What you need to know:
- Regardless of who is Kenya’s fifth president, the particulars of the campaign mean that there will be a long and bitter aftermath. Kenya’s future now depends more on how the losing side takes their defeat than on how the winning side savours their victory.
Kenyans went to the polls on Tuesday, August 9, to elect a new government. Hundreds of offices, from parliament to county governors, were up for grabs.
However, as to be expected, most of the local and international focus was on the presidential race pitting the two leading contenders, deputy president William Ruto and the veteran opposition leader and former prime minister Raila Odinga.
This is, for all intents and purposes, Odinga’s final shot at the presidency he has dreamed and struggled for, over decades. He is the most prominent leader to come from the Luo community of western Kenya since independence, more prominent than his own father, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
For various reasons, Kenya’s Luo have felt aggrieved since independence in 1963 over what they perceive as the denial by Kenya’s largest and most influential tribe, the Kikuyu, of the presidency to them.
If Odinga loses this election and retires from politics, it means to the Luo community a new search begins for a leader of a national stature to fit into Odinga’s shoes.
That is a wait that might last another generation or two.
Campaigning in Kisumu, the hometown of Kenya’s Luo, on August 4, Odinga said: “Stop shadow boxing. Stop making unnecessary allegations that Uhuru is using chiefs to rig election. Stop creating unnecessary tension. I have no doubt in my mind that Kenyans are going to vote blue. We do not need chiefs to win, we shall win decisively.”
If this is the way Odinga saw it and if his hardcore supporters believed that this time victory was to be theirs, how would they take a defeat?
It will be too bitter a pill for Odinga’s supporters to swallow if he loses this election.
It will require much political skill to handle the frustration of the losing side, a side that came within a razor-thin distance of victory, especially a community like the Luo who believe that the system has been rigged against them for nearly 60 years, never for Kenya to have a Luo head of state.
How about a Ruto loss?
It’s nearly the same thing.
At 55, Ruto still has several more shots at the presidency. However, his presidential bid comes as part of his very public and very nasty fallout with his boss and former political ally Uhuru Kenyatta.
It’s unusual for a departing head of state to openly campaign against his deputy, one whom he ordinarily should proudly see as his successor.
So, a Ruto loss would be taken as proof that the ‘deep state in Kenya worked to rob Ruto of his deserved victory’.
In other words, regardless of who is Kenya’s fifth head of state, the particulars of the 2022 campaign and the two leading presidential candidates means that there will be a long and bitter aftermath.
Kenya’s future now depends more on how the losing side takes their defeat than on how the winning side savours their victory.
Let’s just say the post-election situation is handled well. We turn now to the economy.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government tried to leave a mark on Kenya.
The odds were slim that he would succeed. Every government pledges and genuinely tries to create jobs for the youth.
Companies, however, cannot hire new workers on account of job creation for its own sake.
They can only do that when the prospects of newly hired labour adding to their production or profit are high.
Creating new jobs in the civil service and the political public service only ends up increasing the burden of public administration on the economy.
The only way open for the Kenyatta government was to invest in a major upgrading of the country’s infrastructure and build new one.
Re-surfacing roads, building new bridges and multi-lane highways is politically easy.
All a government has to do is compensate affected residents and businesses in the path of the new roads, and usually most people like the sight and comfort of a new road.
Also, because the Chinese build these projects, their efficiency and insulation from local culture and politics means they will get the job done on budget and on time.
Heavy investment in new infrastructure also had the ring of economic sense at the time.
Since the 2000-2010 decade, the thinking was that in order to jump-start sub-Saharan African economies, there was need to upgrade the infrastructure or build new one.
Tourism, foreign investors, local companies, all these needed a good road network and reliable electricity for production.
It was the argument made by the Uganda government and many others such as Ethiopia’s, Rwanda’s, Tanzania’s, and so forth.
The largest single project in Kenya since independence was the Nairobi-Mombasa standard gauge railway.
It was hoped that this new, $3.8 billion Chinese-built railway would spur further tourism, reduce the cost of ferrying goods to and from Mombasa, and create hundreds of new jobs.
Unfortunately, none of these projections have come to pass.
All it has done is that it has left Kenya with a high debt-to-GDP ratio of 70.3 percent as of 2022.
For once, Uganda’s disorganisation has worked in its favour when it comes to the delay in launching the standard gauge railway.
Had Uganda been more serious and gone ahead with its part of the railway project, today Uganda’s debt-to-GDP ratio would be at about 79 percent.
The new government will have to deal with the outcome of this.
Servicing this foreign debt load will leave little money for services like education and public health.
Democracy in the Internet age
The new government in Nairobi and the local governments at the county level will have few tools at their disposal.
County governors, Members of Parliament, and various local officials will be reduced to populist gestures as their best way of appeasing or connecting with their electorate.
So, it will include turning up at harambee fundraising for schools, churches, charities and community clean-up activities.
Parliamentary democracy was born in Britain 400 years ago when few ever left their village, so a local MP mattered.
The Internet has erased geography’s constraint, so it means little to speak of Nairobi West or Kakamega North.
The biggest shift over the past 25 years was not millions getting the right to vote in an election.
It was something called a mobile phone in the hands of billions around the world.
From how items are ordered via apps and citizens spend a third of their day in the metaverse that’s WhatsApp, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, the Internet has so re-arranged society, parliament is almost obsolete.
Yet most of us still look to government, president, and prime minister for hope and answers.
The average voter has in his or their hands the mobile phone or smartphone that gives them the power of access, information, and money transactions that reduce their dependency on the state or on their elected officials.
Services such as Google’s search engine or WhatsApp’s range of almost zero-cost digital services are so powerful and sophisticated, no Kenyan MP or county governor can ever hope to deliver more than what these American Internet companies do today.
In these new digital platforms, not in elected heads of state, county governors, or MP, lies the hope for Kenyans over the next five years.