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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Kenyan presidential election has Nairobi on edge

UPDATE, Aug. 19: William Ruto won the Kenya presidential election.  Read more at NPR, Aug. 15.

Kenya will vote for a new president next month in a general election laced with ethnic tensions, which has people in Nairobi on edge.

For two five-year terms, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta has labored to convince Kenyans that his agenda has generated economic opportunity and quelled corruption. Most of that time he has been effective, at least at the convincing, as evidenced by approval ratings exceeding 70%. But those ratings have occasionally plunged upon allegations that shook the moral high ground.

Perhaps most damning, Kenyatta faced charges in the International Criminal Court alleging complicity in violence, including the burning to death of 28 people inside a church, related to a previous election cycle. In 2014, the court dismissed the indictment for insufficient evidence. Frustrated prosecutors alleged witness tampering and intimidation.

Now Kenyatta is term limited. His exit from power has broader significance because he represents a family dynasty that has maintained control of Kenyan politics since 1963 independence. A rivalry with the Odinga family has lent Kenyatta dominance a gloss of competition, and sometimes a run for its money. But perennial presidential challenger Raila Odinga has never quite made the grade, and the seesawing fortunes of the families come off to more numerous outsiders as oligarchic.

Threads of ethnic tension underlie the contest, too.  The Kenyatta family is part of Kenya's plurality ethnic group, the Kikuyu, a Bantu people constituting about a fifth of the population. Fairly or unfairly, Kenyatta is perceived as having allocated political power to aggrandize Kikuyu hegemony.

But neither of the two leading candidates for the presidency is Kikuyu. One candidate is the familiar Odinga, who hails from the Luo ethnic group, a Nilotic people, like the well known Maasai. Traveling in the Maasai Mara in June, anecdotally, I found people more prone than their Nairobi fellows to view the presidential race through an ethnic prism. Or maybe they were just more willing to say so.

Me with a Maasai mate in June
(C) Alison 2022, licensed exclusively to RJ Peltz-Steele
Though they are longtime rivals, Kenyatta has endorsed Odinga. Further lending support to the feel of oligarchy, the two share a history of occasional accusations of financial improprieties.  Odinga has chosen a Kikuyu running mate with a history similarly suggestive of insider status.

The other contender is the incumbent deputy president, William Ruto. Ruto, who belongs to the Kalenjin ethnic group, also a Nilotic people, was charged in The Hague over election violence, alongside Kenyatta, and saw his charges dismissed likewise in 2016. Ruto also chose a Kikuyu running mate; Martha "Iron Lady" Karua would be the nation's first female deputy president.

That both candidates chose Kikuyu running mates shows the priority of appealing to an ethnic plurality that might fear the loss of long familiar station. Odinga and Ruto have traded the lead in polls, but either way, it is overwhelmingly likely that the highest office in Kenya will, historically, slip out of Kikuyu hands.

With a history of violence following elections—besides the '07-08 turmoil that precipitated ICC investigation, Kenyatta's narrow reelection margin five years ago led to civil unrest and a dramatic court challenge—people in Nairobi are on edge.  I was repeatedly warned to stay away from any assembly that might even morph into a political rally. And I found some city dwellers flatly unwilling to venture out after dark.

All that said, I have to admit, what first caused me to take an interest in the Kenyan presidential election is none of the above. Rather, it was a Ruto billboard that I saw in many places around Nairobi. The billboard boasts the curious tagline, "EVERY HUSTLE MATTERS," or, sometimes, "EVERY HUSTLE COUNTS."

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 RJ Peltz-Steele

I laughed out loud when I first saw it. I asked a taxi driver what it meant, and he told me matter-of-factly that it meant Ruto promises plenty of jobs, "hustles," for people: important in an economy in which a person might derive income from many and various part-time gigs.

A more trusted Kenyan source later told me, yes, Kenyan English does recognize the negative connotation of the word "hustle." And Ruto did indeed take some heat for his unusual choice of words in an election in which anti-corruption figures prominently.

Maybe in the end, the hustle will work for Ruto. After two terms of Uhuru Kenyatta leadership and a half-century of dynastic family control, Kenya struck me as mired in a state of development ill-befitting its reputation as an East Africa leader and below par relative to neighboring Uganda and Tanzania. Perhaps for voters, it's the economy, stupid.

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