Kenyans famously follow politics like rest of the world does sports or reality TV. But even by Nairobi’s politically obsessed standards, the lead-up to the next presidential campaign is proving pretty unusual.
Despite being in the midst of a pandemic – Kenya recently announced tough new lockdown measures – campaigning is already under way for the August 2022 presidential poll.
The early start is because President Uhuru Kenyatta allegedly reneged on a 2013 pledge to back his deputy, William Ruto, as his successor when Kenyatta is forced to retire at the end of his second term.
Such a political bust-up is of grave concern to Kenyans, given its chilling echoes to the events that led up to the 2007-08 post-election violence, during which more than 1,500 Kenyans were murdered and 600,000 were forced from their homes.
That bloody poll followed a similarly trashed agreement between former president Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, who had come together five years earlier to dislodge the ruling party, Kanu, from power.
The pair had agreed in 2002 that Kibaki’s National Alliance Party of Kenya would share ministerial positions equally with Odinga’s Liberal Democratic Party, while Odinga would serve as Kibaki’s prime minister.
However, the agreement was never kept, and it sparked a bitter rivalry between the parties that erupted into violence at the subsequent 2007 ballot.
If the historical parallels weren’t worrying enough for Kenyans, of even greater concern is that President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto not only served under the 2007 rivals but were both accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their roles in the ethnic cleansing that followed the poll.
Dubbed the ‘Coalition of the Accused’, the former rivals teamed up during their trial at the Hague and went on to win the 2013 election against all odds.
However, talk of a Kenyatta-Ruto reckoning have been circulating ever since charges were dropped against the politicians.
In 2016, senior Jubilee Party officials, led by vice-chairman David Murathe, started issuing strong statements against Ruto’s likelihood of succeeding President Kenyatta when he is forced to retire at the end of his second term.
They have since vowed that Ruto would not receive the backing of the president, given his alleged involvement in corruption.
‘We don’t have [an agreement] with anyone to support them in 2022,’ said Murathe at a cultural festival in western Kenya.
‘If they negotiated that with President Kenyatta, that is their problem. Let us meet at the ballot.’
The president also told leaders from his central Kenya heartlands that his choice for 2022 would shock them, a clear indication that Ruto was not his preferred successor.
Ever since the advent of multi-party politics in 1991, all but one presidential election in Kenya has resulted in violence.
In the run-up to the 1992 elections, for instance, the state instigated ethnic clashes that saw the killing and displacement of non-Kalenjin communities from the Rift Valley region.
The same scenario was replicated in 1997.
Bloodshed was also witnessed in 2017, when the Supreme Court, in an unprecedented ruling, nullified Kenyatta’s election win and ordered a repeat of the presidential poll.
The court said that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had failed to provide the requested information on its IT system’s firewall configuration, leaving them with no choice but to accept opposition leader Raila Odinga’s petition.
IEBC’s IT manager Chris Msando was brutally murdered only three days before the vote. Police also killed several people in Odinga’s strongholds, including a six-month-old baby, Samantha Pendo.
The second poll, boycotted by Odinga, resulted in yet more deaths still.
This cycle of electoral violence is affecting foreign investment in the East African powerhouse, according to Nyeri Town MP Ngunjiri Wambugu.
‘Every five years when we have an election, investors remain jittery, not knowing whether the country would be stable or not after the election,’ said the close ally of President Kenyatta.
‘We should end this, and those sounding drums of war as we approach an election should be put behind bars.’
Kenyans struggling to make a living also dread every election year as violence either disrupts their businesses or results in loss of property.
‘In the 2017 post-poll chaos, my shop was looted only a week after I had restocked it with a bank loan,’ said Winnie Owino, who runs a beauty salon.
‘It pains me that I continue to repay the loan whose benefits I did not see.’
Despite the poll being nearly two years away, election-related violence is already claiming lives.
In October, two young men were killed in clashes pitting Kenyatta’s supporters against those of Ruto, who had been campaigning in the President’s backyard of Muranga County.
Electoral violence in Kenya usually begins during the party primaries.
In Odinga’s strongholds, getting nominated for his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) ticket almost guarantees a win at the main elections.
This means that the battle for the nominations is fierce and would-be candidates often resort to violence against their opponents.
Observers claim that the violence during and around election time is an indicator of underlying socioeconomic and political issues such as land injustices, marginalisation and disenfranchisement.
These issues were raised in the 2013 ‘Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Report’, which was compiled in response to the post-election violence of 2007-2008, however the recommendations have never been implemented.
The political scientist Paul Okongo, speaking in a 2017 article published in The Elephant, said the lack of electoral credibility was a major reason for the violence.
He said: ‘Until Kenya holds free and fair elections that adhere to the rule of law, Kenyans who rise up against injustice will continue to bleed.’
Three years on and fears abound that the IEBC will not be able to conduct a free and credible poll.
Of the seven IEBC commissioners in post at the 2017 elections, four have resigned, leaving only three. Roseleen Akombe, one of those who resigned, fled to the US, citing threats to her life and those of her family members.
Akombe, who fled shortly before the repeat presidential poll in October 2017, said that political interference had rendered IEBC so dysfunctional that it could not carry out credible elections as scheduled.
Various leaders have also declared their interest in the presidency besides Ruto.
They include former vice-presidents Musalia Mudavadi and Kalonzo Musyoka, Baringo senator Gideon Moi, and a number of governors.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga has not openly declared his interest, but those close to the politician say he will be on the ballot.
It is Deputy President Ruto, though, who has hit the campaign trail and cast the 2022 election as a contest between so-called ‘hustlers’ and ‘dynasties’.
Ruto, the son of a peasant, considers himself to have come from a poor background - in stark opposition to Kenyatta, whose father Jomo was Kenya’s first president, and his allies, Odinga and Moi, whose fathers also once occupied the country’s top leadership.
Though critics have warned him against introducing class dynamics to Kenya’s elections, the deputy president remains defiant, insisting that he is fighting for the poor who have suffered for so long.
The deputy president has been going around the country giving out wheelbarrows, sewing machines, water tanks and motor bikes to various youth and women’s groups – such vote buying is common in Kenya.
Ruto has also been hard-pressed to explain the origin of the millions of shillings he has donated to churches since campaigning began.
Critics accuse him of using his official residence for campaigns and vote buying while others, such as Raila Odinga, question his ‘hustler’ narrative, given Ruto’s unexplained wealth.
‘Ruto should not call us ‘dynasties’ because [Jomo] Kenyatta and my father Jaramogi also came from poor backgrounds and only got to their positions by virtue of hard work,’ said Odinga, whose father was once vice-president. ‘Let him first explain the source of his wealth before calling us dynasties.’
Class wars aside, there are fears the power vacuum created by Kenyatta’s departure could lead to trouble in the president’s Mt Kenya base, as various politicians jostle to inherit his rich vote block.
The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the president is barred by the constitution from standing after 2022.
Another reason for heightened electioneering is the impending referendum on a raft of proposed new constitutional changes.
These include the introduction of a Prime Minister’s position, as well as two deputies and an official leader of the opposition role, like the UK parliament.
However, Ruto and his allies have already vowed to shoot down the changes to the constitution, setting the stage for another confrontation.
‘We will not allow the creation of more positions to benefit the dynasties,’ Ruto told a rally in the western county of Nyamira.
‘Instead, we will continue fighting for the poor Kenyans.’
With violence already overshadowing the primaries, though, Kenyans are worried such fighting talk might not just be all words.