Can national dialogue settle Kenya’s recurring post-election instability?

21st September 2023 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

 Can national dialogue settle Kenya’s recurring post-election instability?

A 29 July agreement between Kenya’s President William Ruto and main opposition leader Raila Odinga ended months of street protests against tax hikes and the cost of living, many of which were met with heavy-handed policing.

The deal sets the stage for a negotiated settlement, but each side has demands that could still collapse the talks. How these pressures are managed will be a major test for both leaders.

Kenya’s political stability has long been tied to elections. Results of the past four closely contested polls were all challenged. After the devastating post-election violence in 2007, the disputed presidential election led to the formation of a coalition government. In 2013, the Supreme Court upheld Uhuru Kenyatta’s election as president. Its decision to nullify the 2017 results led to a rerun, which Odinga boycotted. Public protests that followed culminated in the famous ‘handshake’ deal between Kenyatta and Odinga.

After losing the 2022 poll to Ruto, Odinga again disputed the outcome. The Supreme Court upheld the result, but Odinga has emphasised that while he respects the court ruling, he disagrees with its verdict. He called the election fraudulent and refused to recognise the legitimacy of Ruto’s administration.

In the interest of electoral reform, Odinga has called for restructuring the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and a forensic audit of its server. His successful rallying of supporters around the issue coincided with an increase in the cost of living due to new tax regimes and removal of the fuel subsidy.

The hikes in fuel, sugar and maize flour prices fuelled public anger towards the government. The opposition has capitalised on this sentiment, portraying Ruto’s administration as insensitive and failing to fulfil the president’s pro-poor campaign promises.

The subsequent public protests led to property destruction and the looting of businesses, derailing the country’s economic progress, which was already being battered by soaring inflation. Police action against protestors resulted in 30 deaths since March, according to Amnesty International.

The cutthroat political competition that is often laced with ethnic undertones, along with electoral malpractice and the winner-takes-all constitutional arrangement are major political violence triggers.

The July meeting between Ruto and Odinga set the stage for a negotiated settlement. Each party has appointed a five-member team to form a National Dialogue Committee. A technical committee will assist by drawing up the agenda, which includes the rising cost of living.

The dialogue committee now also has teeth and can recommend constitutional, legal and policy reforms. That is after the National Assembly and Senate unanimously approved the committee’s formation in August, granting it much-needed legal status.

While the dialogue committee is expected to finalise its report in about two months (from 29 August), both parties could choose to compromise in the interest of stabilising the country politically and economically. With a struggling economy and a dissatisfied populace, Ruto and Odinga must ensure the negotiations succeed.

The two previous administrations diffused political tensions by forming all-inclusive governments. The current regime seems reluctant to take this route, giving the dialogue committee a chance to interrogate the shortcomings of past conflict resolution efforts and find a solution that benefits all. That must include a shift away from the ethnocentric and zero-sum political formula, which threatens Kenya’s nationhood.

Political party leaders will need to stop their politics of chest thumping and acknowledge that a more inclusive system is needed for an ethnically diverse country like Kenya. Political formations representing all ethnic identities at party level and in government are needed. With its constitutional mandate, the National Dialogue Committee can reimagine electoral practices that could stabilise Kenya’s democracy and politics.

The country needs a national political structure that recognises Kenya’s ethnic diversity both in the executive and other senior government ranks. Post-election stability depends not just on the credibility of polls, but on the winning party’s inclusion of Kenyans from diverse ethnic groups in the government of the day. In the long term, a parliamentary system could also help fix Kenya’s political crisis.

To stop the damaging political instability that follows every election cycle, Kenya also needs leaders who respect the constitution and are committed to detribalising elections and the structure of government. This will create a sense of nationhood among Kenyans. Without these changes, even free and credible elections will have ethnic contestation that could cost lives and properties.

If ethnicity and political inclusivity aren’t addressed, Kenya could well join Africa’s growing list of unstable states. Expectations are high that the national dialogue team can avoid this slippery slope by finding a solution to the country’s political and governance challenges.

Written by Guyo Chepe Turi, Research Officer, East Africa Peace and Security Governance, ISS Nairobi