World Politics & Affairs

Kenya’s Election: Lessons from the Gambia

"Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, the two principal candidates who are vying for Presidency,"

Two members of the East African Community (EAC), Kenya and Rwanda, are poised to conduct their general elections on the 4th and the 8th of August, 2017 respectively. Kenya’s election has however garnered considerable international and regional interest compared to Rwanda’s election for various reasons.  

Firstly, Kenya is the EAC’s largest economy and the outcome of the election bears a lot of significance on the long-standing regional integration efforts. Secondly, the election comes a decade after the disgraceful spat of violence witnessed following the bungled general election in 2007 which resulted in the death of over 1000 people and about 600,000 internally displaced persons, much to the surprise of Kenyans and the international community at large.

It took the intervention of the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan and a team of eminent African persons including Graça Machel and Benjamin Mkapa to end the stalemate through mediation efforts that culminated in a power-sharing agreement between Hon. Mwai Kibaki, the then incumbent President of Kenya and Hon. Raila Odinga, the then leader of the opposition. Prior to this spectacle, Kenya was reputed as an oasis of peace and democracy in a tumultuous region ravaged by a genocide, coup d’états and civil wars.

Voting slip putting a cross in a box

Kenya since went on to conduct a peaceful election in 2013 in which Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta and William Samoei Ruto, who were then charged before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes related to Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007, were elected as President and Vice President against a backdrop of widespread claims of vote rigging and undue state interference in the electoral process.

Despite the relative peaceful conduct of these elections, there remains great apprehension that election-related violence might recur in the oncoming elections given the widespread mistrust of the electoral process by the general public considering the grave shortcomings of the defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya in 2007 and the subsequent tribulations faced by its successor, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in 2013 which eventually led to the replacement of IEBC commissioners following protests that castigated the IEBC officials of being prejudiced.

The reconstituted IEBC has similarly faced severe criticism over the legitimacy of its electoral processes both before the courts of law and the court of public opinion with increasing doubt as to its capacity to counter state interference and to deliver a credible election outcome. Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, the two principal candidates who are vying for Presidency, are arguably equally popular if recent opinion polls are to go by. The stakes are therefore very high in this election bearing in mind that in Kenya, no incumbent president has ever been defeated by the opposition due to what is commonly believed to be undue state interference in the election process.

In this respect, it could be postulated that Kenya’s democracy in terms of entrenching a culture of legitimate government transition has not been proved to date. This brings into question the role of the regional bodies especially the EAC and the African Union (AU) in ensuring a democratic power transition in Kenya should electoral integrity fail to materialize. Critical lessons can be learnt from the recent presidential election in the Gambia.

Gambia held its election on 1st December 2016 in which opposition leader Adama Barrow ousted the incumbent president Yahya Jahmeh, who initially accepted defeat only to later on recant his statement and decline to cede power to the President-elect. What followed was a series of events that ensured a peaceful power transition in the Gambia thus illustrating a maturing democratic practice in the West African region which is in many respects is lacking in the EAC Community region.

Following Yahya’s statement, the Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent a high level delegation which included regional heads of states including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia as the Chair, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria as the chief mediator, President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana as the Co-Mediator and President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone to mediate the political deadlock.

On 10th December 2016, the ECOWAS, the AU and the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) issued a joint statement requiring “the government of the Gambia to abide by its constitutional responsibilities and international obligations. It is fundamental that the verdict of the ballots should be respected…..…ECOWAS, the AU and the UN urge all Gambian stakeholders including the elected leadership, the armed forces, political parties and Civil Society Organizations to reject violence and peacefully uphold the will of the people as clearly expressed through the ballot box”.


When the mediation efforts proved unsuccessful, Senegal, another member state of the ECOWAS, called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to discuss the situation in the Gambia. The UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2337 (2017) which endorsed the decisions of ECOWAS and the African Union to recognize Mr. Adama Barrow as the President of the Gambia and called upon the countries in the region and the relevant regional organizations to cooperate with President Barrow in his efforts to realize the transition of power. The resolution further called on the Gambian defence and security forces to demonstrate maximum restraint and to maintain an atmosphere of calm in the Gambia and stressed their duty and obligation to place themselves at the disposal of the democratically elected authorities. On the same day, military troops from Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Togo surrounded the borders of The Gambia while Nigerian forces executed a naval blockade.

On 13th January 2016, the AU Peace and Security Council reiterated the inviolable nature of the outcome of the Gambia’s presidential elections and strongly reaffirmed the AU’s zero tolerance policy with regard to coup d’états and unconstitutional changes of government in Africa. The Council declared that, as of 19th January 2017, Yahya Jammeh would cease to be recognized by the AU as the legitimate President of the Republic of The Gambia and further warned the outgoing President of “serious consequences in the event that his action caused any crisis that could lead to political disorder, humanitarian and human rights disaster, including loss of innocent lives and destruction of properties”.

The threat of military invasion and mounting regional pressure eventually forced Yahya Jammeh to step down. The leadership of the ECOWAS and the AU essentially collaborated and employed the extensive legal mechanisms at their disposal to ensure the peaceful restoration of democracy in the Gambia. The political will of these West African leaders and their commitment to good governance and constitutionalism is disproportionately lacking in the EAC as was evidenced during the political impasse in Kenya following the election in 2007 where a majority of the EAC member states opted to keep off what they viewed as an “internal matter”. It took the intervention of the AU to restore normalcy in Kenya.

Despite EAC’s shortcomings, it is clear that the AU has progressively become zealous in employing mechanisms at its disposal to institutionalize democratic government transitions in its member states. The AU has a very elaborate legal framework for intervening in the event of political anarchy. The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance has a zero tolerance policy on unconstitutional change of government which is defined to include any refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party or candidate after free, fair and regular elections.

Further, the African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa requires member states to take all necessary measures and precautions to prevent the perpetration of fraud, rigging or any other illegal practices throughout the whole electoral process, in order to maintain peace and security. The various instruments spell out a myriad of sanctions that may be deployed by the AU against contravening member states including suspension of the said State Party from the exercise of its right to participate in the activities of the AU.

Should Kenya descend into a state of anarchy following the oncoming election, there is little doubt that the African Union and other regional bodies will take all measures necessary to ensure the rule of law is upheld and that a democratic power transition is realized.

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