Kenyan president signs controversial election bill into law

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Dec. 12, 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Khalil

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed a controversial election amendment into law on Monday, requiring back-up plans to count votes if electronic voting systems fail during the election in August, according to media reports.

The amendment would allow the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to come up with a back-up plan, but did not specifically say that plan would include a manual count, according to Reuters. Opponents say that manual counts have been used in the past to rig elections, and fear that this change is opening that door.

Raila Odinga, a presidential candidate and leader of the opposing Coalition for Reforms and Democracy party, lost the 2013 election after electronic voter identification systems run by the election commission failed. Odinga is a staunch opponent to the new law.

The latest move comes on the heels of a failed effort in December by the Kenyan government to close down a USAID-funded election monitoring program. The High Court temporarily blocked the move. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a $20 million election monitoring program, is a civic education project that aims to boost election transparency and voter engagement. The election monitoring program has provided support and training to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission since 2011 to prevent a repeat of the violence seen after the 2007 election.

“The major political blocs are engaged in grandstanding over the rules of the game – the specific functions of the electoral commission, whether or not the electronic register should have a manual back-up,” Ken Opalo, assistant professor at Georgetown University, told Humanosphere.

Opalo fears that violence – which has marred the country’s previous two elections – will occur once again if protesters take to the streets once more. 

“There are fears that the opposition might actually go ahead and call for street protests and these will most likely be violent,” Opalo said.

In 2007 the presidential election results were called into question over claims that votes were rigged; 1,200 people died in ethnic conflict during several weeks of protests.

The cycle of violence ahead of the election started in May last year. Protests, led by Odinga, erupted after claims that the Kenyatta had packed the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission full of pro-government committee members.

The protests escalated, and violence erupted between Odinga’s supporters and police forces, which were criticized by Kenyan human rights groups. Five people died, leading the government to ban opposition protests.

Last month Kenyatta claimed that the the election monitoring projects were tools by the international community to influence the election, according to the Daily Nation. Kenyatta argued that they were tantamount to regime change.

“In the United States, following the last election, much has been said about potential foreign interference with the electoral process,” Kenyatta said in a Daily Nation report. “We are also going into elections next year. There is already money coming into Kenya from abroad in the guise of supporting good governance or civic education.”

A statement from the U.S. Embassy to Kenya rebutted those claims.

“To be clear, we do not provide electoral assistance to any organization, governmental or non-governmental, to influence the election results for any side, political party, or candidate,” according to a joint statement from the heads of the mission in Kenya.

In a separate statement on the embassy’s website, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec argued that USAID had been invited by the Kenyan government.

“Our assistance was requested by the Government of Kenya and the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), adheres strictly to Kenyan law and regulations, and is provided under careful oversight by the Government of Kenya, IEBC and USAID,” Godec said in the statement.

Human rights groups are casting wary eyes on government elections maneuvers.

“General statements demonizing Kenya’s civil society engaging in carrying out civic education programs to prepare Kenyans for the 2017 elections are unfortunate and unnecessary,” said Isaac Okero, president of The Law Society of Kenya, in a statement published in the Daily Nation.

Otsieno Namwaya, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Humanosphere that the Kenyan government has been particularly hostile toward NGOs working on election-related issues.

“Our concern has been with regard to the kind of hostility that the Kenyan government has this far exhibited against organizations working around election-related issues. Other than [International Foundation for Electoral Systems], the government has recently also targeted the Kenya Human Rights Commission,” Namwaya said.

The Kenyan Human Rights Commission is an NGO that promotes civic and democratic rights, and has been spearheading Kura Yangu Sauti Yangu initiative, which is a joint civil society campaign for a free and fair election in 2017.

“The government’s actions point firstly to its nagging urge to close civic space since 2013 and, secondly, a worrying trend that could reflect negatively on the quality of the anticipated elections,” Namwaya said.

 

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com