On 26 October 2017, Kenya returns to the polls after the Supreme Court declared the election held on 8 August 2017 null and void. CIVICUS speaks to governance specialist Paul Okumu on the coming election re-run, the announcement by the main opposition that it will not contest the poll and what this means for Kenya’s democracy
Q: What is the mood in the country after the Supreme Court judgement ordering for a fresh election to be held this October?
On the whole, this has been the most exciting moment for Kenyans — both here at home and abroad.
But beyond Kenya, we have received several messages of solidarity and excitement from across Africa, with many African citizens and civil society telling us that this is a victory for the continent and not just for Kenya.
Never in their existence have the courts overruled the executive in the manner that the Kenya judiciary did. The judiciary has always shied away from challenging orders seen or perceived to touch the executive, and this ruling was totally unexpected, considering that the incumbent President is for all purposes the final appointing authority of members of the judiciary (based on recommendations from the Judiciary Service Commission and Parliamentary approval).
But the most ecstatic part is that citizens, as well as all arms of government, respected the judiciary and agreed to follow the orders. It has given citizens a renewed breath of fresh air and confidence in the judiciary.
It also reaffirmed the supremacy of the Constitution and the power of citizens, something that is seen as new in Kenya, considering that the Constitution is less than ten years old.
There is however some slight apprehension that being the first time, perhaps the excitement is temporary and it is not clear if indeed this is a reflection of a new activist and accountability nature of the judiciary, or this is limited just to the Supreme Court. Many of you may have also heard that the ruling party is using its new majority in both house of Parliament to push through two new laws that will dramatically weaken the Supreme Court and the electoral oversight body, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
One must recall, however, that the groundwork that led to the nullification of this case was in fact another ruling by a lower court. In May this year, human rights activist Maina Kiai, who is the former Special UN Rapporteur on the Rights to Peaceful Assembly, went with others to court to challenge the Elections Act. He asked that the law be changed to ensure that the counting of votes is done at the polling station so that they cannot not be altered by the electoral body.The court ruled in his favour and the electoral body took the matter to the Court of Appeal, where the ruling was upheld.
At least 70% of the ruling by the Supreme Court was based on the ruling made in favour of Maina Kiai.
Q: There are concerns that there are many issues that the Electoral body must first rectify and will not be able to do this in the given time before the election. What are your views on this?
This is Kenya's greatest fear, and right now the opposition is already holding demonstrations to demand that some of these matters be rectified as conditions for participating in the fresh election. But the hands of the Supreme Court were tied here. The Constitution allows for only the electoral body, (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), to conduct elections. The Constitution also requires for those elections to be held within 60 days of the nullification of a previous one.
The concerns are therefore justified when one considers that the electoral body has decided to retain the three companies accused by the opposition of complicity in delivering a result that was not the will of the people — Al Ghurai, a Dubai based Company, Safaricom, Kenya’s largest Mobile company, and OT Morpho, a French company. Part of this is the lengthy procurement rules.
Kenyans are waiting with bated breath to see how the electoral body will address what the Supreme Court described as "systemic" and "institutional" failures within the IEBC. These failures were not just a failure of equipment, but a failure of oversight and accountability.
But remember that the main thrust of the judgement was not the manner in which the elections was conducted. The majority ruling of the Supreme Court accused the IEBC of redefining democracy and ignoring that democracy is a process that ends with elections. It rejected the view that democracy begins with elections.
In doing so the IEBC was accused of not following the entire democratic process that leads to elections — from public confidence-building to ensuring transparency in the entire process in the period leading to and the period after the elections.
So the challenges facing the IEBC are much bigger and it’s not clear if they will address these systemic and institutional challenges in the few days remaining to elections.
Q: The President has said he is disappointed by the Supreme Court Ruling. Why is this and what may it mean for the independence of the judiciary?
The President’s disappointment is understandable, and to an extent it appears justified since one of the dissenting judges insists that he had won the last election by 54%.
But unlike 2013 where the Supreme Court based its judgement on numbers, this time the court departed from this and refused to be drawn into recounting of votes. In their view, the court argued that if the process was flawed, and if there is proof that the Constitution was violated in the process leading to and after the elections, then the numbers do not matter.
This was a departure, not just from previous rulings, but other rulings within the Commonwealth jurisdiction and even the United States of America. But it is this kind of ruling that set the Supreme Court of Kenya apart from other courts.
While the judiciary around the world has refrained from helping advance society in its democratic agenda, the Kenya Supreme Court decided that Kenya should move forward and define democracy in a much broader way than just elections.
This is a game changer for other Supreme Courts around the world. For Africa, the judiciary has stamped its authority as the guardian of democracy, not just an arbiter in electoral disputes.
It means that Kenya's Supreme Court is not just asserting its role as pace-setters for society, but it is exercising its independence and the right to disagree with broader society. For a long time many Kenyans have had a very narrow definition of democracy. The Supreme Court offered a more superior definition.
Q: The opposition has just pulled out of the elections, claiming that the electoral body has refused to meet its demands and the demands required by the Supreme Court ruling. What does this mean for the credibility of the election?
The Supreme Court termed this a FRESH election, not a repeat poll. Under Kenya's Constitution, if there is only one candidate in a fresh election, the election is cancelled and the candidate is declared the winner. It is silent on what to do if a party boycotts. But the same Constitution states that fresh elections needs to be preceded by party nominations, which obviously cannot be done under the short period of 60 days allowed by law.
In pulling out of the elections, the main opposition cited a statement by the Supreme Court in the 2013 electoral dispute where the Court considered what options are left if a candidate pulls out. The court at that time interpreted the scenario to mean a candidate had died and so fresh nominations must be held and another election held within 90 days. It’s not clear because there are arguments that the court was merely discussing scenarios and was in no way giving directions.
In my opinion, this is the kind of crisis that hits societies that want to lead themselves purely by law. Laws alone cannot legislate morality, and in fact there is nowhere where society is managed by laws alone. An element of trust and compromise among its members is always needed - - which is what a proper social contract achieves in society.
Kenya has opted to let laws define its democracy, and hence its social contract.
There is a price to pay for that, and right now there will certainly be a price to pay because the law did not envisage the situation that we are in. The IEBC wanted to rectify that by bringing on board previous presidential candidates to run in this elections, but they quickly realised that that the law is not clear on this either.
Since the political players have chosen the path of legality rather than political compromise, my fear is that over the next few days we are going to see Kenya’s elections not as a democracy, but a battle between the judiciary and the executive.
It is never a good battle, and often one side ends up losing – its known who is the weaker of the two.
Q: One of the IEBC Commissioners resigned on 18 October 2017, citing threats over her life. In an interview in the media she admitted that the electoral body is not prepared and that the body has been hijacked by a section of its members aligned to the ruling government. What does this mean for the elections and for the credibility of the elections?
The situation is actually more delicate than that. You may be aware that on 12 October 2017, both Houses (Senate and Parliament) rushed through a new law that takes away considerable powers from the head of the IEBC and makes it difficult for the commission to reach decisions by compromise. The proposed law also seeks to return the country back to the manual system which was the cause of the problems in past elections, and which is blamed for the violence witnessed in 2007/2008. There are concerns that her resignation, added to the new proposed law, which by the way is only awaiting Presidential signature to become effective, may have dealt a big credibility blow to the electoral body, and in effect it short circuits the reforms that had been demanded by the Supreme Court. It certainly will have a huge impact on turnout because there is perception that the laws and the resignation have not just taken away the remaining teeth of the electoral body, but has effectively taken it back to the state it was that led to the crisis in the first place.
But once again the issue must be seen from a broader perspective, and here are the lessons that those of us who promote democracy should know. It is impossible to have democracy without a proper social contract. Democracy is about managing diversity within society to deliver on a collective aspirations using the resources at the disposal of that society. Instead we have made democracy about power plays and about the strongest or the richest or the largest ruling over everybody else. You can see where it has led the United States. We must realise that unless we work with society to learn how to negotiate, manage its diversity and develop a culture of regular compromise, anything we do in the name of democracy is merely buying time. Kenya’s crisis is very simple to manage, but we appear to have resorted to using the law, rather than the friendships, to manage it. It will not end well.
Q: What role can civil society play now before the fresh election?
There are three roles that civil society can play now and in the few days to come.
First is to celebrate the power of activism — whether in courts as did the Supreme Court, in each other as did Maina Kiai when he took the electoral body to court, or in other civil society who stood with the opposition and in fact provided the bulk of evidence that was used in court.
Secondly civil society needs to use this opportunity to connect more with citizens and explain to them what the Supreme Court just did.Never in the history of democracy anywhere in the world has the judiciary come out to teach the society what constitutes democracy! If civil society can use this case to educate citizens on why the court opted to define elections as a process and NOT an event, they will have advanced democracy in ways they would never do with all the donor money used in governance programmes.
Finally civil society need to come together. Currently there is great polarisation based on the ruling. A section of civil society, under the Elections Observer Group, had actually endorsed the elections and agreed with donors and observers that it was a free, transparent and fair election. They even agreed with the reported win of 54%, insisting it was based on their own scientific polling. They were left looking very foolish and seen as agents of donors and the government. They have not come out to explain themselves fully. The result is that they are now not seen as part of a neutral civil society.
But the rest of civil society, especially those engaged in human rights, are not seen in good light either. This was the second time in as many elections that they were directly challenging the elections alongside the opposition. And so they are also seen as partisan, even though they were vindicated this time by the Supreme Court ruling.
In a fractured and polarised society, civil society is not just about being on the right side or the legally correct path. It’s about understanding the dynamics of society and taking positions that rebuild that society. It is important that these two groups, whether they see their positions as superior or not, to come together and agree on how best to shepherd the nation and citizens at this time. Kenya is at a point where it does not need right or wrong, but truth. And that truth will only be found in taking a position that allows the society to build trust in a civil society that is removed from the emotions of politics, yet engaged in the ideals of democracy that leads to well understood social contract.
Q: Any other additional analysis you would like to share?
The elections in Kenya have shown just how perceptions vary between Africa and Europe.
In many of the European countries, the ruling by the Supreme Court has been treated with apprehension, fear and doom! They feel that Kenya is headed for another chaos and that the ruling should have at least balanced what they call "nascent democracy" and avoided a hard landing that this appears to be. Many of our colleagues that I have met and spoken to begin their conversation with: "So are you going to have war again?"
On the contrary there has been jubilation and excitement across all of Africa and most of Asia. Citizens as far as Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana and South Africa, and even India, have come out to rally behind Kenya. They see this as a renewed hope for a continent that has been defined by the West as unable to manage its democracy. For many of these citizens, this is a point of triumph and victory-on our terms as Africa. And the fact that it embarrassed the international community who had all but endorsed the elections, has given many Africans even more pride.
Both sides may be right, and democracy is always muddy. But we need to be careful that we do not push a sliding car down the valley simply because that is what we have been conditioned to think and believe about Africa. It’s much harder to get people out of negativity than it is to encourage them on the positive progress they are making.
Africa needs more messages of hope, not doom and constant suspicion. The negative descriptions we give to the continent — fragile, conflict-affected, war-torn, corrupt — appear to be what is keeping the citizens disillusioned.
One act of hope and the entire continent lights up!
- Civic space in Kenya is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
- Follow Paul Okumi on Twitter @paulokumu3. Read two other analytical articles he wrote on the ruling of the Supreme Court here and here.