By Marta Cavallaro
On Monday 15 August, William Ruto was officially declared the winner of Kenya’s latest presidential election, becoming the country’s fifth President. The gap by which he overtook Raila Odinga, his main opponent backed by outgoing President Uhruru Kenyatta, was minimal. Ruto obtained 50.49% of the vote against Odinga’s 48.85% with a difference of only 233,211 votes between the two. The numbers reflect the head-to-head contest between the two favourite candidates that marked this electoral round to the end. Ruto was able to touch the chords of a wide swathe of the population beyond ethnical community lines. He presented his past as a chicken and peanut peddler and framed the election as a class war (rather than an ethnic war) between those “who own” and “those who own nothing”. As a son of nobodies, Ruto claimed that he was a self-made man in contrast to the political dynasties from which his opponents came.
But it might be too early to celebrate a victory. On Tuesday 16, in his first public appearance since the results were declared, Odinga refused to accept defeat and announced that his coalition will pursue all legal avenues to challenge the election result and obtain justice. The only available option is to bring up the Supreme Court. It would not be the first time something like this has happened in Kenya: in 2017, the Supreme Court had already annulled and ordered a rerun of the presidential election, then lost by Odinga against current President Kenyatta, because it was marked by glaring irregularities. However, the current circumstances are quite different from that time: it is still unclear on what grounds Odinga intends to challenge the results of an election that has been widely described by Kenyans and international observers as more transparent and peaceful than ever. According to many analysts, the probability of fraud would be zero.
For now, Odinga seems to be banking on disagreements within the Electoral Commission, which split publicly shortly before the official declaration of the results. Indeed, four of the seven commissioners announced that they would not support the outcome announced by Chebukati, the Commission’s chairman, accusing him of excluding the other members from the final stages of the vote count and refusing any discussion on the verification of the results. In his statements, Odinga (pictured left) called Ruto’s victory invalid because it was the result of a unilateral decision taken by Chebukati without involving the other members of the Commission.
That the election result would be contested was almost predictable, given the precedents in the aftermath of elections in 2007 and 2017. The fact that this happened peacefully was instead a happy surprise. In the election campaign, both candidates pledged to resolve any disputes through legal means and in accordance with the Constitution. The promises were reiterated by all parties at last Thursday’s meeting with the US delegation led by Senator Chris Coons. Odinga himself, while contesting the election outcome, explicitly urged his supporters to remain calm.
Whether Ruto or Odinga is the ultimate winner, one wonders whether this round of elections can be considered a victory for the country. In a personal statement, Kenyan political analyst Najnala Nyabola explains that in the eyes of international observers, peace is often the only variable taken into account when measuring the success of elections on the African continent. But peace is not always enough and the last elections, although they were peaceful, cannot yet be considered a success for Kenya. Well-known faces in Kenyan politics, both Odinga and Ruto have a dark past behind them that is difficult to overlook. Both have been chasing power for years without restraint, surprising the nation at every electoral round with twists and power plays (the latest of which, the famous handshake between Odinga and outgoing President Kenyatta, once his long-time rival). Today enemies, in the past Ruto and Odinga were allies. They were part of the same team in the 2007 presidential elections, famous for the post-election violence that produced more than a thousand deaths and 600,000 displaced persons. On Ruto, hopefully the country’s next president, still hangs the shadow of accusations of crimes against humanity for his role in the violence that shook the country in 2007 in the aftermath of the elections (although the case was later closed by the International Criminal Court for lack of evidence).
Discouraged by candidates who promise to solve the same problems they have created, rather than choosing between Odinga and Ruto many decided not to opt for either and stayed home: almost 7 million voters, many of them under the age of 30, did not turn out to vote. Whoever becomes the country’s new president, the challenges ahead will be real: countering the prevailing economic crisis, fighting unemployment and corruption, cutting the national debt, organising the post-pandemic recovery. Until the changes promised in the campaign are realised, the presidency will remain a personal victory for the candidate of the day from which Kenya and its people will be excluded.
Cover image: William Ruto (cropped)