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What you need to know about Kenya's elections

media Kenyatta and Odinga attend a prayer meeting in Nairobi ahead of Kenya's 2013 polls, February 2013. Photo: AFP/Jennifer Huxta

Kenyans go to the polls on 8 August for fiercely-contested elections with incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta pitted against his arch rival, veteran opposition challenger Raila Odinga. More than 19 million registered voters will cast their ballots in the country’s sixth multiparty elections to choose six positions - president, governors, senators, members of parliament, women representatives and members of county assembly. The lead up to the vote has been fraught with issues - fears of violence, the murder of a senior electoral official, the spread of fake news and concerns about the organisation of polls.

Tight race

“I would characterise the campaigning as increasingly tense as we enter the last stretch before the election,” Rebekka Rumpel, a Kenya expert at UK think-tank Chatham House, told RFI.

The latest opinion polls put the two main contenders neck and neck. Kenyatta, the flagbearer of the ruling Jubilee Alliance party, has 47 per cent of the vote, beating Odinga by three percentage points, according to a survey of 4,308 people across Kenya published on 1 August by market research firm Ipsos.

However, Odinga of the National Super Alliance party (NASA), is ahead of his rival in the latest survey carried out by the pan-African Infotrak research company. Its survey of 5,000 people across the country published on 1 August puts them even closer at 49 and 48 per cent respectively.

Kenyatta delivers a speech to supporters during a campaign rally in Kitui, 3 August 2017. Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner


Although there are eight candidates running for the presidency, the spotlight is firmly placed on the incumbent president and his rival. Kenyatta’s campaigning has focused on strengthening the country’s economy, delivering growth, building infrastructure and creating jobs, according to Chatham House’s Rumpel. While Odinga, who’s making his fourth bid for the country’s top job, has built his campaign around policies committed to equality, fairness, inclusiveness as well as helping marginalised members of society.

Kenyatta wants voters to believe that only he can keep the country on the right track with slogans like, “Let’s finish the job” and “Continue the journey”. Odinga, on the other hand, emphasises the difficulties Kenyans face and the need for change, “Taking Kenya to greater heights” and creating “A Kenya for all Kenyans”.

Odinga arrives at a campaign rally in Kisumu, 3 August 2017. Photo: AFP/Kevin Midigo

Kenyan elections have typically been influenced by a strong sense of ethnic identity with many voters aligning themselves according to the four largest groups –Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin and Luo. The top two candidates are partnered with running mates from outside their own ethnicity: Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, alongside his Kalenjin deputy, William Ruto, while Odinga, a Luo selected Kalonzo Musyoka, a Kamba, as his vice-presidential candidate.

Fears of violence

The spectre of violence remains a concern as the memory of the country’s post-election bloodshed almost 10 years ago is at the forefront of many people’s minds. At least 1,200 people were killed following disputed polls in December 2007 that plunged the country into chaos and led to widespread displacement of people and destruction of property. A fact-finding mission to Kenya by the UN human rights office in the aftermath identified organised and retaliatory violence along ethnic lines.

Residents of the Mathare slum in Nairobi shout at demonstrators during clashes between rival groups, January 2008. Photo: AFP/Tony Karumba

The killing of Chris Msando, in charge of the electoral commission’s computerised voting system, has once again highlighted the role that violence can play in derailing Kenya’s democratic process. Msando’s body was discovered on Monday ahead of a systems test for the technology used to identify voters and transmit results. This has stoked speculation that he had been tortured in order to gain access to systems and tamper with the results.

Some analysts say clashes in the central Kenyan county of Laikipia in recent months are indicative of the climate surrounding the elections.

“Large parts of Kenya are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of violence at the August elections,” according to Robert Besseling, the founder of EXX Africa, an Africa-focused risk consultancy. The threat of further violence is fuelled by “political instigation of attacks in the Rift Valley, lack of preparedness of security forces and high-level collusion in local violence and intimidation,” he said.

Furthermore, instability caused by the Al-Shabaab militant group in regions bordering Somalia could have the potential to disrupt voting. A police officer was killed on Thursday in Mandera county in a rocket propelled grenade attack against two vehicles. Three people were also killed on Wednesday in an attack by suspected Al-Shabaab fighters on a bus in Lamu county, according to local media reports.

The hardline Islamists are opposed to Kenya’s military contribution to the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia and have threatened to disrupt the polls.

Fake news

The proliferation of fake news during the election period has raised some concerns about the potential for intentionally misleading information being used to sway voters - similar in many ways to allegations that Russian-made fake news interfered with the 2016 US presidential election.

Newspaper advert by Facebook provides tips on spotting fake news, 3 August 2017. Photo: RFI/Daniel Finnan

Facebook took out full page adverts in Kenyan newspapers on Thursday providing tips to readers on how to identify fake news. These adverts followed a study published earlier in July saying that some 90 per cent of Kenyans had seen fake news with 87 per cent of it intended to deliberately misdirect them.

“You have a whole spectrum of this - completely fabricated stories by some candidates about their opponents, but we also see stories that are partly false and cases of misreporting,” Allan Kamau of Portland Communications, the company that carried out the study, told RFI.


The country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) faced a number of legal challenges about various procedures for the elections. A Kenyan court blocked the printing of ballot papers by Dubai-based company Al-Ghurair over concerns about the tender process. The Court of Appeal then overturned this ruling and ballot papers were printed with the final batch being delivered to Nairobi on Tuesday.

Police officers guard a plane delivering ballot papers for the elections, 31 July 2017. Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner

Questions raised about the register of voters and a court case brought by the Africa Centre for Open Governance, a non-for-profit group working on governance issues, aimed to force IEBC to release the register for public scrutiny. A judge on Thursday ruled the register must be open for inspection within 48 hours, according to local media. Accountancy firm KPMG had carried out an audit of the register to ensure it was accurate and identified a number of dead voters.

The opposition NASA party brought several legal challenges including against the complementary system of voting and pronouncement of results by polling station returning officers. “The reason why we decided to resort to litigation to deal with the various aspects of the election is that they [IEBC] had a very cavalier attitude when it comes to preparation,” Paul Mwangi, a lawyer for NASA, told RFI.

Kenya will be using a new electronic system for voter identification and transmission of results. The Kenya Integrated Elections Management Systems (KIEMS) uses a tablet designed by French company Safran to carry out biometric identification of voters and a 4G data connection to send results for compilation. A technical fault with an electronic system used in 2013 led to it being abandoned and polling stations reverted to manual tallying.

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