Commonwealth observers at the Kenyan election count9 August, 2022, Nakuru, Rift Valley, Kenya: Observers from The Commonwealth observe as election officials arrange ballot papers at Nakuru Boys High School. [ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo]

For several tense days after Kenyans voted on August 9 – to decide between the deputy president, William Ruto, and Raila Odinga, the 77-year-old opposition leader contesting his fifth presidential election – the outcome remained perilously uncertain, amid fears that the country could again descend into the ethnically based mob violence that erupted after the 2007 general elections, when more than 1,200 people were killed.

Ruto, 55, was finally declared the president-elect on August 15, winning by the slimmest of margins – 50.49% to 48.85% for his veteran opponent. And one of the key factors may have been a famous handshake in 2018 that ended years of feuding by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga – and transformed the public image of both Ruto and his challenger.

Kenya: A hollow victory
Kenya: Election rewind

With Kenya’s rocky electoral history in mind (it also suffered violence around the first multi-party general elections in 1992, as well as in 1997 and 2017) and the country’s leading role in Africa, fellow Commonwealth members Australia, Canada and the UK, as well as the US and other western nations, made it clear how high the stakes were, declaring in a statement on August 5: ‘This election is of huge significance. It marks the first full transition in the presidency and many governorships since the introduction of the 2010 constitution … Kenya is an anchor for stability, security, and democracy – not just in the region, or on this continent, but across the globe.’

With much of the 2007-08 violence ascribed to delays in announcing the election results, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) began posting results online soon after the 46,000 polling stations closed, with media outlets keeping a running count. It was only one part of a huge effort to allay fears and boost confidence in the democratic process: at a cost of more than $370m – or $17 a vote – it was one of the world’s most expensive elections per capita, with paper ballots printed in Europe and biometric technology to identify voters by their fingerprints and images.

The conduct of the election drew admiring remarks from neighbouring countries with more dubious procedures: ‘We are shocked that Kenyans can do elections without their internet being shut down,’ one Tanzanian tweeted in a sardonic reference to his country’s social-media blackout ahead of the 2020 elections. ‘Election clerks have not been chased away from their stations. Ballot boxes have not disappeared or got lost. No police officers have disturbed the country’s citizens. How is it possible?’

There was also praise, with only minor qualifications, from international election monitors, such as the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG), which commended Kenyans for the ‘peaceful and orderly’ voting, holding out the hope that the country would ‘serve as an inspiration for the Commonwealth and indeed, the rest of the world [and] that relevant lessons have been learned.’

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However, Bruce Golding, COG head, also warned about the ‘time lag’ between voting and announcing final results, while Ernest Bai Koroma, Sierra Leone’s former president and head of the African Union mission, singled out the low voter turnout, especially of young people, as a concern. ‘Only 39.84% [8.8 million] of the total registered voters were youth, a decline of 5.17% from the 2017 figures,’ he said. (Those aged under 35 comprise 75% – or nearly 38 million – of Kenya’s population, according to the 2019 census.) The IEBC said overall turnout was about 60%, far below the 80% in 2017. ‘Kenyans are tired of waking up early and voting for a government that doesn’t care,’ one voter told Reuters in Naivasha. Many young people did not even register to vote, IEBC figures showed.

But despite the efforts to make this an exemplary election, Kenyans’ suspicions rose as news organisations halted their public tallies on the night of August 11 – with the two candidates each on about 49% of the vote. Three days later, on August 15, the electoral commission finally declared Ruto to be president-elect. The four-time runner-up had lost again – by just 233,211 votes or 1.64 percentage points. Scuffles broke out in the tallying hall and the result was challenged by Odinga’s team, while four of the seven IEBC commissioners also refused to endorse Ruto’s win.

Odinga petitioned the supreme court to overturn the results; his running mate, Martha Karua, tweeted: ‘It is not over until it is over.’ The IEBC chairman, Wafula Chebukati, told the court that Ruto was properly elected but fellow commissioner Irene Massit disputed this and blamed Chebukati for ‘lack of transparency, accountability and verifiability’, calling his conduct ‘whimsical and solely intended to … overthrow the constitution.’

However, the US Institute of Peace analyst Aly Verjee concluded: ‘So far, little evidence of electoral misconduct has been presented, with most observers suggesting the conduct of the polls improved compared to the last vote in 2017.’ He commended the speed with which results were posted online, noting that allowing the media and citizens to examine the data ‘helped limit, at least to an extent, the volume of corrosive rumour’.

While praising the diligent election officers (one of whom disappeared just before he was due to announce local results and whose tortured body was found days later), he criticised the dissenting commissioners for disputing results over miniscule discrepancies easily accounted for as rounding percentages. ‘The credibility of the election management body is easily squandered,’ said Verjee, who pointed to voter turnout in Ruto-supporting areas as the crucial factor in his victory. He noted that it was low even in Odinga’s former strongholds, such as Mombasa, where he won but on a turnout of 44%, compared with 67% in 2013 and 60% in 2017. By contrast, Ruto’s winning counties had a turnout of 70-75%.

Equally fragile, it seemed, was Odinga’s popularity and assumed lead in much of the country. Opinion polls in April put Odinga trailing Ruto by 15 percentage points last November, by 11 in February, and still seven behind by April. Though he then overtook his rival, it was never by much – a poll days before the election found a lead of only 8 points.

While the 22-year age gap probably played a role, Odinga lost to Ruto because he failed to enthuse enough of his once-loyal Luo supporters in western Kenya. As Prof Nic Cheeseman observed in the Elephant: ‘Many voters were disenchanted with the handshake and the prospects of an Odinga/Kenyatta alliance.’ Odinga’s rapprochement with Kenyatta (who had fallen out with his deputy and endorsed his erstwhile opponent to stymie him) suddenly made Ruto the challenger and won over many of Kenyatta’s own Kikuyu community. And, paradoxically, that handshake transformed the perennial opposition leader into one of the ruling elite – as son of Kenya’s first vice-president, Oginga Odinga, he was portrayed as the scion of a ruling dynasty just like the president, the son of Kenya’s independence leader. Meanwhile, Ruto, deputy president in an unpopular government for nine years, could somehow pose as a reforming insurgent.

‘Ruto portrayed himself during the campaign as the brash outsider, playing up his chicken-selling days from childhood. He told voters the election was a contest between “hustlers” from modest backgrounds and the “dynasties” of Kenyatta and Odinga,’ said Africa News.

Odinga lost the campaign as much as Ruto won it – and will rue the day he posed for that fateful handshake with Kenyatta.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board

‘Eye on the Commonwealth’ columns look at current issues facing the Commonwealth