The Kenyan elections have come and gone. Although the losing presidential candidate challenged the outcome of the elections in the Supreme Court of Kenya, prayed the court to order a re-rerun, and failed. He decided to abide by the outcome while promising to pursue his protest in alternative ways that would not threaten the peace of the country. Ordinarily this should not call for comment. Challenging election results is not uncommon in jurisdictions that found the legitimacy of government on the consent of the governed expressed through the instrumentality of the vote. That this mode of choosing governors is not yet routine in Kenya and many other African countries is one reason that the recently concluded elections attract notice.
Of greater significance is the sharp contrast between what happened this time and the aftermath of the last time Kenyans went to the polls. More than 1,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands maimed and displaced and widespread destruction of property, were what greeted the outcome of the last Kenyan elections in late 2007 and early 2008. Then, as now, the same candidate, Raila Oginga Odinga, lost out in the presidential polls. The last time, mayhem broke out and this time, it has not. That it has not is part of what calls for comment.
The absence of a resort to violence is a signal feature of the slow but steady progress that African countries have been making in the last twenty plus years when it comes to the installation of liberal democratic regimes in the continent. It is necessary that we acknowledge, if not celebrate, this progress or, at least, chart it so that we have a benchmark for when there occur any regress.
In the specific Kenyan case, back in 2008, the opposition was convinced that the legal system was a farce; the Supreme Court was packed with cronies of the immediate past dictator of the country; and the part that the instrument of his misrule was the same part that had had victory awarded to it in the disputed elections. In case anyone thought that this perception was limited to the opposition, it is noteworthy that the parliament that was elected in that same election eventually invited the international community to intervene to try those suspected of master-minding the post-election violence at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Their reasoning: Kenya did not have the political and judicial wherewithal to investigate and bring to book those who had sponsored the violence.
Since the 2007 election, a number of Kenyan politicians, including both the president-elect and his running mate, have been indicted by the International Criminal Court and their trial is pending. Regardless of the sham accusation being leveled against the ICC for interference in Kenyan internal affairs, the effort to call to account those who caused mayhem makes the reign of impunity less attractive for African leaders in their conduct of public affairs in their countries. Simultaneously, it kindles in ordinary people the expectation that offenders against human dignity and rights would no longer go free.
Next, the Supreme Court of Kenya was reconstituted as were the rest of the higher courts. They were all subject to significant reforms towards ensuring that the judiciary stopped being an arm of the executive in all but name only. Finally, a new constitution was written and adopted in a referendum that made the phrase, ‘We the people’, ring true for most of the adult population of Kenya for the very first time in her post-independence history.
Does anyone want to suggest that the Kenyan people were not taking any notice of these seminal, salubrious developments? There is no more eloquent testimony of the heed that ordinary Kenyans pay to the altered political and legal landscapes than their willingness to, at least, allow their newly-minted impartial arbiters to do their work.
To grow the trust of African citizens in the institutions that govern their lives is the ultimate challenge that African countries have faced since colonialism ended and they received what was, at best, flag independence, and lack of practice at developing the requisite temperament for the practice of representative government. It is only now that, having lived and suffered under and held back by myriad forms of misrule—one-party autocracies, military dictatorships, misbegotten radical regimes—that cared nothing for the consent of the governed, Africans are more committed than ever before to ensuring that they only live under governments that they themselves have chartered with their votes, freely cast.
This is why I believe that the Kenyan elections merit comment. More important, still, Kenya is an exemplar of a trend that is discernible across the African continent. In 2008, the winner of the presidential election in Ghana won by a whisker. The losing candidate decided that four years was not too long to wait to unseat the winning party. Before new elections were held last December, the incumbent president died in office. He was routinely succeeded by his vice president who went on to win the presidential election for the ruling part. The losing candidate had issues with the outcome: he headed to court. There was no hint of any resort to self-help. In Zambia, in 2011, the incumbent president lost in his re-election bid. He routinely conceded defeat, lamenting: “we just did not reach the electorate this time around.” Might I add that his running mate, the current vice president of Zambia, is a white Zambian? Lastly, the people of Senegal in 2012 demonstrated the power of the ballot by throwing out of office an incumbent who manipulated the constitution and his handpicked Constitutional Court to declare himself eligible for an unconstitutional third term. The Senegalese people thought differently. In all the above cases, the usual expectation in the American media of descent into chaos was denied. Africa is finally on the move, democratically, that is.
There is no more evidence of the unacceptability of extra-constitutional rule in the continent than in the refusal of the African Union and the regional grouping, Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS], to accept military coups in Mali and Guinea Bissau, respectively. I conclude that we need to acknowledge the progress towards the entrenchment of liberal democratic tradition of organizing political life in the continent. I cannot wait for that day when elections in Kenya and other countries would have become so ordinary that analysis like this one would become superfluous.