My first encounter with Tuesday’s general election in Kenya happened one month ago.
On July 5, Premium Times shared a video of a debate by four contestants for the Nairobi governorship election hosted by KTN and Daystar University.
It was not a debate. It was a bare knuckle encounter, a verbal brawl between independent candidate, Miguna Miguna, and the rest.
Miguna, a lawyer and columnist, hammered the contestants one by one, starting with the current governor of Nairobi, who is seeking reelection. He described them as part of a despicable cartel of corrupt politicians and opportunists who represent the worst face of Kenya’s politics.
He was direct, blunt and devastatingly clear.
As he spoke, the camera panned the contestants squirming, fidgeting and swallowing hard, all at once. Their response, if any, was not contained in the video. But just looking at their faces, they would have been relieved if the ground under their feet had opened up and swallowed them.
Yet, that video was only a shadow of the bloody days ahead.
On Monday, “unknown” persons murdered the head of the information, communication and technology department of the Kenyan electoral commission, Chris Msando.
Reports so far indicate that he was tortured before he was brutally murdered and dumped in a shallow grave by the roadside nine days before the election.
Also murdered with him was Caro Ngumbu, a young lady who had just finished her medical training and was awaiting graduation. Her mother was inconsolable.
Is this another layer of the deadly face of the cartel that Miguna spoke about? Are we about to witness a repeat of the electoral violence in 2007, which left nearly 1,000 dead and the country hanging by a thread?
Accusing fingers for Msando’s death are pointing in the government’s direction – the precise direction in which Uhuru Kenyatta’s government is only too happy to turn a blind eye.
Why would anyone want Msando dead at this time? It’s hard to say but the circumstances of his death suggest that there are those who think that eliminating him guarantees their own electoral fortunes.
The 45-year-old father of four had been granting interviews recently saying that the electoral commission had taken steps to ensure that the electronic voting system works flawlessly this time.
The electronic voting system collapsed at the height of the 2013 election, worsening voter fraud. Those who are uncomfortable with the progress made under Msando obviously want to turn back the hands of the clock. What emboldens them is that they believe they can get away with it.
Why not? Over 1,000 people were murdered in 2007-2008 in the struggle for power between incumbent Mwai Kibaki and his challenger, Raila Odinga. What happened? Nothing. Instead, the tragic episode dissolved into a disgraceful back-and-forth between the International Criminal Court, which indicted Kenyatta and his deputy on the one hand; and the African Union and Kenyatta on the other, which accused the ICC of setting a dangerous precedent by trying a sitting president.
The charges were later dropped and the bereaved left to nurse their grief. Not a stick was raised to the memory of the dead. The thousands wounded and displaced neither got justice nor the reassurance of safety they deserved.
Everyone was supposed to move on: the cartel won. The blame was put on age-long prejudices and the bitter struggle for land and political power, as if the victims – Luo, Kikuyu, Kamba and Kalenjin – never lived side by side. Peace is more important than justice, the cartel said. Move on.
Will the shedding of Msando’s blood, and the murder of the innocent young lady, stem the tide of electoral violence in Kenya? Will Kenya ever be able to confront the cartel, defeat it, and more important, bring it to justice?
The cartel is not only a Kenya problem. In some ways, Kenyan and Nigerian politics imitate each other. The cauldron of ethnic politics, the do-or-die desperation of the political actors and the dominance of the old order, are common to both countries.
Interestingly, too, just as it was in Nigeria in 2015, Kenya’s younger incumbent, Kenyatta, 55, is seeking re-election, while his 72-year-old challenger, Odinga, has tried and failed three times. This is his fourth attempt.
The similarities doesn’t end there. In Nigeria, the 2011 electoral violence left about 800 dead and nothing happened apart from big grammar and hefty recommendations. And more recently, the rerun elections in Rivers State revealed that even though the 2015 general elections were relatively peaceful, electoral violence is still alive and well.
Deputy Superintendent of Police Alkali Mohammed and his orderly were beheaded in Ndoni Local Government of Rivers State. While the families were still in shock, politicians from both the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress for whom Alkali and his orderly died trampled over their dead bodies in a hurry to get to the INEC headquarters in Abuja to collect their certificates of return and be sworn in. Just move on.
The cousins of our politicians in Kenya have yet another chance to show that that country is growing up. In an interview with The Guardian in July, the Chief Executive of Kenya’s Institute of Economic Affairs, Kwame Owino, expressed frustration that the world appears obsessed with whether or not the election in his country will trigger violence.
“We are hung up with 2007 and 2008, which were specific circumstances,” he said. “We have the view that anything that doesn’t lead to violence is acceptable. It is not. I’m tired of this idea, will the elections be peaceful or not? That’s not the only result we expect.”
Eighteen days after the Owino interview, Msando was murdered. Just move on?
We can get mad at outsiders being obsessed with prejudices about us and argue forever and a day that we deserve to be judged by a higher standard. We can argue all we want about what form of justice works better – retributive or reformative justice or a mix. We can hope for and expect a better cycle.
But as long as people, especially politicians, know that they can get away with murder, they will continue to kill.
There will be elections/referendums in 21 African countries this year and at least four – Kenya, Liberia, the Republic of Congo and Angola – will be consequential elections.
After Msando’s murder, tensions are running high in Kenya and it’s clear that if we let politicians play, Msando will not be the last ugly incident. Left on their own, the contenders – Kenyatta and Odinga – will bring the roof down.
While the AU Election Observation Mission to Kenya, led by Thabo Mbeki, is still weighing its response to Msando’s murder, I hope the mission will not, by its prolonged silence, encourage Kenyatta to sweep the matter under the rug. The problem of 2007 started with a tiny spark.
Only vigilance and the certainty of retribution can stop the cartel and send a message across the continent that we have come of age.
Ishiekwene is the MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and board member of the Paris-based Global Editors Network