Kenya goes to the polls on 8 August in hotly contested elections that could confirm the country as a consolidating democracy or see it lapse into political disorder. Kenya's story, and that of other sub-Saharan African states, has much to tell us about the prospects for new democracies around the world.
During the Arab Spring in North Africa, I was contacted regularly by journalists who all seemed to have the same question: when would sub-Saharan Africa follow suit; when would there be an African Spring. This question didn't actually make much sense to most of us who study the politics of the continent. Countries such as Kenya and Nigeria were not going to be inspired to have their own "Spring" by events further north because they went through this process many years ago.
As I tried to explain at the time, often with little success, sub-Saharan Africa had already revolted against the authoritarian political structures that dominated the continent since independence. The key years for this were the early 1990s. While most African states were military regimes or one-party systems in the late 1980s, by the early 2000s almost every sub-Saharan African country was holding multiparty elections of one form or another.
Given this, I argued that it didn't really make sense to look for the impact of North African politics further south in the continent. A much better idea was to ask what lessons sub-Saharan Africa could teach states like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. I think that the most important lesson relates to how difficult and prolonged political transitions can be. While almost all African countries changed political systems during the 1990s, far fewer changed governments and fewer still saw a revolution in the underlying logic of politics.
There were exceptions, of course. Kenneth Kaunda, who had ruled Zambia since the end of colonial rule, lost power in 1991. In Benin, Mathieu Kerekou suffered a similar fate, and was removed in a wave of popular reformist fervour. Jerry Rawlings, who had wielded great power in Ghana, stood down when he reached presidential term-limits. South Africa impressed the world by building a stable democracy out of a devising authoritarian state, and Senegal continued to liberalise. Taken together, these experiences demonstrate the remarkable capacity of African states to democratise against the odds.
However, while these examples were important, these were the highlights. For every Benin, there was a Chad; for every South Africa, there was an Eritrea. These less positive cases teach us a very different lesson. Despite officially becoming democracies, old authoritarian networks continued to exert great power in a number of countries, using a combination of patronage and coercion to subvert reform. Nigeria became more politically competitive, but remained deeply corrupt. Uganda began to hold multi-party elections, but the opposition was never allowed to win. Moreover, a number of leaders have sought to make themselves "presidents for life", including Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who have abused their control over the security forces to re-establish authoritarian structures.
The lesson from these cases is that democratisation is often a strained and uneven process in which old elites usually have multiple opportunities to reassert themselves. Over the past ten years, the faltering transitions in North Africa have demonstrated a number of elements of this tortuous experience. After an initial wave of great optimism, it has often been a case of one step forwards being followed by two steps back.
Kenya: stuck in transition?
Against this backdrop, Kenya represents a particularly interesting case. Despite appearing initially to be a on a downward trajectory, the country has made a number of democratic breakthroughs. On the one hand, elections in 1992, 1997 and 2007 were marked by considerable violence and instability, and the ruling party has won every election bar that held in 2002. On the other hand, every president has respected the limits on terms in office and a new constitution introduced in 2010 devolved power away from the central government.
Given these inconsistencies, the election on 8 August gains greater significance. The race pits long–time opposition leader Raila Odinga against the incumbent, President Uhuru Kenyatta. The campaign has become particularly tense because it is nail-bitingly close; while most polls have put Kenyatta ahead, some have given Odinga a narrow lead. Both sides have said that they are confident of victory, further increasing the political temperature. In the wake of the 2007 polls, when a controversial result led to widespread ethnic clashes, many Kenyans are understandably nervous about what 8 August has in store.
How the election plays out will have important implications for democracy in Kenya, and Africa, well beyond this year. Like a number of other countries, its democratic institutions are well designed, but so far political leaders have been unwilling to allow them to function. If the process is credible and all sides accept the result, the country will have taken an important step towards democratic consolidation. However, if key parts of the system – such as new election technology – fail, and the outcome is disputed, there is a real risk that political unrest will erode some of the gains of the 2010 constitution.
In this sense, Kenya stands at a crossroads. The pathway that it takes will tell us much about the willingness of political elites in Africa to prioritise the national interest over their own needs in order to advance incomplete processes of political transition.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.