Date: 05 May 2017

Disruption and violence in Kenya’s primaries bring uncertainty to the wider region

Potentially violent elections in August are raising concerns among the international community, given Kenya’s key regional roles as an economic powerhouse and in counter-terrorism efforts.
Kenya voting queue Credit: Flickr/afromusing

By Caitlin Vito, Coordinator, Office of the Director of Studies

Kenya’s August 2017 national elections represent a critical moment for the country to consolidate its democratic path. However, they also have the potential to generate instability and uncertainty, further exacerbating existing domestic tensions. The violence and accusations of fraud that have embroiled Kenya’s recent primary elections have not presented a promising start. Given the country’s recent history of violent elections, Kenyans are bracing for any potential fallout. The international community, which relies on Kenya as a key player in counter-terrorism, for security efforts in South Sudan, and as an economic powerhouse in east Africa, is also watching carefully.

Kenyans went to the polls on 13–30 April to elect the candidates that will represent the political parties in the national elections. If the primary elections are a precursor of what is to come in the national elections, then the coming period will be a rocky one for this east African country. Accusations of vote rigging abounded as reports emerged that pre-marked ballots had been found. There were also instances in which party members found themselves unable to vote because they were not listed on the party registers. Violent clashes erupted between rival political groups and led to numerous injuries, with reports that two people had been killed. These issues were compounded by basic logistical issues, such as delays in delivering voting materials to the right polling stations. The lack of organisation was such that the ruling Jubilee party cancelled its nominations nationwide and ordered new elections.

Looking beyond the difficulties of the primaries, doubt is already being cast on the validity of the national elections. The number of people on the voter registry has increased by 37% since the 2013 elections. Some politicians and members of civil society have voiced concerns over the registry being purposefully inflated to include dead people and fictitious entries in order to favour the ruling party. Concerns are also being raised that some sectors of the population are under-represented. KPMG, an international auditing firm, is currently conducting an audit of the voter registry, with results expected in mid-May.

The disruption and violence surrounding the 2017 primaries have brought back memories of the violence that gripped the country following the hotly contested 2007 national elections. More than 1,000 people were killed in the violence and more than half a million people were displaced. The ethnic violence that followed the 2007 elections led the International Criminal Court to charge current President Uhuru Kenyatta with crimes against humanity. These charges have since been dropped.

While many commentators do not predict the same level of violence as in 2007, they do see a certain level of violence as highly likely. The nervousness is such that the IMF has cut Kenya’s economic growth forecast for this year to 5.3%, in part amid investors’ fears of instability and violence in the lead-up to the August elections.

This uncertainty has broader implications for the international community. Through its membership of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Kenya has played a vital part in IGAD’s efforts to stabilise South Sudan. Kenya is an important international partner in the fight against transnational terrorism, particularly against the Somalia-based group al-Shabaab. On another critical front, Kenya’s economic strength makes it an important player in fuelling growth and development within the country and the wider region. Peace and stability in Kenya are vital if the country is to continue playing these key international roles. Furthermore, on a continent with a chequered past in democratic practice, Kenya’s elections will be an important marker for democracy in Africa and send signals to other African nations heading to the polls in 2017; these include Rwanda, Angola, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The disruption in the primaries by no means makes violence and uncertainty inevitable for the national elections. In fact, it is important to keep in mind that the 2013 national elections took place relatively peacefully. Nevertheless, the months leading up to and directly following the elections will be pivotal in shaping Kenya’s future and reaffirming its commitment to the democratic path. The international community has a direct stake in the elections and will be watching carefully.


This article is part of our content to accompany the launch of the Armed Conflict Survey 2017, which provides in-depth analysis of the key political, military and humanitarian developments and trends in all active armed conflicts, as well as data on fatalities, refugees and internally displaced persons. The Armed Conflict Survey launches at Arundel House on 9 May.

Back to content list