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What Will the Future of Kenya Look Like? Nanjala Nyabola on 2022 Disputed Election, Drought & More

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Kenya is facing a political crisis following last week’s presidential election, with the apparent runner-up rejecting the results of the vote and the apparent president-elect announcing plans to form a new government. We speak with Nairobi-based writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola, who says the Kenyan elections yield “terrible candidates,” with the most recent election results following a decades-long tradition of election interference and miscommunication. “There’s always been a reason to doubt the results,” says Nyabola. She also discusses how the digital age has uplifted election systems like Kenya’s as examples of how to thwart democracy for the West, and the impact of the drought in the Horn of Africa, where the United States says more than 18 million people are facing severe hunger.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Kenya is facing a political crisis following last week’s presidential election. On Monday, the chair of Kenya’s election commission announced Deputy President William Ruto had won the election after winning 50.5% of the vote. But four of the seven members on the election commission have disavowed Ruto’s victory and are critiquing how the votes were counted. The apparent runner-up, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, has asked Kenya’s Supreme Court to challenge the results.

RAILA ODINGA: The figures announced by Mr. Chebukati are null and void and must be quashed by a court of law. In our view, there is neither a legally and validly declared winner nor a president-elect.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, U.S. Senator Chris Coons met with both presidential candidates, as well as Kenya’s outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta. Coons said he urged Kenyatta to support a, quote, “peaceful transition of power.” Kenyatta has not yet commented publicly about the election results. On Wednesday, the apparent president-elect, William Ruto, said he plans to move forward on forming a new government.

PRESIDENT-ELECT WILLIAM RUTO: I want to say that — this afternoon, to ask all of us, as leaders in Kenya, to learn from the people of Kenya, who have settled on the issues. They now want us to deliver on the commitments that we gave the people of Kenya. And I want to say to this team that we do not have the luxury of time to waste.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Nairobi, Kenya, to speak with the Kenyan writer and analyst Nanjala Nyabola. Her new piece in The Nation magazine is headlined “The Kenyan Kakistocracy: What are we supposed to do when the electoral system consistently yields terrible candidates?” — was the headline. Nyabola is also the author of the book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era Is Transforming Politics in Kenya. Nyabola begins by writing, quote, “If you’ve noticed an eerie silence coming from the direction of Kenya, it’s because many of us are struggling to believe that what the news is telling us has happened.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Nanjala. Can you talk to a global audience now about this presidential election in Kenya and why so many are questioning the results?

NANJALA NYABOLA: I think it’s not so much that people are questioning the results, but people are questioning the outcome of the results. And that’s an important nuance just because of the history of Kenyan elections. We’ve had very heavily contested elections for the last 30 years, starting in 1992, and there’s always been a reason to doubt the results because of interference by the electoral commission, by the people who are in power. And, you know, the one that — the round that people might be most familiar with, the 2007 round, that led to violence, there’s — elections have just always come under a cloud of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, intimidation, the electoral commission not rising to the occasion, results being interfered with.

And so there was a great deal of expectation, really, that after six cycles — as I said, beginning in 1992 — that the electoral commission might be able to deliver a result that wasn’t shrouded in, you know, a lack of understanding or lack of clarity, as it were. I think at this particular point it’s not so much people that are questioning the results, although the opposition certainly is and is well within their rights to question the results if they’re not satisfied with them. I think it’s the disbelief that after all of this time, these were the options that were put before voters and that the person who actually has been declared the winner is a person who has such a cloudy history. And what does that actually hold for the country?

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you tell us about the two men who are vying for the presidency? I mean, William Ruto has announced he’s won. He is the former deputy president. He’s also been indicted by the International Criminal Court. And then there’s Raila Odinga, who, what, has run for the presidency five times. He got 48.9%, apparently. William Ruto got 50.5%. Tell us about each person.

NANJALA NYABOLA: Well, both of these men have been in politics for a long time. Odinga is obviously the son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was one of the leaders of the independence movement in Kenya, was in politics since 1960 and, in many ways, sort of seen to have been cheated out of his opportunity to rise to power by his chosen ideology. He was a socialist. And at the time, in the 1960s, in Africa, in the context of the Cold War and proxy wars, being a socialist was seen as an unacceptable politics in this part of the world. And so there was always this history of what would have been, if Odinga had been given the chance, sort of going all the way into the 1990s, and Raila, as his son, inheriting this expectation and inheriting this idea of what could have been if Kenya had chosen a different path.

On the other side of the equation, you have William Ruto, who was hand-picked for power by the former President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, the late Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, sort of groomed into politics from 1992 all the way until the present.

Both men have been in different political parties in the different election cycles, sort of have switched sides from government to opposition depending on who was in power, have never really gone head to head — in fact, were on the same side, the same ballot, of the ballot in 2007, were same side of the election, had a rupture come from the 2007 post-election violence, and sort of have now found themselves on opposite sides. And if anything, the story of these two men really tells a story about how fluid Kenyan politics has been in the last 30 years, that it’s very difficult to pin issues, and it’s very difficult to pin ideologies on individuals, and instead what we’ve seen is this elite contestation between all of these groups, all of these individuals, trying to navigate their personalities, trying to sort of grasp for power around each other.

Both men certainly have a checkered political past, as I said, both implicated in cycles of election violence, different cycles of election violence, both implicated in very questionable political choices, certainly over the last five years. We’ve seen what we call the handshake, this compromise between Raila and Uhuru Kenyatta, who obviously was Ruto’s boss as president — Ruto is deputy president — sort of forcing this realignment between these characters.

And long story short is that there’s multiple levels of contestation happening here. There is obviously the personality contestation, but there is also the elite compact and the rupture of the elite compact between these two men. And voters are being put in a position where you have to choose between people who maybe don’t rise to the standards of ethics and values that you would want in a national leader.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that William Ruto has been indicted by the International Criminal Court, explain why.

NANJALA NYABOLA: Well, the 2007 election cycle was probably the most hotly contested election in Kenyan history. And in that particular cycle, Raila Odinga won, in terms of — we had a parliamentary system — ended up with the most number of members of Parliament. And logically, you would assume that that would then have him come out as president. Instead, what happened was that there was a lot of questions with the electoral results, a very sort of ham-fisted effort at altering the results of that particular election cycle, and we end up with his opponent being declared president.

When that happened on December 29th of 2007, the immediate outcome was people taking to the streets in protest, and the reprisals by the police sort of leading into this very tense beginning of 2008 for Kenyans, but then that sort of escalating into violence, and specifically ethnic violence, in different parts of the country, shutting down the country. It was the biggest political crisis in independent Kenyan history, certainly since 1982, the attempted coup of 1982.

And when the crisis happened, the agreement was basically that, between the two parties, if they didn’t come together and sign a peace agreement, that they would hand over the names of the six people who they believed were most culpable for the violence — Kofi Annan, who was the mediator, that he would hand over those names to the International Criminal Court. And they didn’t come to an agreement in time, and Annan handed over those names to the International Criminal Court. And so we had a wave of indictment comings down, including William Ruto and former president — now former President Uhuru Kenyatta.

And so, it’s this cloud that’s been hanging over Ruto’s politics since then, because the ICC sort of, according to their assessment of the case, didn’t so much annul the case as they stopped proceeding with the case because it was too dangerous for the witnesses. It was too dangerous. There was too much political interference. There was too much interference in the background. And that is why the ICC decided not to proceed with that particular case. And so, it’s been a cloud that’s sort of hovered over Ruto’s political career.

But it doesn’t seem to have affected his performance with certain constituencies this time around. And I think that’s kind of what raises the question about what the future of Kenya is going to look like, which is, the cloud hasn’t gone away. It’s still very much present. It’s still very much an unresolved question. What does Kenya look like in the aftermath?

AMY GOODMAN: Has the whole Trump phenomenon in the United States — the insurrection, the violence, the questioning of the election — had an effect on Kenya?

NANJALA NYABOLA: If anything, I would say the linearity is in the other direction, because a lot of the practices that we’re seeing being deployed in the political contests of the United States were tried and tested and implemented in other parts of the world first, and sort of there’s a reverse learning that’s happening in that particular direction.

I give the example in my book about Cambridge Analytica, you know, Cambridge Analytica being involved in the election of Trump and in the manipulation, sort of what we’re calling the post-truth politics. Well, that’s a company that’s been active in Kenya since 2011 and was active in the 2013 election in Kenya and sort of refining its social media practices, its social media messaging, framing, etc., in developing countries first, before deploying them in developed countries and wealthier countries subsequently.

I think that what we’re seeing when we see, for example, former President Trump threatening to run again for president and saying, you know, one of his promises is to execute drug dealers, I mean, that is something that comes from Duterte in the Philippines, and that is an electoral promise that he made, that he ascended into power with that populist vote, to execute drug dealers in the Philippines.

And so, you know, we tend to have this idea that things happen in the West, and then the rest of the world learns about it and adapts to it. But actually, with the rise of the digital age, it’s actuallly the inverse, that populist leaders are refining these practices in countries that have a less stringent legal context and a less stringent civic context, and once the practices are refined, they then get picked up by populist leaders in wealthier countries. Anti-immigrant sentiment, you know, xenophobic sentiment and all of these sentiments then become the weapons for populist leaders in wealthier countries.

And I think what Trump has done and what the ascendance of Trump has done, really, it’s that it’s normalized certain rhetoric that if you want a healthy civic space, you wouldn’t want that rhetoric normalized. And it’s created an opportunity for authoritarian — what I call authoritarian entrepreneurship, where people are — we’re seeing these alliances forming between these populist leaders, because they feel like there’s space for it in international discourse, that really wasn’t tolerated before the ascendance of Trump. And I think we’re seeing — we’re going to see, unfortunately, a lot more of that happening down the road.

AMY GOODMAN: And your term, the Kenyan kakistocracy?

NANJALA NYABOLA: It’s governance by the worst and governance by the most unscrupulous. And it’s governance by people who most people wouldn’t even be proud to associate with on a personal level, but sort of ceding the political space to them.

When you look at the ballot choices in Kenya, we actually had a lot of really great candidates who didn’t make it onto the ballot because of the way in which the thresholds, the qualification thresholds, are interpreted to disqualify people who maybe don’t have the financial resources, maybe don’t have the access to government, maybe don’t have the pedigree, the political pedigree, that the most known or the most branded, well-branded candidates do, but have ideas and have policies and have a vision of how they want the country to be run. But those people don’t make it onto the ballot. Instead, because we’re living in this era of misinformation, disinformation, branding — you know, politicians as a brand, and politics as spectacle and entertainment, instead of life-or-death decision-making — it’s the people who can play the brand games the best that make it onto the ballot. And to me, that’s how you end up with a kakistocracy, not the people who are the best, but the people who speak the best and who can package themselves the best.

AMY GOODMAN: Nanjala, finally, I wanted to ask you about the drought in the Horn of Africa, where the United Nations says more than 18 million people are facing severe hunger. This includes over 4 million people living in Kenya’s north. And if you can also address your view of Russia’s war with Ukraine? We just reported in headlines that the U.N. secretary-general went to Odessa to make sure that the grain shipments are allowed to leave the southern port. And, of course, that directly links. Just a few days ago, the first grain shipment to Africa was allowed out.

NANJALA NYABOLA: Well, I think there’s two separate things that are happening there, even though there is a connection between them. I think, in terms of drought, this is the fifth failed rainy season in this region — the fifth consecutive failed rainy season in this region. And that is a question of climate change. That is a question of compounding what was already a dry area. Most of Kenya’s landmass, 67% of the country’s landmass, is what we call arid and semiarid, so not quite desert, but not enough rainfall for it certainly to sustain a forest or something like that. And because of this continuous — they’re coming much more frequently and much shorter space in between them. The rainy seasons are failing. Food insecurity is certainly a growing problem. And we’re expecting, if nothing changes between now and the end of the year — for example, people are bracing themselves for a declaration of famine, certainly in Somalia, and how that will affect some of the people in the driest and the most precarious regions of the country.

I think, with the conflict in Russia, the bigger question was people who are dependent not just on grain imports, but on food — you know, food distributions that are coming from especially organizations like the World Health Organization, the food aid organizations. And, of course, that has implications for Somalia, as well. Kenya doesn’t import a lot of grain from Russia or from Ukraine. We do import a lot of maize, for example, from Mexico, from Uganda and from other parts of the world. More broadly, it’s food insecurity in the world sort of affecting food distribution everywhere and sort of triggering a kind of race for whatever meager supplies will come into play.

I think, for me, personally, I am more concerned — or, not more concerned, but certainly concerned about the politics of it all and the politics of using food as a bargaining chip, international conflict. What kind of future are we setting ourselves up for, what kind of discourse are we setting up ourselves for, if we don’t actually speak out against this particular practice? Because, unfortunately, like I said in my piece, the world is not in a good place, and a lot of issues are going to come up in the next five years. And if we can’t get the kind of leadership that prevents this kind of strong-arming and use of food in the conflict context, what are we setting — what kind of future are we setting ourselves up for?

AMY GOODMAN: Nanjala Nyabola, we want to thank you so much for being with us, writer, political analyst, speaking to us from Nairobi, Kenya. We’ll link to your piece in The Nation, “The Kenyan Kakistocracy: What are we supposed to do when the electoral system consistently yields terrible candidates?” She’s the author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era Is Transforming Politics in Kenya.

Coming up, we go to the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces have raided the offices of seven Palestinian civil society groups. Stay with us.

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