The voters queuing outside the Olympic Primary School in Nairobi’s Kibera slum on 27 December were sure of two things. First, that if a free and fair election were held, Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) had sufficient support to win Kenya’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Second, that the polls would be fixed in order to ensure a second term of office for President Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU). On both counts, the crowd was right.

The polling station in Kibera – an opposition stronghold – was typical of many in this election. Queues began forming at 3 a.m., stretching back over a kilometre by the time the polling station opened at dawn. Similar queues across the country demonstrated the determination of the people to have their voices heard. The patience of those queuing in Kibera was gravely tested, however. The ballot boxes arrived late, leading to fears that those still in line when the polls closed at 5 p.m. would not be able to vote, and parts of the alphabet were entirely missing from the electoral register – mostly those letters that begin common Luo surnames. This contributed to a general sense of mismanagement and showed the frailty of the Electoral Commission of Kenya. Although voting was conducted peacefully, there was a foretaste of what would later transpire. Roadblocks manned by local civilians were put up on the one road into Kibera. All incoming cars were searched for stuffed ballot boxes or any sign that non-resident voters were being bussed in to boost support for the government. A commitment to the democratic process does not in Kenya preclude the use of violence.

Kenyans were simultaneously voting for local authority representatives, MPs and in the presidential ballot. In a state governed by a constitution that gives enormous powers to the president, it was the last poll that monopolised attention. Although nine candidates were listed on the ballot papers, only three mounted credible nationwide campaigns. Kibaki, Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka had been allies in the National Rainbow Coalition, which had defeated the hated Kenya African National Union (KANU) in the 2002 elections. The opposition to the authoritarian rule of Daniel arap Moi had divided along factional lines in 1992 and 1997: in 2002 the various leaders opposed to the continuation of KANU’s rule under Moi’s anointed successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, successfully united behind Kibaki.

Once in power, Kibaki’s clique reneged on promises of ministerial appointments for other members of the coalition. They sabotaged constitutional reforms that would have weakened the powers of the presidency and a watered-down draft constitution that left the influence of central government intact was eventually the subject of a referendum in 2005. The symbol on the ballot for the ‘No’ vote – championed by Odinga, Musyoka and other leaders – was an orange. Having won the referendum, the opposition took the orange as its label. Since then, the grouping has split into two factions – Odinga’s ODM and Musyoka’s ODM-Kenya. In order to shore up parliamentary support after the referendum, Kibaki made an alliance with KANU and its unpopular but wealthy former leaders.

With ODM fielding the largest number of candidates in the December elections and able to impose a degree of discipline on its candidates, there was little surprise among commentators and pollsters when it won the most parliamentary seats. In contrast to Odinga, Kibaki was unable to bring the disparate factions backing him under the umbrella of a single party, and in campaign rallies frequently had to try to calm supporters of rival groups who clashed during his speeches.

Each main candidate sought to discredit the other in expensive media campaigns, which by mid-December were estimated to have cost $20 million. Kibaki’s re-election effort alone topped $10 million. Who paid for these campaigns is an important question. Odinga in particular raised funds from the Kenyan diaspora in South Africa, Britain and North America, but the candidates’ campaign costs nevertheless ran far in excess of their apparent means. Many of the corruption scandals that engulfed Kibaki after 2002 have subsequently been linked to campaign funding during that election.

The PNU’s difficulties with funding have had serious consequences. Kibaki’s inner circle was widely thought to have been bankrupted by the cost of mounting the unsuccessful referendum campaign in 2005 and the need for funds seems to have driven Kibaki to make his alliance with Moi and his wealthy henchman Nicholas Biwott. Rewards necessarily followed. The big winner in the new cabinet is George Saitoti, who has been made minister for internal security. Although his background is in academia, Saitoti amassed a fortune while serving as a minister under President Moi. Hounded during the previous parliament by accusations of involvement in corruption scandals during the Moi presidency, Saitoti has returned unscathed. As unrest continues, and with serious disturbances likely in the future, the internal security portfolio is a major prize for a future presidential aspirant.

Politics in Kenya are micro-local in focus. Political leaders are judged on what they deliver to their communities. Those aspiring to office appeal for support by spelling out what they can do for their constituents once in power. The two main presidential candidates did little to encourage a broader perspective. Kibaki made a series of impromptu stops at small roadside trading centres to announce new and ever smaller districts, the construction of roads, free secondary education and the funding of new schools. ‘Promise them everything,’ one PNU campaigner urged his fellow Kibaki supporters at a meeting in Nairobi, ‘and apologise afterwards.’ Mentions of a brighter future for Kenyans living out of earshot were rare.

Both candidates constructed their bids around a series of ‘wedge issues’. Kibaki supporters depicted Odinga as Idi Amin reincarnate, stressing his authoritarian streak and calling into question Luo citizenship in Kenya (Luos originate from the area straddling the Ugandan border and along the shores of Lake Victoria), and exploited intra-provincial and intra-ethnic tensions in ODM strongholds. In turn, Odinga spoke a great deal about Kibaki’s role in the undemocratic regimes of Moi and Jomo Kenyatta; he too exploited regional grievances – and more successfully. Within his own community, Odinga complained that Luos had too long played the bridesmaid in Kenyan politics. On the coast and along the northern border, ODM appealed to the country’s Muslims, angry with Kibaki’s support of anti-terror operations led by the United States. Among Kalenjin in the Rift Valley, ODM courted voters upset by the purge of the civil service that followed Kibaki’s 2002 victory.

Kibaki’s reliance on economic growth as the main pillar of his campaign backfired. With an average of 5 per cent growth per annum effectively boosting the living standards only of the elite, ordinary Kenyans, Kikuyu or otherwise, have not yet benefited. Those who live elsewhere assumed that all the money was going to Kibaki’s own Central Province. Kibaki hardly played the role of a national leader, attacking Odinga for the latter’s alliance with Muslim groups and making much of his own Christianity. As election day approached, the attention of his grassroots campaign shifted to getting the people of the region surrounding Mount Kenya out to vote. When the campaign officially came to a close on Christmas Eve, all agreed that the two main contenders were neck and neck.

With the final results in both the parliamentary and presidential elections still not released in detail, it remains impossible to calculate the full extent of electoral fraud. From the reports of the European Union observer mission and those of the domestic observers, it appears that votes were inflated throughout the counting and tallying. Although the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Samuel Kivuitu, was respected by all parties, Kibaki had packed the commission with his own supporters earlier in the year. On the ground, commission officials, at times in collusion with party agents, oversaw a series of misdemeanours. In a number of constituencies, the declaration of the final results was delayed so as to give Kibaki’s henchmen time to make the necessary upward revisions. All sides committed acts of electoral fraud, however, and the extent of it is likely to mean that any attempt to retally votes cast for either candidate will be impossible.

During the 72 hours between the polling stations closing and the final result being declared, the political temperature rose dramatically. Early results suggested Odinga was on course for a comfortable victory, but by late afternoon on 29 December it was clear that Kibaki had closed the gap. With large constituencies from Kibaki strongholds yet to declare, both parties saw where the election was heading. Kivuitu seemed to be on the verge of declaring Kibaki the winner when ODM leaders persuaded him to delay his announcement until after he had looked at their evidence of rigging. Kivuitu promised a definitive result the following day.

It was at this point that a first wave of protests against the actions of the government broke out. After a night of riots in Kisumu and Nairobi, a security cordon was placed around key government buildings and the conference centre where the results were to be announced. Inside the building a day of waiting began – but there was no suspense. The result had been leaked and spread via text message: all present knew that one way or another Kibaki would win, that a security crackdown would begin almost immediately and that he would be sworn in later the same day.

At 4.15 p.m., Kivuitu appeared on stage to make his final announcement. As he began to read out the results, Odinga and a contingent of ODM leaders swept in through a side door. One of the police officers hit a member of Odinga’s bodyguard with his baton as the ODM leader attempted to force his way onto the stage to prevent Kivuitu from speaking. In the full glare of the media, diplomats and observers, scuffles broke out. Faced with the prospect of arrest or worse, the ODM delegation swiftly left. Kivuitu slipped out under police guard and, in the confusion, the PNU leaders fled the room to the jeers of the crowd.

Five minutes later, Odinga and his ODM contingent came back and accused the commission’s staff of altering the results. William Ruto, one of the ODM leaders, produced an electoral officer (his authority was somewhat undermined by Ruto’s introduction of him as an old friend) who claimed that votes for Kibaki had been artificially inflated inside the commission’s own tallying centre in Nairobi. The impromptu press conference then came to an end. As the audience finally began to leave the room, electricity to the building was cut.

Fifteen minutes later, from a secure room, Kivuitu declared that Kibaki had won by a margin of 200,000 votes. The announcement was made to the state broadcaster; all other media were prevented from attending. The broadcast ended as soon as the chairman finished reading his statement. Accompanied by the justice minister, he was then whisked away to State House, where, with daylight fading, Kibaki was sworn in. Almost immediately, riots began in the opposition strongholds of Kisumu and Mombasa, as well as in various parts of Nairobi, most violently in the Kibera slum. At 8 p.m. it was announced that live radio and TV broadcasts would be suspended until further notice. Kenya had become a police state overnight.

The burning down on New Year’s Day of the Kenya Assemblies of God church at Kiambaa, close to the town of Eldoret, the defining moment of the crisis, has provoked ridiculous comparisons to Rwanda. The killing of 35 Kikuyu there has been seen as symbolic by those who choose to view Kenyan and African politics in terms of ethnicity. But little of the violence that followed the official declaration of Kibaki’s victory was tribal. There is little question that many Kenyans were deeply aggrieved by Kibaki’s actions – ‘They said we must pay for our decision to vote for President Kibaki,’ a survivor of the Kiambaa massacre told the Daily Nation newspaper – but this grievance was built on a long history of regional inequality.

The Rift Valley and, to a lesser extent, Mombasa, the centres of anti-Kikuyu activity, experienced similar periods of violence during earlier election campaigns. During the so-called ‘tribal clashes’ of 1992 and 1997, hundreds were killed and thousands forced from their homes as politicians exploited tensions within individual communities over access to resources. Ethnicity camouflages tremendous class conflict in contemporary Kenya. In the Rift Valley and Mombasa, Kikuyu traders, entrepreneurs and farmers have caused great resentment within local communities since their arrival in the aftermath of independence in 1963. Seen as denying local people land, jobs and state investment, these ‘outsiders’ have periodically been demonised by politicians seeking to mobilise support. Sanctioning or at least acquiescing in a bout of anti-Kikuyu violence in the wake of a closely contested election serves to consolidate a factionalised support base.

Certainly the anti-Kikuyu violence is useful to ODM. This is not a great pro-democracy movement: it has failed to mobilise mass civil unrest and its leadership includes figures schooled in the dark arts of Kenyan politics. We may never know exactly who orchestrated the killings at Kiambaa or elsewhere in Kenya over the past few weeks, but we do know that they were organised.

Driven by what the historian E.S. Atieno Odhiambo calls an ‘ideology of order’, the state’s response to the protests has tended to privilege stability at the expense of personal liberty. Successive postcolonial regimes have boasted of Kenya’s relative peacefulness and used the fear of instability to justify the repression of human rights. On this occasion, Kibaki correctly anticipated that ODM intended to instigate a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution. Plans had long been in place to deal with such an event; once Kibaki had been sworn in, the strategy was implemented. At 8 p.m. on 30 December, just as Odinga was about to announce that a mass rally would be held in Uhuru Park in Nairobi the following day, public spaces, including the park, were cordoned off. Government buildings were heavily defended and ODM strongholds locked down by state security forces.

Police and other branches of the security forces blocked off entire neighbourhoods in, among other places, Kisumu, Mombasa and Nairobi. Any protests were dealt with ruthlessly. An unknown number of protesters were shot in Kisumu on 30 December as police opened fire on a crowd attempting to congregate in the city centre. There were pitched battles in Kibera and gunfire filled the night elsewhere in Nairobi during the first few days of January. Reports of rape increased and hospitals in Nairobi reported cases of forced circumcision of male Luo.

The numbers killed in these operations is not yet known and the police’s figure of 600 dead should be treated with scepticism. Police action, though, has been hamstrung: the various branches of the security forces have members from different ethnic groups and recruits tend to serve in their home areas. At the best of times, their levels of institutional loyalty are questionable. The government knew that they were unlikely to perform all the duties required of them in the aftermath of Kibaki’s victory. Indeed, the police did little to prevent the attacks on Kikuyu outside of Nairobi. Kibaki instead turned to a more unlikely ally in order to win Nairobi back.

On the night of 2 January, the criminal gang and private militia known as Mungiki – ‘multitude’ in Kikuyu – entered battle in Kibera, Mathare and other parts of Nairobi. Mungiki has its roots in a Kikuyu cultural revival movement dating back to the 1990s but rose to prominence during the summer of 2007 after carrying out a series of grisly beheadings of criminal rivals. John Michuki, then minister for internal security, instituted a shoot-to-kill policy. Five hundred people died in the subsequent crackdown – most shot in the back of the head. Even as the anti-Mungiki crackdown continued, rumours were circulating in Nairobi that the group was being readied for use by the government come December. By the time of the election, the gravest threat to the Kenyan state’s security had become its ally.

The involvement of private citizens in the worst of the violence makes reconciliation efforts immeasurably more difficult in what is already an ethnically divided country. An estimated 255,000 refugees have left their homes, though most will undoubtedly disappear from the public eye as they seek assistance from friends and family rather than move to photogenic camps. Untold damage has been inflicted on what was a burgeoning economy. Tourists have been scared away from the beaches and game parks. Business has ground to a halt. Neighbouring countries suffering from shortages of oil and other materials normally delivered through Kenya are now questioning its viability as a regional provider.

Odinga and Kibaki have both made public statements expressing the need for negotiation, but neither has made the concessions necessary to bring the other to the table. Kibaki’s announcement of a cabinet that includes several hardliners, some tainted by recent corruption scandals, provided few grounds for optimism. African mediators such as Desmond Tutu and the president of Ghana, John Kufuor, have been used by both sides in photo opportunities and as potential cheerleaders rather than for any more serious purpose. An impending visit by Kofi Annan will surely also end in failure. And there is little sign that the British, Americans or EU have sufficient leverage to force either party to initiate discussions. This is an intra-elite struggle centred on the personal pursuit of power in which almost any cost to the Kenyan people is considered acceptable.

The current wave of violence has reached a plateau, but there is no reason to think that it has ended entirely. ODM will find it very difficult to install Odinga as president. Kibaki comfortably filled the role of lame duck president after his defeat in the constitutional referendum and seems likely to do the same for the next five years. ODM does not have a sufficient majority in parliament to impeach the president; it will be able to block government bills, but this is not a major concern to Kibaki and his supporters.

Few of the protagonists emerge from this episode with any credit. But PNU, and Kibaki in particular, deserve the fiercest condemnation. He and his clique stole an election in the knowledge that the people who would pay the penalty for their actions would almost certainly be from their own power base, the Kikuyu in the Rift Valley. They used profoundly anti-democratic measures to restrain protests and hired thugs to suppress the unrest in Nairobi’s slums. The argument of figures such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o that Kibaki deserved a second term on the basis of opening up a democratic space for the Kenyan people now looks like a very poor joke.

Kibaki, a man who has built his political career on his image as a conciliatory technocrat, apparently retained control throughout the security crackdown. Kenya’s current generation of political leaders is rotten to the core. Where alternatives can be found is another question. The country is ill-served by a colonial constitutional legacy that privileged executive power, patronage and ethnicity, a blueprint seized on by successive regimes to construct a political system that is unresponsive to the people, violent and corrupt.

11 January

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences