- Weekly opposition protests that began in May in demand of reform to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IBEC) have grown increasingly violent and resulted in at least five fatalities.
- The government’s decision to impose a ban on further protests on 7 June and allegations of police brutality have intensified tensions between the government and opposition and increase the risk of further violence in the weeks ahead.
- Divisions within the opposition mean the current protests will likely subside over the next month, but allegations of unfairness in the electoral process, police brutality and increasing competition in the county elections all create conditions for further violence before the 2017 election.
Since the protests began in mid-May there have been multiple incidents of violence and clashes with police, raising fears of a volatile campaigning period ahead of Kenya’s general election in August 2017. Much of the violence has been concentrated in the ethnic Luo heartland in the southwest, a stronghold of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), where hundreds have been wounded and at least five killed in regular confrontations with police. Although on a smaller scale, clashes have also been reported in Nairobi, including the use of teargas by police. The government declared a ban on protests on 7 June, which the opposition initially rejected, saying it would continue to hold the protests every Monday and Thursday. However, protests scheduled for 13 June were cancelled at the last moment to allow for negotiations with the government. The opposition has said the unrest will resume on 16 June if there is no breakthrough.
IEBC’s past failings cast shadow over 2017
At the centre of the dispute are opposition claims that the IEBC is biased and incompetent, which have grown increasingly vocal as the 2017 election draws closer. The main opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), of which the ODM is a leading partner, has blamed the IEBC for its defeat in the 2013 election, which saw a number of technical failings, notably around a new system designed to reduce fraud by transmitting vote counts from tallying stations by mobile phones. The vote passed broadly peacefully, but the IEBC was widely censured for its handling of the election and reports of corruption and technical failings. Despite these criticisms, few changes have been made to the IEBC and its chairman, Ahmed Issack Hassan, has remained in his role.
The dispute surrounding the IEBC shows little sign of easing. Although dialogue between the opposition and government at the end of May led to a few concessions, including an agreement to share the process of appointing IEBC commissioners between the government and opposition, CORD’s fundamental demand that the current commissioners be dismissed has not been met. CORD agreed to a new round of dialogue on 13 June after intensive engagement by mediators and church leaders, but has remained steadfast in its demand that the commissioners be replaced. President Uhuru Kenyatta has shown little willingness to compromise on Hassan’s role and has no direct authority to suspend the commissioners, meaning the opposition is likely to enter the election with little faith that the IEBC is capable of delivering a fair vote. This view is shared by a growing number of Kenyans, with a poll commissioned by the Daily Nation in May finding that 44 percent of those eligible to vote did not trust the IEBC to deliver a fair election.
Growing concerns over police brutality
The potential for further violence is exacerbated by clear indications of unprofessionalism and brutality on the part of the police. In addition to the use of live ammunition on protesters, videos have circulated widely on social media of police brutality, including the beating of isolated and prostrate opposition activists. This has created an increasingly confrontational atmosphere between protesters and the police and undermined efforts for dialogue between the government and opposition. Police shootings were responsible a large proportion of the 1,300 people killed during Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election crisis when Odinga contested the result, provoking opposition retaliations along ethnic lines against perceived government supporters. The police’s handling of both the current protests and security during the elections will be a key factor in the level of violence during and after the 2017 election, while widespread allegations of abuse would increase the likelihood that Odinga would reject the result, as he did in 2007 and 2013.
The current unrest will likely continue to focus on the southwest and Nairobi in the weeks ahead, resulting in further clashes with police, loss of life and disruption to business activity in the affected areas. The most violent protests will be concentrated in the ODM’s strongholds in the southwest, notably Kericho, Kisumu, Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori, with accompanying protests taking place in Nairobi, including in the CBD. Past demonstrations have seen protesters regularly erect barricades on key roads in affected areas that could disrupt cargo movements towards the Ugandan border. The ODM’s failure, however, to mobilise protesters in other key CORD constituencies, notably in Kamba in the east or along the coast, is likely indicative of divisions within the opposition alliance. Dissent has grown within CORD over Odinga’s consistent failure to deliver an election victory and these tensions could undermine the momentum of the weekly IEBC protests over the next month.
Nonetheless, doubts around the electoral process, allegations of police brutality and declining trust between the government and opposition will all increase the risk of further violence before, during and after the 2017 election. The county elections have the potential to be especially violent as a result of growing competition for the governorships. Under the 2010 devolution process, county governors were handed large budgets and executive powers, making them highly prized positions in Kenyan politics. Although the county elections passed peacefully in 2013, growing levels of corruption among county administrations and the prospect that county governors will be able to influence the choice of Kenyatta’s successor in 2021 – assuming he is re-elected in 2017 – have significantly increased competition for these positions, both within and between parties. These factors will increase the risk of localised incidents of violence in the mostly tightly contested counties, particularly where the results for the governor seats are contested.