Kenyan Elections - What do they mean for the region?


We were lucky enough to sit down Tara O'Connor about the 2017 Kenyan elections and what the repercussions are for the region. Tara brings to ARC 25 years of specialist information-gathering and risk management experience. As Managing Director of Kroll Associates’ Africa Practice, Tara ran a business unit of specialist investigators and political analysts based in London and Johannesburg. Before Kroll, Tara spent 11 years at Control Risks in several senior management roles. She spearheaded the group’s expansion in Africa before taking a similar role for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Tara now heads up her own Pan-African risk advisory firm, Africa Risk Consulting.

Given Raila Odinga’s recent drop-out from the up-coming elections, do you think that Odinga ever had a chance of winning, given the clear manipulation of the results?

Our analysts here at Africa Risk Consulting said earlier this year that the election result would be too close to call.  Provided that the elections were free and fair, our analysis was that Odinga’s coalition-building abilities meant he had a fighting chance. 

Those who sought to manipulate the polls clearly feared this too, to the extent that they abducted and murdered the head of the Independent Electoral Commission.  His replacement fled into exile on 20 October 2017 fearing for her life. These events point again to the work of powerful and violent forces in Kenyan who seek to use any means to keep control of power.

That said, overall picture is that it is that Kenya’s new constitution has proved an effective check on these forces. A new constitution was Kenyans popular response to politically induced violence after 2007 polls. Kenyans voted for a constitution that took 20 years to draft with an overwhelming60% yes vote and it has started to stand the test.

The Supreme Court decision to annul the election results is the best thing to have happened. It shows the legal system exerting its independence from the executive and responding to known irregularities. One friend was counting votes in his constituency until midnight and yet the national presidential elections results were posted before he finished. Given Kenya’s history of manipulating elections, at best this raised questions. Social media was littered with pictures of results’ anomalies. Another friend said you could feel the algorithms at work. The fact that an independent regulatory body, overruled the result is a huge step for Kenyan politics and is now a benchmark for the rest of the region, and indeed the rest of the continent.

The Supreme Court decision that declared the presidential poll null and void is unprecedented and shows it has proven itself to be most successful in curbing political corruption. (Business to government and business to business corruption remains rife).

The new constitution brings many other benefits. Presidential power has been restrained, governing power has been devolved to new counties and the constitution has given rise to a sense of institutional renewal. Everyone has had to learn to work with the new constitution, from Kenyatta down: Now the president has to win 25% of the vote in each county, forcing presidential candidates to appeal beyond ethnicity. Now elections are less of an ethnic numbers game..  

It seems from Kenyan media that Odinga was their favourite: why is he so popular?

There is a real sense amongst some Kenyans that these elections represent Odinga’s time. Not only does respect for one’s elders work in his favour but he has proven himself time and time again to be a master coalition builder. By these coalitions, he has successfully narrowed the gap with the incumbent Jubilee Coalition. He has demonstrated that you cannot win elections on your own in Kenya you have to be able to cooperate and work alongside other ethnicities, religious minorities and minority political parties.

Have the election results ruined any chances for Kenya’s business reputation to expand globally?

As for the business-side of things, of course political uncertainty means economic uncertainty. A business colleague sent me a text with one word: ‘shambles’. Political uncertainty slows growth and reduces confidence. When trading was suspended on the Nairobi stock exchange, this indicated to us that the elections could well mean a crisis for Kenyan businesses.

Economic activity slumped by 6% in one month. People are mindful of the 2007 elections, where political violence killed nearly 1,500 people and left 600,000 internally displaced. GDP was 7% in 2006 and went into the minus figures after the 2007 elections. People and business alike are afraid that the same thing will happen whether these elections take place or not. Fear extends to land-locked neighbouring countries like Uganda and Rwanda, which rely heavily on the Mombasa trade routes linking Kigali and Kampala. Violence in 2007 blocked these arterial routes and caused extensive disruption to trade and resulted in immediate shortages of food and fuel in Uganda and Rwanda

Who do these businesses prefer then: Kenyatta or Odinga?

Kenya has always been a capitalist country; it didn’t go through the same socialist /Marxist cycles that other countries like Ghana have gone through. So a change of the status quo is seen as a risky move. Due to Kenyatta’s capitalist leaning, I would say that businesses would prefer him to remain in power. Odinga has for a long time demonstrated left-leaning politics and companies are afraid that he will raise taxes and implement more social policies.  However, both business and people now crave stability and certainty.

We also have to remember is Kenya’s position in the world. It is an important player in the global fight against terrorism, notably against Al-Shabaab’s activity in the region. This made it too easy for election observers to give Kenya elections the all clear despite the irregularities they themselves found. It seems that they prefer stability in the region even if this compromised a major African democracy.

So where does this leave Kenya in the future then?

It is essential that elections take place but it is also essential for stability that elections are credible. If elections go ahead without Odinga, without the head of the electoral commission and run by the election officers that the Supreme Court accused of irregularities, the results won’t be credible and business should prepare for further instability. Whatever happens a compromise is likely to be found. Kenya is too important allow to widespread instability to take root.

Kenya is the economic and business hub for the EAC (East Africa Community) and COMESA (Common Market for East and Southern Africa) representing some 500mn ‘growth market’ consumers. This is a significant pull for international investment. For Kenya (and Africa) Brexit represents a huge opportunity as UK’s business and government scour the globe for new markets to replace the $300bn of annual imports from the EU.  The weight of 500 million consumers will also give Kenya and East Africa a huge advantage when re-negotiating new UK trade deals to replace existing EU ones.   

At Africa Risk Consulting, we anticipate a big shift in focus from business activity in Europe and Britain to the continent as people begin to realise that East Africa has such potential as a site of international business activity. Not only is East Africa highly developed in human capital terms with literacy rates of 80%, Nairobi provides a one-stop-shop where British business can collect professional advisors, investment capital en route to doing deals. That is – if the centre can hold…..