28 May 2016

Kenya: How Can IEBC Protests Be Resolved?

Photo: Jeff Angote/Daily Nation
Cord leaders Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetang'ula lead demonstrations against the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission on May 23, 2016 along Koinange Street.

Kenya is over a year away from the next General Election but already we are in the middle of the campaign.

As usual, the main parties are engaged in two debates at once, one about how the country's political and economic health can be improved, the other about whether the elections will be free and fair.

The failure of key parts of the electoral process in 2013 continues to loom large in the minds of many opposition supporters, in part because they still feel they were cheated in 2007.

As a result, many of Mr Odinga's most devoted supporters see protests as a necessary evil to ensure the reform of the electoral commission.

By contrast, many Kenyans who are politically aligned to the government see mass protests as an unnecessary threat to political stability.

So why has a disagreement over the credibility of the electoral commission led to so much violence? And how can the situation be resolved? Why protest?

Taking his supporters to the streets was one of the more confrontational options open to Odinga. Public protests often cause disruption, especially in Kenya.

The state typically responds with great force to a challenge to its authority, especially when the source of that challenge is the leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).

In part, this is because the government is painfully aware that, despite his advanced age, Odinga remains the greatest challenge to their ability to retain power.

The police brutality of the last week was therefore predictable. Given this, some have argued that Raila knowingly led his supporters into the kicks and punches of the security forces. Why did he pursue this course of action?

The former Prime Minister's critics claim that the answer is that he is an irresponsible and risk-taking leader.

But things are rarely so simple, and Odinga's choice of strategy needs to be put in the context of the wider political landscape.

Having a weaker legislative base than in previous parliaments, and facing a government that has often proved unwilling to compromise, the ODM leader knows that he is unlikely to be able to push reform through the legislature.

At the same time, press freedom is being consistently undermined from a number of directions, while the international community is increasingly wary of criticising President Kenyatta's government.

HUGE FAILURESIn a context in which the space to shape government policy through discussion and negotiation is becoming increasingly closed off, mass protests have become one of the only ways to force the political establishment to sit up and take notice.

This is not to say that Mr Odinga does not need to take responsibility for his own decisions -- of course he does.

But the government also needs to recognise that it has played a part in generating the current situation, because the way in which it has closed off the opportunity for other forms of politics has made these kinds of protests -- and others like them -- more likely. Is reform needed?

This raises the question of whether reform of the IEBC is needed, and hence whether Mr Odinga's criticisms are justified.

Opinions on this vary, but the performance of the commission so far has hardly been impressive.

During the last election it notched up significant failures at almost every stage of the process.

First, it did not meet its target for voter registration -- although to be fair, it was overly ambitious. Second, it botched the initial procurement of election technology.

Third, the electronic voter identification kits failed to ensure the electoral register and process was respected because over half of them broke down at some point on polling day.

Fourth, the mobile phone transmission system, which was intended to prevent tallying fraud, crashed almost as soon as the votes started to be submitted.

Fifth, the IEBC refused to release the results in a timely fashion, undermining the capacity of the domestic monitors, international observers and the courts to verify the accuracy of the outcome.

Whether you think that the election result reflected the will of the Kenyan people or not, this is a poor track record.

Moreover, the IEBC also has a bad reputation when it comes to governance issues such as corruption.

Although many of those who presided over these failures have been forced to leave, key parts of the structure of the organisation, and its chair, have not changed.

Earlier this week I asked a Kenyan friend of mine, who is pretty critical of all of the major parties and did not vote for ODM at the last election, how he would explain the IEBC to someone from the United Kingdom.

He said that he would tell them that "the IEBC is a bit like a football club that, despite spending a vast amount of money on wages, and languishing at the bottom of the league for most of the season, refuses to make any changes. Even towards the end of the season, when it becomes clear that results are not improving and the number of fans turning up to matches begins to decline, little is done.

WHAT KENYANS SAY

Finally, in a late attempt to reverse the team's fortunes, the club decides not to change the manager, or its formation, but instead to bring in a couple of new players".

"In other words", he said, "I would tell them that the IEBC looks a bit too much like Aston Villa, when, if things are to be improved, it probably needs to look more like Chelsea".

This view is shared by many others. As we know from a number of different opinion polls, almost half of the population do not believe that the current commission is capable of delivering a credible election in 2017.

But this does not mean they necessarily support the idea of mass protests. An opinion poll conducted for the Daily Nation earlier this week found that despite the many limitations of the IEBC, a majority of Kenyans would prefer Mr Odinga to abandon this course of action, and that the proportion of people who hold this view is particularly high among those who live in Nairobi.

This makes sense: The category of people saying they do not want there to be more protests is made up of some people who do not agree with Mr Odinga about the IEBC and some people who do agree with him but are afraid of the unrest that the protests generate.

In other words, what this figure really tells us is that many Kenyans remain willing to prioritise peace and political stability over reform, even if they don't think the political system is working very well.

This is perfectly understandable in the wake of the 2007/8 post-election violence and the difficult economic situation in the country.

However, it is important to realise that these figures do not prove that the constituency for reform is small, or is limited to the opposition - I know many Jubilee Alliance supporters who would like to see the country hold elections under a strengthened commission, if only to minimise the risk of instability.

This is a really important point, because it means the country that will enter the next election will be a very different one than that which peacefully negotiated the 2013 polls.

Back then, the effective management of the constitutional referendum, combined with the promise of new technology, meant a remarkably large majority of Kenyans had confidence in the IEBC.

Although this confidence proved to be misplaced, it helped to make the electoral process easier to manage, and hence reduced the prospects for violence. As things stand, the same will not be true next year.

WORKING TOGETHERPolitics is the art of the possible, and building stable political systems is about finding the possible compromise.

In other words, to resolve the impasse there will need to movement on both sides.

The government and the IEBC will need to accept that significant reform is necessary to transform the commission into a body that the Kenyan people and opposition can have faith in.

This is not just about appeasing Mr Odinga; it is about protecting the Kenyan economy by increasing the confidence of foreign and domestic investors that the government will take the steps necessary to allow for a credible and peaceful election in 2017.

It will also be important to reign in the police. The treatment of Cord protestors, including the use of live bullets, has demonstrated the limits of police reform, and called into question the commitment of the government to the 2010 Constitution.

It is easy to say that protestors bring such confrontations on themselves, but it is possible to manage demonstrations, and to deactivate them, without the use of lethal force.

Given this, there is no need for the kind of violence that has been beamed around the world in the last few days, which only antagonises opposition activists further, while scaring off tourists and thus hurting the Kenyan economy.

In a similar vein, the opposition will need to moderate its strategy in order to make negotiations possible.

The Jubilee Alliance is loath to make concessions while the protests are ongoing, because this would give the impression that the government is weak, and would set a precedent that might encourage further protests in the future.

DEMOS SUSPENDED

The opposition will therefore need to demonstrate their commitment to the politics of negotiation.

On this basis, a ceasefire is necessary in order to generate a period of political calm in which talks can take place.

Cord leaders moved in this direction on Wednesday, suspending protests until 6 June.

Hopefully, this will create the opportunity for the two parties to find the common ground they need to carry out the changes that are required.

Such reforms will not just involve new personnel -- the technical capacity of the IEBC will need to be further enhanced, and the management structure will need to be strengthened and made more transparent.

Only when this is done will we start to see an improvement in public confidence, which is essential if the next elections are to run smooth.

Dr Nic Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University,

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