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Kenya’s Electoral Violence: Conditions, Challenges, and Opportunities

People walking past a wall of election campaign posters in Narok County, Kenya in the run-up to the national elections taking place in August 2017.

With presidential and legislative elections coming up for August 9, Kenyan politicians and ordinary citizens are bracing for what is already a contentious election season. As dynastic-heir President Uhuru Kenyatta steps down and his former ally William Ruto and former enemy Raila Odinga now compete against each other, the 2022 elections offer a renewed challenge and opportunity for Kenya's security and democracy. This short memo proposes to the Kenyan police service two concrete initiatives to implement alone or in concert to reduce the risk of election violence. In particular, 1) better policing of campaign rallies and 2) better protection of members of the judiciary.

Historical Challenges

With multiple successful election cycles since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 1992, Kenyan democracy has stood as an example in a region riven by conflict and personalistic, illiberal administrations. But structural and political barriers to fully free and fair elections have become apparent over the years, particularly in the 2007-2008 post-election violence that claimed the lives of over 1,100 Kenyans and displaced another 650,000. Violence, ethnic tension, and accusations of police abuse and vote rigging have marred Kenya's democratic exercises, even in the relatively stable 2002 and 2013 elections.

The 2010 constitution tried to address these divisions, calling for community consultation and stronger checks and balances. But in the 2017 election standoff between President Uhuru Kenyatta and rival Raila Odinga, over 100 Odinga supporters are believed to have been killed by pro-establishment actors. Kenyatta and Odinga reconciled in 2018 and agreed on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to expand the executive and supposedly make elections more "fair," but the Nairobi High Court struck it down as illegal, and its opponents saw BBI as weakening the inclusivity and accountability laid out in the 2010 constitution. This initiative has ironically become another polarizing factor.

Driving Factors

This propensity for political violence comes from multiple places. First, Kenya's winner-take-all electoral system creates high-stakes, zero-sum contests between political factions. Second, these political factions competing for highly competitive seats largely delineate along ethnic lines. This is partly due to politicians who rely on hate speech and identity politics as the basis for patronage and mobilization. The pre-1992 regime of former President Daniel arap Moi, which intentionally played ethnic groups against each other to maintain power contributed to a pattern of ethnicity based politics.   But the main institutional driver of such ethnic fractionalization is the strategy of political zoning, whereby local elites essentially shut opposition candidates out of campaigning in certain areas, creating echo chambers and clear antagonism between regions. Additionally, Kenya has a reputation for aggressive and overly-militarized security forces, which have often been unleashed on political opponents during these contentious election seasons.

As a result of violence, corruption, and political engineering, public faith in elite politics, security forces, and election integrity has been significantly weakened. Disinformation has risen in recent years, further consolidating and radicalizing the various factions. Though Kenya's judiciary has strengthened its independence and handed establishment forces several key defeats in recent years, judges still face tangible threats of violence. This was evidenced by the successful fear campaign against the Supreme Court in 2017 when the justices were intimidated away from hearing a constitutional challenge to a second election that Odinga boycotted and essentially guaranteed Kenyatta's victory.

Present Challenges

Although it has much to be proud of, Kenya's democratic leadership stands out in relative terms to rather unstable and authoritarian neighbors; and its security, electoral, and justice institutions must remain ever vigilant against the system's propensity for violence and polarization. President Kenyatta may be stepping down, but he has thrown the weight of his Jubilee Party faction behind Odinga, antagonizing his own Deputy President and former-heir apparent William Ruto. This election will face many of the same historical challenges, as the political turmoil from the BBI and President Kenyatta's about-face towards Odinga are manifesting in a heated electoral season.

Candidates are already stirring up ethnic and factional hatred while making allegations of institutional bias and police inaction. Ruto has accused the police of simply standing by while political factions skirmish at his campaign stops, particularly at his events in the Odinga-dominated western regions. He is also calling for international observers to pay attention to this violence, even as he himself has had to apologize for hate speech at his rallies. Although Odinga has distanced himself from such violence, and Kenyatta has called for the police to ignore political intimidation, this remains an important test for Kenya's police services to prove, not merely say, that they are impartial and dedicated to law and order. If this institution wants to be a leader in defending the democracy that garners Kenya regional and international respect, then it must take decisive action.

Policy Options

There are significant institutional hurdles to reform, but there are also tangible confidence-building measures that are within the grasp of Kenya's domestic security institutions. Two main avenues exist along which the police can shore up Kenyan democracy in the coming months. Corruption among local forces can be overcome through concerted guidance from national and regional police leaders and specialized units.

  • Policy 1:Taking proactive steps to separate rival factions and stop them from attacking each other at campaign events. Kenyan police officers have undergone specific training to respond to such violence, so this really is a matter of administrative will. This would build credibility and respect for the police, both among the public and opposition politicians. Getting between combatants might antagonize local party bosses engaging in their familiar political zoning tactics, but it will ultimately pay dividends in guaranteeing a fair election where the police can be viewed as protectors, not perpetrators.
  • Policy 2: Ensuring the safety of their colleagues in the judicial system. Strides in judicial independence have strengthened Kenyan democracy and international standing, even if they have angered many politicians. There cannot be a repeat of the 2017 fear campaign against Kenya's Supreme court, as the judicial system will undoubtedly play an important role in guaranteeing electoral fairness and legality this coming August. While the former policy may cause the police to conflict with local politicians, this latter policy may anger national leaders who have faced several key setbacks due to judicial decisions. However, this process of checks and balances is vital to a functioning democracy. Protecting the judicial colleagues that the police must collaborate with daily would be a highly beneficial policy in the long-term.


As one of the more stable democracies in the East African neighborhood, Kenyan institutions must approach each election cycle as an opportunity to continue to strengthen democracy and be a role model to other countries. By protecting two fundamental aspects of democracy — the judicial system and the right to campaign — the Kenyan police can overcome negative perceptions and live up to their mission ideals.

Stefan Bakumenko is an independent researcher from Washington, D.C, focusing on inclusive peacebuilding and equitable conflict resolution.

Photo credit: People walking past a wall of election campaign posters in Narok County, Kenya in the run-up to the national elections taking place in August 2017 by Stephen Butler/

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Stefan Bakumenko

Independent Researcher

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more