Two weeks ago, youthful Uhuru Kenyatta took the oath of office as the third president of Kenya after a paper-thin victory in a fresh test of democracy in the East Africa’s largest economy.
Coming five years after post-poll bloodshed claimed over 1 200 lives, the election of the 52-year-old addition to a predominantly grey-haired league of African leaders on March was a make-or-break vote that could go one of two ways: either sinking the East African country back to the bloody days when Kenyans began killing one another over disputed results of 2007 elections or set the country firmly on the path of healing the wounds.
This time, the country opted for nation-building. Notwithstanding pockets of resistance and clashes when the Supreme Court in Nairobi upheld Kenyatta’s triumph in a case bordering on runner-up Raila Odinga’s objection, the peaceful mood affirms that Kenyans looked back and realised the bloodbath was no place anyone wanted to return to.
But to make Kenya’s success an African story, other countries must embrace it as a practical lesson on how to cement participation, tolerance and credible elections as pillars of democracy. Malawi, with its first-ever tripartite elections next year, is no exception.
Polls on trial
On a continent where dissatisfied parties regularly take the law in their hands, the son of Kenya’s former president Jomo Kenyatta is not only a poster face of an emerging youthful force contending for decision-making positions long held by overage politicians. This image is vivid in photographs of Kenyatta’s meeting with his father’s successor Daniel Arap Moi early this month. In the local context, the picture could be likened to United Democratic Front (UDF) candidate Atupele Muluzi, 35, standing in the shadow of Malawi Congress Party (MCP) two-time contender John Tembo and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) aspirant Peter Mutharika who will have over 150 years between them when the Malawians go to polls in 2014.
Besides, Kenyatta’s rise also exemplifies the victory of rule of law over mob think and tribal conspiracies. When Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission (IECB) announced him the winner with 50.7 percent of the vote, Odinga and his supporters did not resort to the law of the jungle. Instead, the former prime minister challenged the narrow defeat in court on March 6, alleging widespread ballot rigging.
“I am not challenging the election outcome because I am determined to be declared president, but I realised that to do otherwise would be a betrayal of the new constitution and democracy given the malpractices,” said Odinga who claims to have been robbed of victory by anomalies in the election that triggered tribal dispute five years ago.
Criticised for furthering uncertainty, the peaceful recourse, however, is courts have ample time to resolve electoral disputes before the winner is sworn in.
On the contrary, the Malawi Electoral Commission (EC) has mastered a prohibitive tendency of announcing official results on the eve of the swear-in ceremony lately. This sparks violent scenes like those witnessed in 1999 and 2004.
Like Malawi, Kenya is grappling with a boom of political parties like Malawi’s. Press reports show it has trimmed the number of registered political parties from 160 in 2007 to just over 50.
Ballot papers show eight candidates were vying to succeed president Mwai Kibaki in the country which had over 100 political parties during last poll, but the BBC billed Odinga of Coalition of Reforms and Democracy (Cord) and Kenyatta of Jubilee Alliance—scions of long-standing political dynasties—frontrunners.
The fact that political lords who usually shove one another like chaotic matatus (public transport system) of Nairobi once more accepted came together to form coalitions amplifies the necessity to lessen vote-splitting tendencies similar to those that elevated former leader Bingu wa Mutharika to presidency with a 36 percent of the votes Malawians cast in 2004.
Ahead of next year’s tripartite elections, political scientist Mustafa Hussein in the Weekend Nation last month urged Malawian political heavyweights to consider forming alliances to avoid dividing the presidential vote.
“Alliances would work for 2014 elections because there is stiff competition among the parties. You have parties like DPP, PP and UDF scrambling for people in the Southern Region,” said the academic based at Chancellor College.
He argued: “With many parties which seem to have equal strength on the ground, they will share almost the same votes, thus leaving a small gap between the winner and the losers as was the case in 2004.”
Malawians have been talking about alliances since the June 1993 Referendum when pioneer parties, UDF and its cousin Alliance for Democracy (Aford), championed the end of the one-party ‘life presidency’ of founding president Kamuzu Banda. But the calls fall on the rocks. Reactions to Hussein’s recent remarks rightly put this in context.
“We have the numbers, strength, resources and staff we can bring together to win 2014 elections singlehandedly,” PP secretary general told Weekend Nation last month.
Similarly, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) administrative secretary Potiphar Chidaya argued they are “a government in waiting” and cannot partner a party that has what they want.
Where unity is strength, this fixation to go it alone could be a potent recipe for another minority government.
Quest for peace
As the world is celebrating the return of normalcy to fragile parts of Kenya, Malawians might be happy calling themselves a ‘peace-loving nation’. However, the riots that followed last month’s arrests of DPP cadres, including its self-styled presidential candidate Peter Mutharika, show a culture of violence that may mar upcoming election of the next president, MPs and councillors if left unchecked.
Rather than embracing the party leadership’s opportunity to prove their innocence in a case involving widespread suspicion that they were conspiring to hijack the throne following the death of Mutharika, supporters of the former ruling party descended on the streets in Blantyre and Lilongwe, wreaking havoc in marketplaces, courts and police stations while law enforcement agents looked on.
Malawians looked back at similar sights in the past 15 years when what started as popular protests against the capitulation of MCP-Aford alliance torchbearer Gwanda Chakuamba led to the displacement of people, destruction of homes, looting of shops and burning of mosques in the Northern Region.
The 1999 violent scenes, like those that cost 10-year-old Epiphania Bonjesi’s life in 2004, were on a much smaller scale than the nationwide bloodletting that followed the ill-fated polls in Kenya five years ago, but they were enough to justify the formation of National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) to entrench a spirit of democracy in the country.
On its website, the EC commits to conduct voter and civic education not only for credible, inclusive, free and fair elections but also ensuring peaceful polls.
In January, EC commissioner, Anglican Archbishop emeritus Bernard Malango, told the nation the body is geared to make the 2014 tripartite elections a “model for other countries”. But the East African example shows poll success does not happen by chance.
Kenya’s Guardian on Sunday attributes the scenes of early 2008 to a “weak electoral commission, insufficient civic education, unlike presently”.
The EC and its network must direct all energy towards encouraging people to vote in peace and in large numbers. Due to intensified awareness, the IEBC reports that over 86 percent of the registered voters in Kenya turned up to cast their votes despite fiery memories of the 2008 scenes.
In its 2009 civic and voter strategy currently under review, the commission underscores the importance of civic and voter education to minimise voter apathy as well as null and void votes.
With demarcation of wards underway and an electoral calendar in the making, anxiety is building up among electoral support groups, with Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) coordinator in Zomba Diocese, Joseph Nthondo echoing the need for speedy accreditation of organisations to conduct sensitisation campaigns.
“Delays will affect the electoral process because many people need to know the voting process for tripartite elections,” argued Nthondo.
The onus is on the EC to offset the pessimism loaded in such statements and those in opposition of the use of biometric registration process aborted last month.