stroll through empirical democratic theory taught us anything, it is that the connection between political parties and the responsiveness of elected governments is not at all settled. Some contemporary models of political parties reinforce the fears of early theorists that political parties would intervene between elected governments and the achievement of the public good. In the original conception, parties were partial and bound to the passions and prejudices of local public opinion; in some recent conceptions, parties are partial to their own conception of the good and unconstrained by public opinion.

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