(Most of the) Things You Should Know About Kenya’s Electoral History Before the Election

Kenyan Flag

This is for anyone whose knowledge of Kenya comes mostly from The Lion King.

In a few weeks, it’s going down in Kenya; a major election occurs on March 4th, and Human Rights Watch says the risk of political violence is “perilously high.” As I was writing a review of the first Kenyan debate – as in, the first Kenyan debate ever – I started an endnote outlining the recent history of Kenyan politics. It was long, and I was cutting nuance for the sake of brevity.

But nuance is what’s needed when writing about such a complex and charged political environment, so it’s worth outlining separately here. This won’t provide you all of the details – mainly because, as someone new to the details, I don’t know all of them myself – but hopefully will give you enough of a background to sound intelligent if the election comes up at a party, or, if you’re really lucky, during a date (the best girls are the worldly girls who think about things like the Kenyan election, in my opinion).

Modern-day Kenya (which is pictured in the context of Africa below) was controlled by the British starting in the 1880s, first as the East African Protectorate and then, starting in 1920, as a full-fledged colony. The area is composed of a number of tribes (see the modern breakdown below), some of which do not have a history of getting along; this was, more or less, standard practice during the Scramble for Africa.

Kenya in Africa

Also standard practice: the British imported white people and sold off land to them at low prices, then allowed those settlers to dictate policy; one of the results was that indigenous groups weren’t allowed to grow coffee or tea, significant cash crops that provided the settlers with money, and, thus, a political voice. Thus, the local population did not feel they had a voice or a say in how they were treated.

Which, as this type of situations tends to do, caused problems; one of the main ethnic groups in the area, the Kikuyu, led the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s, during which tens of thousands of rebels were killed by the British, the type of rebellion where both sides lose. There’s a scholarly debate about whether this rebellion sped up or held back independence (the British may have preferred to give up control before it, anyway), but it was nevertheless a defining moment for the colony. A man named Jomo Kenyatta (an important name in Kenyan history, as we’ll soon see) was one of many jailed for his alleged involvement, though he expressed his innocence. The Kenyan African National Union (KANU) is established, and Kenyatta is made president.

All of which – the occupation, the massacres, the economic disenfranchisement – brings us to 1963, when Britain formally ceded control to the Kenyans, packed up, and left. A constitution was created, and Jomo Kenyatta became the first president of the brand-new country of Kenya.*

Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and his vice president, Jaramagi Odinga Odinga,  a Luo, chose to do what many a nascent administration does, and promptly consolidated power –  dramatically amending the constitution to give great authority to the president, oppressing dissidents and political foes (e.g., some believe Kenyatta was involved in the murder of Tom Mboya, a young, well-respected future contender for the presidency), and effectively creating a one-party state. This worked, in the sense that the country was fairly stable and grew economically, though it seems like those dividends are being taxed by the precedent of factionalism and corruption they created.

Kenyatta and Odinga eventually fell out, which led to Odinga creating an opposition party and to Daniel Arap-Moi’s ascendancy to the presidency in 1978, upon Kenyatta’s death. Moi continued where Kenyatta left off, consolidating power and crushing dissent – going even further when, in 1981, KANU declared itself the sole legal political party; this more or less continued until 1991, when, threatened by the prospect of losing foreign aid, Moi pushed for a multi-party system, and succeeded. He stayed in power another ten years and has since been implicated in a number of bribery and corruption scandals.

When Moi decided not to re-run in 2002, the opportunity was ripe for new leadership. Moi backed Uhuru Kenyatta, Jomo’s son and a member of KANU (the party that reigned for 40 years, since independence), but Mwai Kibaki won the election decisively (as part of the National Rainbow Coalition, one of the better-named political parties). Viewed as more of a technocrat** than an ideologue, Kibaki presided over a relatively quiet economic expansion – the major hiccup being his inability to help usher in a democracy-friendly constitutional amendment in 2005. You’ll recognize one of the names of the opposition: Raila Odinga, Jaramagi’s son; he started the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) during this time.

Kenyan Ethnic Groups

Things got dicey during the 2007 election; Kibaki – a Kikuyu, remember – chose to re-run against the main opposition, Raila Odinga (a Luo) of ODM. The election was extremely close, with Kibaki ultimately declared, much to the chagrin of those who believe that he effectively stole the election. Violence followed, arguably stemming from the same underlying cause as the Mau Mau Uprising –disenfranchisement and a deep sense of unfairness, this time perpetrated by the Kikuyus. There were an estimated 1,200 deaths, and Uhuru Kenyatta was accused of fueling the violence and other crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (an offense for which he is still on trial, though he claims his innocence). Eventually, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and others managed to broker a power-sharing deal whereby Odinga became the newly-created Prime Minister, and violence subsided.

Constitution reform that began in the early 2000s ended in the late 2000s, with the constitutional referendum passing in 2010 by a two-to-one margin. A number of major changes were passed, but the highlights include codifying two levels of government (federal and county), outlawing gender discrimination, and modifying the separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches.

Kibaki can’t run in this month’s elections; his void is being filled by a Kenyatta and an Odinga – again. Both are poling in the mid-40s, making it likely that Kenya will once again be ruled by a Kenyatta or Odinga. We likely won’t know until well after March 4th, though; if Kenyatta and Odinga both fail to gain a simple majority (or to take at least 25% of the votes in at least 24 counties) – as is likely – there will be a runoff on April 11th (which is, coincidentally, the same day as Kenyatta’s ICC trial).

*Fun Fact: The name Kenya comes from Mt. Kenya, which in turn comes from the word for “mountain of whiteness,” Kirinyaga. So why don’t we go on safari in the great country of Kirinyaga? Because the British couldn’t pronounce it

**I think this link is… generous in what it omits, by the way, but will leave it up to you to decide



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