Violence prevention without sustainability: an assessment of Kenya’s presidential election

Kenya held its general election in August 2022. Every time there are elections, the region holds its breath in the hope that no major violence will break out that could paralyse the nation and the region. It did not happen this time round: in comparison with previous elections, the recently concluded general election – particularly the presidential contest in Kenya – managed to avert large-scale election-related violence.

The fifth president of Kenya was sworn in on 13 September 2022 following a Supreme Court ruling to uphold his victory after a legal challenge by his opponent and other entities. As the country waits for the lower courts to share their rulings on other election contest petitions at the end of October, some cases might result in fresh new elections, which could raise tensions in those areas. Good practice in violence prevention and sustainability are key tenets of peacebuilding. This article looks at the recent Kenyan election from this perspective, examining the reasons why violence prevention was successful but did not contribute to building sustainable peace.

Key factors that prevented large-scale election violence

Campaigns based on issues: As a first in Kenyan electoral history, campaigning in this electioneering period centred around factors such as the economy, unemployment, gender disparity, education, the cost of living, and not mainly along ethnic lines as has been the case in the past. Candidates’ pledges during rallies were also forward looking rather than dwelling on historical issues. This shift in focus from past campaigning around ethnic identities to salient current issues cuts across different demographics and ethnicities – as the attention moved from the community level to the individual level.

Transparency of all election results: A key factor in preventing violence was the full transparency of the election results – another first in Kenyan election history – which were fully transparent as they came in. The public had access to all the forms from all polling stations, a total of 46,232 from the public portal on the election commission’s website. This level of open access allowed people to undertake their own tallying and get the results ahead of the announcement. Previously, Kenyans had to rely on the announcement of combined results with no way to track or independently verify them.

Respect for laws and institutions: After the announcement of the national and local election winners, including the presidential election results by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the losing candidates pledged to contest the results in court and at the same time called for peace. Additionally, supporters and the general public urged all aggrieved parties to take their cases to court and wait patiently for the rulings instead of taking to the streets as observed in the past.

In October, there are 123 petitions from gubernatorial to parliamentary contests being handled in the lower courts around the country with rulings expected later in the year. As for the presidential election result dispute settlement, the courts upheld the new president’s win and shared their summary judgement under heavy security. In the aftermath of the ruling, the petitioners’ messages of acceptance of the verdict despite a refusal to agree with the ruling calmed the supporters of the losing candidate.

Violence fatigue: After the announcement of the election results, voters from the runner up’s regional stronghold communicated that they would not be engaging in violence. The messages shared on social media, and interviews in the media expressed a call to peace and an inclination to respect the court’s settlement. This suggests that mentally the public was exhausted from the electioneering period and wanted to move forward with normal life, and is also evidence of voter maturity and fatigue with the use of violence as a political instrument.

Conflict-sensitive media coverage: Contrary to past elections , the media – both local-language and national – took on the role of calming tensions. The Media Council of Kenya (MCK) trained 2,500 journalists on the coverage of elections as part of their mandate after the 2013 Media Council Act came into effect. In the lead-up to the elections, the council shared an elections coverage guideline, which was signed by the stakeholders. The coverage focused mainly on the issues being discussed, proposals, and the strategy of the campaign, rather than on grouping voter preferences – and by extension voters – into ethnic and regional categories.

Insufficient sustainable prevention and peacebuilding

Though large-scale violence was prevented, this was not a violence-free election, with incidences of politically motivated threats and killings that included the death of an IEBC staff member. Moreso, despite more balanced election reporting, media independence remains a constant challenge in Kenya. The MCK released a report on the media performance where they observed press freedom violations such as “denial to access voting areas, critical information from relevant public bodies, profiling of journalists and media outlets, online trolling of journalists and media outlets and in some cases physical attacks on journalists.” Another area of concern is the role of social media and the misinformation observed by influencers.

Yet, the biggest obstacles for getting the country on a pathway to sustainable peace is the mixture of different structural political and social challenges, starting with the winner-takes-all British type of election law that is not conducive to sustainable peace in a multi-ethnic society, in addition to a culture of corruption, the lack of public confidence in the political class, and the lack of access to justice for political and other crimes.

These current and long-term issues are analysed below.

Election law not fit for purpose: In a multi-party, multi-ethnic society, a winner-takes-all British-style election law seems like a colonial relic blocking the pathway to sustainable peace in Kenya. The current election laws and the constitution are contradictory and difficult to implement in practice. Despite the introduction of the new political parties law, which allows for coalitions of parties, the law still hinders a broader split of power sharing in order to ensure a smooth transition and governance.

Low voter turnout: This year’s voter turnout numbers were a point of dispute brought to the attention of the court as the number kept fluctuating. In 2017, a 79.51% turnout was recorded, while in 2022 the number recorded was 65.4% with a majority of the youth not voting. A breakdown of the statistics is still to come, but it is already clear that the turnout dropped significantly. The Kenya National Commission of Human Rights (KNCHR) launched a monitoring report of the 2022 Kenyan elections, ‘Demystifying our democracy: Towards a Human Rights Compliance’, in which they signal their concerns, including regarding the voter turnout.

Lack of confidence in the political establishment: Overall, the lower voter turnout in this year’s elections is testimony to the disconnect between people and the political class. People have lost confidence in the willingness and ability of politicians to change ordinary people’s lives. Kenyans are under extreme pressure: rising costs of living, a high rate of unemployment, the consequences of climate change on people’s livelihoods, and the endemic corruption combined with an understanding that politicians get extremely rich from the job (Kenyan elected officials like MPs are among the highest paid in the world!) has disillusioned people.

Unfinished National Dialogues: The Kenyan political and social contract is broken. There has not been a proactive and genuine broad-based approach to engage the public on political and social issues – especially recurring and unresolved obstacles such as political structures, proportional representation, tackling corruption and accountability, and full autonomy of independent commissions, which came up during the presidential election petition but have not been comprehensively explained or discussed. Kenya has seen a few such initiatives in the past, including from government and civil society and also from religious leaders; some of them furthering a path to peace and change, while others were just lip service. A renewed honest national conversation is needed to renegotiate the political and social contract in the country to pave the way to sustainable peace.