Humanosphere is on hiatus. Many thanks to our web design, development and hosting partner Culture Foundry for keeping the site active while we plan our next move. Culture Foundry builds, evolves and supports next-level websites and applications for clients you know, and you couldn’t ask for a better partner to help you thrive in digital. If you’re considering an ambitious website design or development project, we encourage you to make them your very first call.

Kenya Decides: It’s About Much More than Tribal Politics

Voting Kenya

Will it be Odinga or Kenyatta? By now, millions of Kenyans have completed voting for their next president – some of them having done so at personal risk or after waiting hours in long lines.

Kenyans know already how important it is that this election, unlike the one in 2007, go well. Unfortunately, it’s not as widely recognized outside Kenya why this election is of global significance.

US Media Tells Only Part of the Picture

The most casual observers are well aware of the violence that followed the 2007 presidential elections. It matters, but the reasons are not being explained well. Violence is the story that leads just about any coverage about Kenya’s election. (Here’s a sarcastic ‘report’ by a Kenya newspaper, the Daily Nation, of foreign journalists preparing to mount their own attacks on each other in order to have stories of violence….)

Mentions of machetes are all but required and the cause is boiled town to tribalism. Recent fighting in areas like Turkana in the north and the Tana River region near the cost are held up as examples of what may come. This map documents the fighting that has been documented in Kenya by the UN since last January.


The problems in the most disputed regions have less to do with the elections themselves than with the lack of an adequate solution to mediate claims between different groups over land and resources. Just because there was fighting along tribal lines after the 2007 election and there is tribal fighting in parts of Kenya does not mean that the two are related, let alone drive entirely by tribalism. Some of the problems that contributed to the post-election violence in 2007 have yet to be resolved. By most accounts corruption, especially rampant petty corruption by police, persists. Furthermore, the very leaders who are running for office are facing criminal trials at the International Criminal Court.

The ICC and Justice

A peace and power-sharing deal ended the fighting in 2008 and established Raila Odinga as Prime Minister of Kenya. The newly formed government was tasked to bring to justice the people guilty of planning and supporting the fighting. A national debate over whether to refer the criminals to the ICC or to form a local justice mechanism carried on through most of 2009. The lead investigator held on to a mysterious list of individuals accused of crimes and ultimately turned it over to the ICC. The names of the list were eventually revealed. Included on it were prominent politicians including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto.

Three years after the names were announced, the proceedings are underway at the ICC for crimes against humanity. Both Kenyatta and Ruto are to appear before the court to stand trial for the charges.

Tribalism and Post-Election Violence

This election is different. First of all, President Kibaki cannot run for office. In 2007, the evidence pointed towards challenger Ralia Odinga beating Kibaki. Early poll data showed this to be the case, but Kibaki was declared the winner. A dispute over stealing the elections played a significant role in the fighting between supporters of the two candidates. Though that is still far too simple of a story. Tribal differences were a factor in addition to long term divisions made through political coalition building, the ruling style of autocrat Daniel Moi, poverty, government corruption and more.

The major political players have formed new alliances. Kenyatta and Ruto come from two of the tribes that fought against each other five years ago. They now share the same ticket. A series of electoral reforms and a new constitution are in place to ensure that the election results are fair. One example includes the implementation of a new electronic voting system that is similar to what was used in Ghana last year.

Democracy in East Africa

Kenya’s electoral process has grown leaps and bounds in five years. An open election has allowed for more candidates to compete on a large stage. The very first presidential debates were held and broadcast through radio and television across the country. Thanks to some last minute changes, all eight of the major candidates appeared on the same stage. Kenyan citizens were provided the opportunity to hear the ideas of each person side by side. Twitter was extremely active as Kenyan citizens and members of the diaspora participated in discussions about the debate in real time.

Participation is high and it is evident in the reports and comments today regarding voting.

The polls were supposed to open at 6AM this morning and people were already lined up before that time. Some reportedly waited seven hours to vote after lining up first thing in the morning. When reporters ask people about waiting in line, the responses have largely been about the desire to participate and vote.

What Comes Next?

A lot will depend on voter turn out. Despite reports of people waiting in long lines, it is hard to account for how many people did not line up at all. The Election Observation Group posted on its Facebook page some of its initial findings during the opening of the polls this morning (collected by VOA).

99.4% of polling stations had all the necessary materials for voting
99.6% of polling stations had security officers present
8% of polling stations either did not have an electronic poll book or the electronic poll book failed
95.6% of ballot boxes were shown to be empty before being sealed
59.7% of polling stations opened on time (before 6:15)

National polling indicated that Kenyatta was just ahead of Odinga for the first round, but may not be able to carry the necessary 50% of the vote to avoid a run off. If there is no clear winner, the top two will face off once again and the cycle of reporting and information will keep going.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]