Kenya’s 2022 Elections: Managing the Risk of Violence

With 10 months to the 2022 general elections, politics in Kenya is already heating up. At the national level, there is intense political activity with key politicians declaring their interest to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose second and last term of office ends in August 2022. While democratic elections are usually promising, Kenya’s elections, have always been a flashpoint for conflict and violence. The country’s post-independence history is replete with recurring episodes of election-instigated violence, in which thousands have died and hundreds of thousands more internally displaced. The elections in 1992, 1997, 2007, and 2017, were all marred with varying degrees of violence. Even in cases where violence has remained substantially low, as it was in 2002 and 2013, the political situations were highly tense.

The months leading to, and after elections, are the most violent periods in Kenya due to the rise in inflammatory political rhetoric and ethnicized narratives that cause divisions and hate. As August 2022 approaches, the succession politics and the accompanying political clamour being witnessed across the country deviates no further from the form of politics that has always brooded violence and conflict. Indeed, there are growing fears that unless the ongoing political trends are changed and a new electoral strategy that controls the conduct and behavior of both politicians and the electorate is enforced, Kenya will once again plunge into chaos and violence in the run-up to 2022 elections.

Current Risk Factors

There are several risk factors that complicate the 2022 electoral landscape. These include:

  • Shifting political alliances and divisions

The ongoing debates on presidential succession have created new political alliances and divisions. For the first time in Kenya’s history, the country is approaching an election with the President and his deputy pulling part. The disagreement has caused the disintegration of the ruling Jubilee Party with members of parliament loyal to Deputy President William Ruto regrouping under the new United Democratic Alliance (UDA) Party. At the same time, former alliances like the National Super Alliance (NASA) have broken apart, with new entities such as the Okoa Kenya Alliance (OKA) being formed. What is of much concern is how the formation of new alliances and the disintegration of pre-existing ones cause political fragmentation and division which can be used to fan tensions.

  • Shifting political narratives

There seem to be a shift in political narratives from what has been predominantly an ethnic identity-based politics to one that seeks to exploit socio-economic grievances. The emerging political narrative centres on the ‘hustler nation versus dynasties’, introduced by Deputy President William Ruto and is now codified under the so-called bottom-up economic model. While this potential shift in the narrative may break the chain of highly ethnicized politics, it portends to heighten class struggle between the majority poor and the minority rich that in the long run may prove even more divisive and significantly destabilizing.

  • Pandemic-induced insecurity and violence

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a major blow to the country’s economy and social fabric, uncovering threats to insecurity and violence. The economic vulnerabilities and increase in crime rate will complicate the environment upon which next year’s general elections will be held. Already, the enforcement of pandemic control protocols is causing public agitation and deepening the underlying mistrust between the police and the citizens. Violent incidents such as the ones witnessed in Laikipia in early September 2021 are indications that the situation may get worse going forward. Violence has also been reported in various locations in Laikipia, as incidents of banditry and cattle rustling surge.

  • Lack of confidence in the capacity of the electoral body

The question about the credibility and capacity of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to deliver free and fair elections hangs over the 2022 elections. Previous polls in 2007 and 2017 were contested with considerable blame on the IEBC for mishandling votes and ‘fixing’ candidates of choice. So far, no concrete legal reforms have been implemented to increase the capacity of IEBC to properly manage the elections. Thus, with dwindling public confidence and low legitimacy on the part of the IEBC, serious concerns arise over the possibility to have a peaceful transition of power.

  • Prevalence of misinformation and disinformation

The potential spread of rumours and misinformation (including disinformation) may stoke tensions and political polarization ahead of next year’s elections. Over time, Kenya has witnessed a significant rise in digital connectivity with politics becoming largely driven in digital spaces mainly through social media. This does not only make social media a new tool for political mobilisation but also creates an environment primed for misinformation and spread rumours that can potentially incite violence.

Managing the risk factors

The foregoing discussion demonstrates the fragility that surrounds the upcoming 2022 elections in Kenya. While all these risks may or may not lead into actual violence, there is wisdom in laying down a strong contingency plan focused on how to avert the crisis, should violence erupt. This must address measures for violence prevention and response centred on consolidating peace, cohesion building and diffusing tensions in the run-up to, during and after elections. This article proffers a whole-of-society approach that involves all stakeholders both at national and county levels to work towards building national unity and peace. Other than the government which is mandated to safeguard electoral integrity through institutions such as the IEBC, the judiciary, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), and police, other players such as the politicians themselves, the media (both mainstream and social media), religious leaders, civil society organizations and the private sector actors must come together to support the course for peace ahead of 2022.  It is, thus, deemed that a concerted effort based on a comprehensive violence prevention strategy, will be able to reduce substantially the risks of election-instigated violence.

Otieno. O. Joel is a Researcher at the HORN Institute.

Kenyans at a past political rally (Photo Credit: Reuters)

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