A voter placing his ballot for one of the positions at the Lumakanda ODM party primary.

Last Sunday after two weeks plus five additional days, Kenya’s shambolic (a favorite Kenya word to describe the primary elections), chaotic primary party elections finished. Nonetheless there are interesting observations to be noted. 

One or two days before the August 8 Kenya election, international observers will show up to observe the election and comment on how free and fair it was. The first criticism is that they will be much too late. In many respects the fairness of the election has already been determined. The first critical process is the registration of voters which occurred in January and February with a total result of 19,687,563 voters. No international election observers were present for this activity. Likewise none were available for the current party primary elections. Almost half the country’s election positions have already been determined. This is due to the fact that certain parties are totally dominate in their home territories and nomination as that party’s candidate is almost guarantee of election to the post. As a result the primary elections in those party stronghold areas are extremely hard fought.

Second, for reasons that I can’t understand, even though the international community is present in the polling stations and need no more than to open their eyes, their observers only “observe” the presidential election and ignore, in Kenya’s case, the elections for the other five positions.

Unfortunately each political party and not the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission (IEBC) runs its own primary election. Since the parties have little or no experience in running an election which needs large resources and organization, security for election materials, valid processes including the tallying of votes, and neutral, unbiased election officials – all which parties lack – it is not surprising that the primary elections are so badly run with many losers claiming fraud and then deciding to run again as independent candidates which they are legally allowed to do. 

It is my observation that Kenyans thrive in chaos as they use all means of manipulating and subverting the rules, laws, security officials, and courts to foster their position. Nevertheless out of this chaos there are remarkable aspects that put American or European elections to shame.

Primary voters waiting in line rimary voters waiting in line to cast their ballots. Notice how closely they stand to each other. As is the custom in Kenya, the left line was for women and the right line for men.

The first observation is the intense interest that the electorate has in the elections. When the ruling Jubilee party planned it primary elections all in one day, many of the polling stations in Jubilee strongholds were way short of election materials since they expected 25% to 30% of the registered voters to show up when in fact 75% to 80% wanted to vote. The Jubilee Party had to postpone their elections and put them on different days in order to cater to the multitude of voters. Other bigger parties had the same problem. Of course, since in party strongholds, the fact that the primary election was the crucial one is the reason there was such high interest and turnout.

The second observation is the results. In the US, it is extremely difficult for a sitting governor, senator, or representation to be voted out of office, particularly in a primary. Any new successful candidate usually occurs during an election for an open seat where the incumbent either retires or seeks another office. Continuity is the result. The opposite occurs in Kenya as incumbents are routinely thrown out.

Here is a picture of the ballots for senator, women representative, and member county assembly. When I visited the polling station I met many members of Lumakanda Friends Church. If you look at the second name on the right hand ballot for member county assembly, you will see “Chrispinus Liuva Singa.” He is a member of Lumakanda Friends Church and the reason so many of its members were at the polling station. The next day I was told by one of the members I saw at the polling station that Singa had won the primary to be the ODM candidate. I also know the candidate that won the Amani Party primary. They will be competing against each other with a number of additional candidates from other parties. The winner then might receive only 25% to 35% of the votes.

For example, in the current primaries in Jubilee strongholds, in Nyeri county, out of seven Members of Parliament who all were running for re-election, six were ousted and the one who survived will challenged in the general election by someone from another party or by an independent candidate. In Nandi county, another Jubilee stronghold, the incumbent Women’s Representative, Zipporah Kering, received 24,480 votes while her challenger, Tecla Songok Tum, received 118,184 votes for a resounding victory. In another race in Mandera county, the incumbent received 479 to his challenger’s 12,384 votes. In Kiambu county, also a Jubilee stronghold, the governor and 82 out of 87 members of the county assembly (MCA) were ousted. ODM’s Raila Odinga’s brother was soundly defeated while Uhuru Kenyatta’s niece, an incumbent, was also defeated. This is all before the general election on August 8 where many more incumbents will be defeated.

Commentators in Kenya speculate that this wholesale defeat of incumbents shows the same disillusionment with elite, out-of-touch mismanagement of the status quo that led elsewhere to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.   

On Saturday afternoon, April 15, I visited the ODM (Orange Democratic Movement, Raila Odinga’s party) primary at the Lumakanda DeB School down the street from our house.

I was surprised to see that even though it was about 2:00 p.m. there were at least 60 voters in line outside and another ten or so in the room. There were three security officials, two inside the polling room and one outside. The materials had arrived late about 11:00 a.m., but the ODM person in charge who is one of my neighbors said that things were going satisfactorily. Beside the late arrival of the materials another problem was that there were only three election officials instead of the six needed so the voting was slow. Nonetheless I would assume that around the usual 500 would have voted at this polling station by the end of the day.

There was only one candidate for president, governor, and member of parliament so these candidates were given direct nominations. Voting was only for senator (3 candidates), women’s representative (3 candidates), and member of county assembly (4 candidates). The polls would close at 5:00 p.m., the ballots would be counted and the results sent to Majengo, a nearby town, where the tallying center was.

Lugari District is not an ODM stronghold. I except there will be a lot of competition between the major parties in the areas, ODM, Amani, FORD-Kenya, and Jubilee. In one sense this is what real democracy is about rather than those stronghold areas where the dominant party will win everything.


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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.


David Zarembka

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