Wednesday September 13 2017

Still dealing with the Kenya court shock, but the clouds are clearing

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo  

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The September 1 decision by the Kenya Supreme Court to overturn the August 8 presidential elections, the first in Africa based on an opposition petition, continues to reverberate.
The New York Times, which had written a stinging editorial against opposition candidate Raila Odinga after the vote, retracted it and noted that something huge had just happened in Kenya.

It was interesting to read the comments from a debate on the implications of the Kenyan Supreme Court decision on Uganda’s and the region’s democracy. Honestly, I don’t think there will be any direct impact, because that is not how these things happen.
You see, there are those who argue that President Paul Kagame’s anti-crusading ways, and Rwanda’s state efficiency, is because they do not want to end up like Uganda.

President Daniel arap Moi used to be wary of the NRM government and President Yoweri Museveni’s “revolutionary” ways. Museveni used to be a sensation in Kenya in those days. Some comrades in Kenya even talk of carrying out a “people’s war”.
There was no rebellion, and Moi learnt from Uganda to gradually liberalise the politics, but most set on security sector reform.

While in Uganda Museveni and team learnt that you need to have control of the army, Moi took the view that the best path to stability was to professionalise and make it less partisan. At its core, therefore, Kenya has the region’s most professional intelligence and military service.
The evidence then suggests that while East African countries respond to developments in the neighbourhood, they usually don’t follow them.

On the specific case of the Kenya Supreme Court ruling on presidential elections, we can brace for extreme responses. In a couple of African countries, it could lead to a setback to judicial reforms.

In others, as we have seen in countries like Senegal where President Macky Sall actually faced opposition when he wanted to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years, it could lead to dramatic electoral reforms.

What no one is talking much about is the case’s likely impact in Kenya itself. Right now, the focus is whether there will be violence. Well, there was violence already after the results in the August vote were announced, as there was that deadly wave in 2008 that killed nearly 1,400 and, for the first time, sent Kenyans fleeing as refugees to eastern Uganda.

The true effects are likely to be seen after both Uhuru and Raila Odinga have left the active political scene.
I got a taste of it last Friday. Former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga organised a dinner for a small group of friends at an upmarket restaurant in a leafy Nairobi suburb.

I was the first to arrive. The place was chock-a-block. Additional tables and chairs were being rushed to the verandah.
I called him to ask if he booked a table for our group. He said; “No. I don’t think that restaurant takes bookings.
For all the years I have been going there, I have never found it so full that there are no open tables”.

When he arrived, he was shocked. At some of the tables for five, they had squeezed in a sixth chair. This is supposed to be the “period of uncertainty” after the Supreme Court ruling, and posh restaurants are supposed to be half-empty, not overflowing.
Part of the reason was in the crowd. A good chunk of it was foreigners.
It would seem that while, for most Kenyans, the court had heightened uncertainty, outsiders who generally work on low expectations of Africa and its institutions, had been buoyed by its ruling.

If you have an African country where a court can overturn a presidential election, then if you are an international company, your confidence that the same country’s court can rule in your favour if you are in a business dispute with a minister or president, increases.
While many foreign firms have been headquartering their Africa operations in Nairobi in recent years, expect that to turn into a flood over the next four years.

Raising business confidence was probably the one thing that the Kenya Supreme Court justices never had in mind. It might end up being the most enduring legacy of their decision.
Here is the second ironical thing. While the decision did not go in favour of Uhuru, because his family has extensive business, he could actually turn out to be one of the biggest beneficiaries in the end.

For East Africa, then, the first major impact of the case could be far away from the elections. Kenya might just have a leg up in business competitiveness.
Looking 10 years ahead, those fundamentals won’t change much, even if violence follows the repeat vote on October 17. Until a court somewhere else in Africa overturns a presidential vote.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3