In Kenya, a month of suspense and uncertainty has come to an end. The supreme court has upheld Uhuru Kenyatta’s March 4th victory and with that voters can start putting the election behind them and move forward with their daily lives.
Almost fifty years old, Kenya is a young country, experimenting with its own form of democracy, and Kenyatta has become its fourth president. Official results suggest a voter turnout of 86% with 12.3 million votes cast, and Kenyatta narrowly beat his main challenger, Raila Odinga, by 8,100 votes. Despite the predictions of analysts and international media that this election would erupt into violence along the lines of that five years ago, where contested results led to over 1,000 deaths and displaced 600,000 from their homes, this election by comparison has been largely peaceful. And, despite Odinga’s refusal to accept the results—pointing out faults with the counting process and widespread technological failures—instead of taking his grievances to the streets, he filed a petition in court, setting an important example for future leaders in respecting the rule of law.
In addition to its own internal struggles, where voters generally rallied behind leaders based on ethnic and geographic origin, this election has also turned into a contest between Kenya and the wider world; how it is approached, perceived, and understood, particularly by the west.
In a piece in The Guardian following the election, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina describes a sentiment that seems widespread, stating that Kenya is not “a CNN African country, held together by western pins and glue, pity, bananas and paternal concern.” Similarly for Kenyatta, this election has been a rallying cry against those that would try and shape the country from the outside, and Kenya’s endorsement of a president set to stand trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity has created an uneasy rift with the US, Europe, and the United Nations.
As the powerhouse economy of the region, Kenya is a strategic partner in international efforts to combat terrorism, fight piracy, and deliver humanitarian and development assistance to East and Central Africa. Though Europe and North America alluded to the dangers of electing a potential war criminal, such as a when a top US diplomat explained that “choices have consequences,” the fact that Kenyatta’s trial has already been postponed to July indicates that the ICC and some members of the international community are unsure how to approach this necessary ally. The US, in particular, will pay attention to how Kenya responds to other world powers such as China, and if the perceived anti-African stance of the ICC will push Kenya towards becoming a Zimbabwe-like state where the hold on power is framed in an anti-western rhetoric.
But Kenya is not Zimbabwe, nor is the election of a president the sole purpose and end of democracy. Yes, the president is part of it, but democracy is about people. It is about their ability to live, to love, to dream, and to be heard. Kenyatta answers to them—should answer to them—and underneath the spotlight of the presidency far more important things have happened in this election. It has ushered in a new constitution, reshaped administrative boundaries, brought in newer, younger leaders, opened more space for women in politics, and has set in stage a form of devolved government where the presidency will no longer be absolute, where local leaders will be more accessible and accountable to the people they represent.
Is this an ideal? Perhaps. But it shows that Kenya’s real challenge is not the wider world. Rather, to keep evolving—or moving forward in “fits and starts, elliptically,” as Mukoma Wa Ngugi describes it—the country has some healing to do. And many questions remain. Who, for example, has been held accountable for the post-election violence five years ago, and if this is not addressed, will it boil over? What is going to be done about land, in a country where demand for arable areas outstrips supply? And in a country where half of the population is under eighteen, what kind of educational opportunities and jobs are going to be created for them to aspire to?
Much of this will depend on how people, ordinary people, can participate in and shape the country’s future. Kenyatta may resist devolution, may act like presidents before him and consolidate power around him in a culture of corruption and impunity. Or he may take a nobler approach, and reach out to instead of turning against the portion of the country—almost half of it—that voted against him.
Within its borders and without, Kenya has stumbled into new territory. Now, in early April, seeds have been planted and the rainy season has arrived. People are ready to breath, to get on with things. But that doesn’t mean disengaging, because one reality has not changed: the poor will have to keep taking care of themselves.