Kenya received a wake-up call last week. The fiercely contested by-election candidates sponsored by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his estranged deputy William Ruto have been harmed by allegations of violations: from the purchase of votes to state intervention. And then to the improper conduct of election officials.
In the past, this kind of abuse resulted in a major, even apocalyptic, loss of life. Although there was almost no violence this time, this chaotic election, which many people regard as a prelude to next year’s general election, highlights the local problems in the electoral system that, if left unresolved, could lead to disaster.
Since the reintroduction of multi-party politics 30 years ago, the requirements for reform of the electoral system have been a constant feature of every election cycle in Kenya.
The script goes like this: As the general election approaches, the opposition’s request to change the level playing field is rejected by those in power. After a season of violent confrontations between the police and reform-minded activists-in the final cycle, on the Monday after the weekly protests convened by the opposition, these were called Maandamano (demonstrations)- —Politicians pieced together a series of “minimal reforms” at the last minute.
However, these changes have little effect on improving the credibility of subsequent polls or preventing conflicts. In their aftermath, the traumatized country denied politics and buried unresolved problems, just to refresh their spirits and trouble the next election cycle.
For a time, the unprecedented bloodshed accompanying the 2007 election shocked the whole country. After the international mediator led by the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan vowed not to return to “the original state”, Kenyans established a series of committees to investigate the root causes of the cycle of violence, including a respected Led by former South African judge Johann Kriegler.
However, this moment passed quickly. More than a decade later, many of the safeguards recommended by the committee have not yet been implemented.
The recent election controversy highlights the fact that the current system fails to meet the constitutional requirements of simple, verifiable, and transparent elections, and even if laws exist, they are often ignored and impunity.
A good example is the presidential election in August 2017, which was cancelled, partly because most judges of the Supreme Court agreed with the Independent Election and Boundary Commission (IEBC), the body responsible for organizing voting, behaving like the Constitution and national legislation “does not exist”.
In that election, Chairman Uhuru Kenyatta re-elected a month after a dubious re-election, and he boycotted the second poll and made himself swear an oath like a “President of Man,” his competitors united and promised End the specter of violence and split elections.
However, they did not try to do this by implementing the recommendations of the Krigler Committee. Instead, they tried to amend the constitution through the “Bridge Building Initiative” (BBI) to impose their agenda on Kenyans, which is currently being stopped by the court for threatening the basic structure of the highest law.
In fact, if Kenya wants to guarantee its elections, it needs to make some common-sense changes to the Constitution and laws. But this is not what Kenyatta and Odinga are after. For example, according to the current law, any challenge to the presidential election must be raised within one week and can only be decided by the Supreme Court, which has only two weeks to hear and decide.
In 2013, when Odinga challenged Kenyatta’s presidential election for the first time, the 14-day limit was mostly used to sue IEBC to obtain the documents he needed to prove his situation. When he filed a lawsuit, the court basically rejected his hearing, ruling that Kenyatta’s lawyers did not have enough time to respond to the 900-page lawsuit, and there was not enough time for the judge to make a deliberate decision.
So far, the parliament has not passed a law mandating the IEBC to use such documents promptly and freely when requested, and the BBI did not include a proposal to increase court processing time. This was the case of former Chief Justice Willie Mutunga. Indicates that it is necessary.
Obviously, the political class in Kenya is not particularly interested in free and fair elections that reflect and safeguard the will of the voters. What they want is an election they can manipulate. Sadly, many people think that electoral reform is a way to improve their ability to steal elections while denying that their opponents have the same ability.
However, for the rest of Kenya, electoral reform is a matter of life and death. Given that the Krigler Committee recommends any reforms at least two years before the vote, it may be too late for any comprehensive reforms before the 2022 general election. However, it is time to get up from the deep sleep, fix the things that can be solved, and make up my mind never to go back to sleep.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.