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What the US can learn from Kenya’s fight for democracy

Kenya's Supreme Court judges Njoki Susanna Ndung'u, left, and William Ouko, right, speak together as hearings commence on the petitions challenging the result of the recent presidential election, at the Supreme Court in Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.
(AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Kenya’s Supreme Court judges Njoki Susanna Ndung’u, left, and William Ouko, right, speak together as hearings commence on the petitions challenging the result of the recent presidential election, at the Supreme Court in Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Kenya’s losing presidential candidate Raila Odinga and others filed the challenges, asserting that the process was marked by criminal subversion and seeking that the outcome be nullified and a new vote be ordered. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Last month, we helped lead an International Election Observation Mission for Kenya’s presidential elections, sponsored by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), on whose boards we serve. At the time of our writing, William Ruto had narrowly edged out Raila Odinga, but court challenges to the results are still being worked out. 

While Kenya’s elections are once again disputed, they are being done so through legal channels and the democratic achievements of the Kenyan people are clear. The Kenyan Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on petitions challenging the presidential results tomorrow. 

Kenya has been a relative bastion of stability in a very difficult neighborhood. Surrounded by unrest and one-man rule in Sudan and South Sudan, rampant terrorism in Somalia, civil war in Ethiopia and dictatorship in Uganda, Kenya’s dedication to elections and multi-party politics is an inspiration to its people, the region and the continent. It’s also an inspiration to aspiring democracies all over the world.  

Kenya’s next president faces daunting problems: a large youth population with limited job opportunities, a crushing debt burden (encouraged by Chinese lending to fund large infrastructure projects) and pervasive corruption. Kenya’s democracy is far from perfect; voter registration and turnout declined in 2022, and post-election violence in 2007 left over 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. The last presidential election in 2017 was annulled by the Supreme Court and had to be redone. Yet, despite these very real challenges, Kenyans voted and relished the opportunity to have a voice in their future.    

International observation serves to reinforce global support for credible elections around the world. Reflecting that elections are a process, prior to our deployment, NDI and IRI conducted missions to Kenya in May and July to assess the electoral context and preparations for elections. On the eve of the elections, we met with a wide array of stakeholders, including leading presidential candidates, members of the Independent Election Commission and the Supreme Court, civic society representatives, church groups, women’s organizations and independent citizen observers who were conducting a parallel vote tabulation. 

On Election Day this Aug. 9, we observed an impressive logistical undertaking with over 46,000 polling places across a country slightly larger than California and Florida combined. We witnessed staffers working through the night before the election to ensure polling places would open on time. We saw long lines in Kibera, the section of the capital of Nairobi that is Africa’s largest slum, and all across the region. Still, voters patiently waited to have their identification verified before receiving their ballots and voting.

Kenya’s election had both 21st-century cutting-edge biometric real-time voter identification, and old-style manual counting where ballots were dumped on makeshift tables for tabulation (manual hand counting) well into the night.

We witnessed firsthand women voting, as well as women candidates competing for high offices like the vice president and governors of their respective regions or constituencies. While women candidates faced harassment and threats of physical violence, Kenya elected a historic number of female governors  in addition to voting women into 26 Parliamentary seats and three Senate seats. Still, while close to half of voters are women, Kenya’s government has never held many women. The country is far from achieving the “two-thirds gender principle” enacted in order to increase women’s representation in government. 

Ruto campaigned on a classic “rags to riches story” —  roadside chicken seller risen to wealthy businessman and current deputy president. His slogan, “Every Hustle Matters,” was designed to appeal to young Kenyans who rely on the vast underground economy. Odinga was a known commodity for Kenyan voters, having served as prime minister and previously run for president four times. Repeatedly jailed without trial under the Moi dictatorship in the 1980s, Odinga was endorsed by current President Kenyatta over Kenyatta’s previous running mate and serving Deputy President Ruto — a House of Cards-like twist of the type that dominates Kenyan politics.   

Why does far away Kenya matter for the U.S. with so many of our own challenges? It is the economic powerhouse of East Africa, anchoring the western Indian Ocean where China increasingly flexes its muscle and expands its military footprint. It was in Kenya (and neighboring Tanzania) where Osama bin Laden attacked the U.S., bombing our embassies in 1998, and killing 213 people in Nairobi (and 11 in Dar es Salaam). Kenya has been a loyal partner in countering Islamic extremism, serving as a diplomatic mediator in regional conflicts, and providing safe haven for refugees fleeing turmoil, including the horrific 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the tragic ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kenya was also one of the most vocal critics of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As one of the most important countries in the dynamic African continent, Kenya’s political direction and democratic stability are matters of great concern all over the globe. 

As we repeatedly told our Kenyan interlocutors, elections are about more than just winning — they are also about accepting defeat. We know this all too well from personal experience. Losing elections with grace a dignity after the votes are counted and legitimate court challenges exhausted is every bit as important as a level campaign playing field, secret voting and transparent vote counting. 

Whatever the final outcome, the real winners in Kenya’s election are the voters who had a voice in choosing their leader. And the long-term winners are the citizens of every democracy on earth struggling to implement and maintain this most precious and most delicate of governing systems. That includes the United States. 

Donna Brazile is a member of the board of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the former interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Randy Scheunemann is vice chair of the board at the International Republican Institute (IRI) and strategic counselor at the Halifax International Security Forum. The views expressed are their own. 

Tags Democracy promotion by the United States International Republican Institute Kenya Kenyan election National Democratic Institute Politics of the United States

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