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Kenya at 50 – Electing the Path to the Future360°ANALYSIS

50 years after independence, Kenyans go to the ballot on March 4, 2013 to elect a new leadership under a new constitutional order. The country seeks to make a clean break from the challenges and failures of its past. The governance institutional structure will be unlike any the country has had.

History repeats itself, first as miscarried naïve aspiration, next as opportunity for seasoned requital. On Monday, March 4, 2013, Kenya has a rendezvous with destiny. It heads into its first national poll since the bungled general election at the sunset of 2007. Five years on, the hope is to exorcise the poltergeists of one of the saddest chapters of the country’s short history. Of new beginnings, Kenya launches into its first plebiscite under its new constitution. A constitution whose moment was conceived soon after the dawn of independence when the country’s first constitution was mutilated, and whose gestation has been one of struggle and tribulation borne bravely by a long line of unflinching reformers.

And the timing could not be more opportune. This election takes place at the country’s Jubilee anniversary—50 years after its independence; a generational change.

In Kenya’s young history lies some of the most pronounced intrigues in recent world political events. For instance, in Kenya’s Jubilee year, the election is primarily a contest between the scion of the Founding Father and the scion of the country’s first vice president.

The two authors in this year’s electoral narrative, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, and Raila Odinga, son of the country’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, will be seeking to usher in the second republic by, in subtle ways, rehashing the legendary feuds of their fathers, banishing the sins of their begetters, as well as kindling and redeeming the hallowed hopes for the nation that their progenitors failed to accomplish.

The third force in this year’s election is headlined by Musalia Mudavadi, another scion of one of Kenya’s great political leaders—Moses Mudavadi. Although Musalia’s prospects are pegged to single digit percentages, going by the last opinion poll; the country might be heading for a run-off. In that eventuality, Musalia might just be the kingmaker—the man to write and place the period on the last chapter of this potboiler.

There is a more recent collocation of the political paths of Raila, Uhuru and Mudavadi. That whereas Kenya’s current president, Mwai Kibaki, is leaving office having served two terms, Raila has been in government for the last five years as the country’s prime minister, while Uhuru and Mudavadi have been his deputies in the (now caretaker) dispensation.

The labyrinth of Kenya’s political history has other narratives that confluence in the storm of this electoral moment. There are however, two momentous ones.

First, the tumultuous election of 2007 became a catalyst for the swift passage of the new constitution. With it has been ushered in a structural makeover of the pillar governance institutional infrastructure, to be implemented after this year’s election. For instance, the new president and his deputy, comprising the executive, are to be elected as a pair, US-style; the legislature is to change from a unicameral chamber to a bicameral house comprising a senate and a national assembly; and, breaking away from the orbit of centralized governance, county governments are to be operationalized as the decentralized units of authority to be run by elected governors along with their deputies, and elected county assemblies.

Second, the election shall be a referendum on the perception of Kenyans of the International Criminal Court (ICC) cases facing Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, at the Hague. (Or so the two leading lights of Kenya’s Jubilee Coalition have sought to portray the ballot.) It is doubtful that there has ever been a situation where two persons while facing charges of international crimes before an international tribunal that they are fully cooperating with, have run on the same ticket to attain their country’s ultimate leadership.

These circumstances are precedent-setting. To this end, western powers have been sending mixed signals on what they feel about a potential Uhuru-Ruto government. For the most part, they have sought to reassure Kenyans of the fact that they have a right to elect whomever they choose, and that the said western governments would respect that decision.

The US has importuned particular focus on the matter. President Obama gave a telecast speech on February 5, 2013 addressed directly to the Kenyan people, in which he promised that the US would not meddle in Kenyans’ right to elect their own leadership. However, two days later, US’ Africa envoy and former Ambassador to Kenya, Johnnie Carson, warned that although Kenyans were free to elect their leaders, choices had consequences.

European Union countries, as more forthrightly explained by France’s Ambassador to Kenya, Mr. Etienne De Poncins, have warned that there would be consequences, read, sanctions, if Kenya were to choose the Jubilee ticket. France stated that it is their government policy not to maintain any more than ‘essential contact’ with the ICC suspects. These sentiments from the west have agitated the Jubilee Coalition leadership and their ardent supports that, going by recent opinion polls, make up about half the registered voters in the country.

EU countries and France in particular, have since clarified that they would remain neutral in the plebiscite. The African Union has also strongly warned against interference in the poll by foreign powers.

Notwithstanding the perceived or imagined economic consequences of a Jubilee ticket, what Kenyans do not appear to appreciate is that crimes against humanity, which comprise the charges against the Jubilee pair, are not just crimes committed against individuals per se. They cannot be ring-fenced and dealt with in isolation from the rest of the world. It is by dint of their nature that these atrocities are deemed to scourge the very conscience of humanity as a whole, and are therefore viewed as crimes against all of humanity. Put differently, they are not a transgression against an individual life, rather, they are an infringement upon the very essence of human life itself. Thus, everyone on the planet, individually and collectively, have an inextricable interest in the trial of cases involving these kind of charges. This is one issue for which Kenya cannot purport to place in the boot of internal affairs, and thereby urge non-meddling in its sovereign will. Hence, despite Kenya’s perceived referendum on the ICC process, the only enduring relief that the suspects can obtain, is a judgment in acquittal.

Supporters of the Jubilee Coalition strongly believe that Uhuru and Ruto were set up to be scapegoats for the potential ills of the current president, Mwai Kibaki, and the prime minister Raila Odinga, who were the contesting parties in the muddled 2007 election. They contend that unlike the two contesting principals, Uhuru and Ruto did not have as strong an interest in the outcome and could not have committed the atrocities they are charged with. Or that in the least, the president and Raila were accomplices in the acts, aware of what was going on, or nonetheless bore political responsibility for what transpired.

The merits to these assertions notwithstanding, Raila and Uhuru’s tickets have been quite polarizing. Their direct or indirect mention in relation to the circumstances surrounding the ICC trials, dictates a discouraging premise and precedent on which to build and establish the second republic. Far be it for me to suggest that either one of them should have their reputations flogged in the volatile court of propaganda. And yes, in respect of Uhuru’s ICC case, the rules of natural justice betoken the unfettered principle of the presumption of innocence before the fall of the gavel in a court of law. However, perhaps it would have been in the best interest of the country if it had the will to look beyond the two political colossuses, and more objectively examine the candidatures of the other presidential aspirants, toward setting a new tone for the second republic.

There are no strong ideological differences between any of the eight presidential candidates. This is demonstrated by their responses in two presidential debates—the first ever presidential debates held in Kenya, and a rarity on the continent. It is however safe to say that between Raila and Uhuru, the former appears to espouse more liberal leaning views, with the latter being a bit more conservative. This can perhaps be gleaned from Raila’s longstanding reform track record and a rabble-rousing streak of championing change, which has tapered off over the years. Uhuru on his part is known to shun destabilizing rhetoric, actions and positions. Although on the onset, the mercurial rise of his political career was aided by the second president and the current one, Uhuru has nonetheless become a seasoned and experienced politician with a common man touch and the gift of the gab. An interesting paradox is the fact that Uhuru’s father leaned toward the west and capitalism during the cold war, while Raila’s father appeared to lean toward the east and communism at the time. Today, it is widely believed that Raila is a darling of the west, and Uhuru is leaning toward the east and China. Uhuru’s detour is not on the basis of ideological coalescence with the east, but is rather seen as a counter strategy to what is perceived to be the meddling in Kenya’s affairs by western forces harboring a subjective agenda, especially in respect of the ICC cases.

Kenya has witnessed nearly two decades of political musical chairs. All the main protagonists have worked together and praised each other at one point or other. Each, at certain other points in this time, have worked against each other and vilified each other as well. Such is democracy.

Fifty percent plus one vote is the constitutional mark the eight presidential candidates must aim to achieve to win the ballot. The final opinion polls taken before the ballot, all indicate a virtual tie between Raila and Uhuru, with strong prospects of the election going into a second round run-off between the two.

There is every indication this election will be credible. The process shall be guided by an independent electoral body whose officials have been vetted and appointed through a very rigorous competitive process. The hitherto much maligned judiciary of Kenya has undergone serious reform since the last election, and there is public confidence in its ability to discharge its mandate and preside over electoral disputes.

Chances are, Kenya will not spiral into the violence of the 2007 election.

However, negative ethnicity still simmers beneath the foundations of this beautiful country. This cancer is widely seen to be the festering heartbeat of Kenya’s original sin—a sure failure of previous leadership. Now, once again, Kenya is called upon to decide whose burden it is to reconcile its past, secure its present, and chart the course to its ambitious future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.