Letter from Africa: Kenya passes electoral test - but what next?

Uhuru Kenyatta (C) greets supporters beside his running mate William Ruto (2nd L) as they celebrate winning the presidential election after the official result was released in Nairobi. Kenya on 9 March 2013 Uhuru Kenyatta (2R) and his deputy William Ruto (2L) have been charged with crimes against humanity

US intervention in Kenya's presidential election strengthened the resolve of voters to propel Uhuru Kenyatta into the presidency, writes Nairobi-based Joseph Warungu in our series of letters from African journalists.

"Choices have consequences" - that warning to Kenyans, issued by US Assistant Secretary of State Jonnie Carson almost a month before the presidential election won by Uhuru Kenyatta, played on the minds of many voters as they cast their ballots on 4 March.

When in early February, during a briefing to journalists, Mr Carson was pushed to explain America's position regarding the candidacy of two politicians who are charged with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, he had a simple answer:

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A bigger voice for women will certainly change the tone of debate in parliament”

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"We live in an interconnected world," Mr Carson said, "and people should be thoughtful about the impact that their choices have on their nation, on the region, on the economy, on the society and on the world in which they live. Choices have consequences."

Alone in the polling booth, more than six million Kenyans said to themselves: "I'm an African and a Kenyan, I don't need anyone out there telling me who or what to vote for."

As a consequence - they now have President-elect Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, who will divide their time between running Kenya and fighting their cases at The Hague.

Some are calling it government by Skype.

'Family affair'

Kenyans also have a new form of decentralised government, the product of a progressive constitution they approved in 2010, that seeks to redistribute power and wealth from Nairobi and the presidency, to 47 counties, each led by a governor and local assembly.

Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga (l) arriving at talks in London in 1963 to discuss the independence of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta (c) and Oginga Odinga (l) were bitter rivals, just like their sons

That same constitution also introduces 47 new seats for women in parliament in an attempt create better gender equality.

A bigger voice for women will certainly change the tone of debate in parliament, which in the past tended to echo the contents of the MPs honourable wallets, as they awarded themselves hefty pay increases.

Despite these major changes in governance, any Kenyan who went to sleep soon after independence 50 years ago, and woke up last weekend will be forgiven for quickly telling themselves: "I haven't missed much - Kenyatta is still fighting Odinga!"

Uhuru Kenyatta at a glance

  • Aged 51
  • Son of founding President Jomo Kenyatta
  • Heir to one of the largest fortunes in Kenya, according to Forbes magazine
  • Entered politics in 1990s, groomed by former President Daniel arap Moi to be his successor
  • Known as "njamba" ("hero") in his Kikuyu language
  • Indicted by ICC on charges of crimes against humanity for 2007 post-election violence - which he denies
  • Married father of three

Just like the early 1960s when President Jomo Kenyatta's main rival was Oginga Odinga; his son Uhuru Kenyatta's main challenger for power was Mr Oginga's son, Raila Odinga.

Indeed, the more things change in Kenya, the more they remain the same.

Former President Daniel arap Moi's shadow is also back in parliament and the new upper chamber, the Senate, in the form of his two sons, Alexander and Raymond Moi.

Like father like son, like brother like brother, like brother like sister.

The new Kenyan leadership is certainly a family affair, with another four sets of siblings elected into office.

But this was also an election with a difference.

A presidential debate was held for the first time ever - not once but three times.

With more than 80% of registered voters heading to the polling stations, it was the highest turnout in Kenya's history.

And although the final results took six days to be released, not a machete was lifted in anger - this was Kenyans at their most patient.

By turning up in such large numbers, Kenyans were re-establishing their faith in the democratic process.

And with Mr Odinga pledging to accept the ruling of the Supreme Court which will hear his case alleging that Mr Kenyatta's victory was rigged, he and the rest of Kenya was expressing confidence in the judiciary.

This too was an election about dreams and possibilities.

'Digital leaders'

That an unknown high school teacher from a minority community could run for presidency and beat seasoned politicians was unheard of.

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Most people voted not for 'policies that speak to me' but for 'personalities that speak like me'”

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Never mind that Mohamed Abduba Dida, was the source of comic relief in the presidential election campaign with such profound utterances like "you should only eat when you're hungry".

It was also an election fought and followed on social media.

Twitter was ablaze with running commentary on the campaign, the polling, the results and the waiting.

It featured the serious and light-hearted.

One presidential candidate who won the lowest number of votes was advised by tweeters not to bother taking up public space to concede defeat, but just spend a few minutes ringing each of the handful of people who voted for him and thank them personally.

The Kenyan media itself was a big winner in the election.

Compared to 2007 when the media was accused of fanning the post-election violence, this time round every single media house went all out with robust and consistent messages of peace.

A man runs past a house on fire in Kenya in January 2008 There has been none of the violence seen after the 2007 election

So what awaits the new president when he finally takes the keys to State House once the Supreme Court has made its ruling on the pending petition?

  • A divided nation - the election results confirmed what every Kenyan has always known, that the country is still deeply split along ethnic lines.

Most people voted not for "policies that speak to me" but for "personalities that speak like me". Deep and genuine social healing and building of bridges will be a top priority.

  • Insecurity - with Kenyan forces still in Somalia, trying to stabilise their troublesome neighbour; with unemployment rising above 40% and with the cost of living heading to the skies, insecurity is alive and dangerous.

President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged the urgency of the matter in his victory speech when he paid tribute to several police officers killed on the eve of the election.

Without security, meaningful development will be difficult. The president's tenure is unlikely to be secure if Kenyans remain insecure.

  • Landlessness - for a man whose family owns huge tracts of land in different parts of Kenya, Mr Kenyatta will be under a lot of scrutiny to see how he tackles the touchy issue of land ownership.
Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga addresses a news conference after Uhuru Kenyatta was declared winner of  presidential elections on 9 March  2013 Mr Odinga lost presidential elections for the third time

Kenyans will watch keenly how his government will address historical injustices regarding land that have left thousands displaced and forced Kenyans to jump on each other's throats disrupting lives and livelihoods.

Throughout the campaign, the Jubilee coalition led by Mr Kenyatta and Mr Ruto sold itself as a digital or modern, youthful party, compared to their rivals who were said to be stuck in the old analogue era.

By choosing to position themselves as "digital" leaders, the two will have now have to live with the consequences of the meaning of "digital".

As a broadcaster, I understand digital to mean bigger capacity, greater variety and flexibility; and also better quality - in this case of leadership and service delivery.

Kenyans are looking up to the new leadership with great hopes for better healthcare, jobs, improved agriculture and a faster pace of economic development.

The people are waiting to see what choice will preoccupy the president and his deputy - Kenya's development or the ICC process.

With the ICC prosecutors now saying they have new evidence against Mr Kenyatta and that his prosecution should continue, choices, indeed, might have consequences.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The two ICC indictees exploited the myopic &retrogressive ethnic basis of Kenyan politics to Marshall their two populous tribes, coupled with massive financial 'incentives',support from the outgoing administration including the Provincial administration to unfairly tip the balance in their favour.
    The Status quo in Kenya must always win; by Hook or Crook,there is no justice or fairness at all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    "I'm an African and a Kenyan, I don't need anyone out there telling me who or what to vote for."

    Most ignorant statement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Kenyatta or Odinga - it doesn't matter. They're all thieves in it for themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Refreshing, balanced coverage finally.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    US & UK have been accused of using indictments against Kenyatta + election results to intervene in affairs of Kenya.
    Vote for Kenyatta indicates REJECTION of ICC & western imperialists’ to influence Kenya. Kenyatta said: We celebrate the triumph of democracy, the triumph of peace, the triumph of nationhood. We expect the international community to respect the sovereignty & democratic will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Kenyans are still fighting tribally. This time the post-election violence has gone digital. If the comments flying around social media are anything to go by, Mr Kenyatta has a huge task in uniting Kenyans. At least the 50% who voted against him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    At Ibrahim, many Kenyans believe the main opposing candidate was as guilty as Kenyatta was in the previous election, his party pre-planned the violence incase he did not imerge the winner(acording to many), his running mate at the time has been charged at the Hague, so most people feel the ICC is selective, and also Raila is seen as a puppet for the west while Kenyatta is for Kenya's sovereignty.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Kenyans stood up against west intimidation and patriarchy. How can Kenyans be threatened with sanctions and consequence for electing their leaders democratically? US, EU and UK have to realize that colonial period is over, that we don't need them more than they need us. Hegemony is shifting in world politics and isolation policy won't work in this century. Interesting times ahead as we 'Look East'

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I'm curiously waiting to see if the west is going to dine with these two newly elected criminals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Kenya soon will become the world's most dangerous city to live in despite not having an on going civil war because of a class warfare.
    I was recently there nd I witnessed unpleasant things N that country. U have filthy rich folks who dance around with their new found wealth which they perhaps got it through corrupt means nd then u got very poor people in the majority. myhajj.blogspot.com

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    America is again to blame for Kenyatta's apparent win by 8,000 votes; the Obama Administration seems to have alienated over 6.2 millions Kenyan voters primarily from the Jubilee Tribes! This letter is part of the immediate revision of current events currently going on in local media which seems designed to make the Judiciary irrelevant. This is beyond partisan spin!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It seems African politicians have perfected the art of conning, armtwisting and manipulating not only their misinformed and clueless ethnically inclined citizenry but the rest of the world too.
    The Kenyan elections like the previous one was an attempt by the greater Kenya to break away from the strangle-hold by a Mafia-like corrupt and criminal cartel wielding power,yet again denied by rigging

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I like the title... what next? My fear is that Kenya is continuing to be divided along tribal lines and this was even more so in this election. Jubilee Coalition have promised a lot of things 'digital' however, I am not sure how they will do that - unless they have been sitting on some resources somewhere. What next? Your guess is as good as mine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The so called ICC and Kenyatta. Why the people of Kenya voted for Kenyatta if they know or knew he was behinde the 2007 post election problems? Do the so called ICC know better than the Kenyan people or do the ICC just want to get Mr Kenyatta out of the kenyan politics?
    Ibrahim, Norway


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