Kenya and Rwanda Election Briefing

Rwanda and Kenya go to the polls on the 4th and 8th of August 2017 respectively. This article provides a short historical context for these elections to highlight their importance for Kenya and Rwanda and to illuminate differences and similarities to provide a more nuanced understanding of elections in Africa.

Kenya has a history of ethnically-based post-election violence, leading to heightened fears around election time. However, the 2013 election was conducted in a peaceful manner. Therefore, a peaceful 2017 election would signal that a consolidation of the peaceful transfer of power is occurring.

Kenyan politics are  ethnic politics. This is largely a result of two British colonial policies: ‘indirect rule’ which introduced ‘native reserves’; and the suppression of African political parties to the district level, coinciding with the native reserves and creating ethnically-based parties. Following independence, ethnic politics continued. Jomo Kenyatta, who was president from independence to 1978, constructed a neopatrimonial system of rule that used state resources to co-opt each ethnic group into his government. Importantly, Kenyatta’s was an inclusive system. President Moi, Kenyatta’s successor, created an exclusionary neopatrimonial system, fomenting ethnic rivalry. This laid the foundation for ethnic violence around election times following the movement to a multi-party system  in 1992.

The change in political structure had allowed elites to manipulate ethnic tensions to receive votes.  Coupled with the controversial nature of Mwai Kibaki’s victory over opposition leader Raila Odinga in 2007, post-election violence was most fierce after the 2007 election. However, during the 2013 election campaign, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who are from historically conflictual ethnic groups, formed the Jubilee Alliance and propagated a strong peace rhetoric. This allowed an understandably tense election period to pass off peacefully. Going into the 2017 elections, the Jubilee is pitted against the National Super Alliance Coalition (NASA). Unfortunately, while some remain committed to discussing differences in policy, there has also been a worrying return to elite manipulation of ethnicity that could result in violence.

In the Rwandan case, President Kagame is seeking a third term, allowed due to a constitutional referendum conducted in 2015. This is seen as the first step for Kagame’s consolidation of power that will essentially see him become a life president. This is because the constitutional change allows Kagame to seek two more 5-year terms in 2024. Therefore, the possibility of dictatorship is concerning for Rwandan commentators.

kenya Rwanda election briefing
President Kagame delivering his speech during the 9th National Dialogue at Parliament |Rwanda Government | flickr


The colonial period left a lasting legacy on Rwandan society which is important to the understanding of elections. The racial logic of the Europeans racialised and politicised Rwandan society in an oppressive system of force that subjugated the majority Hutu under a minority Tutsi elite. This politicisation left a legacy of the polarised political identities of the Hutu and Tutsi. Independence was achieved through the Social Revolution 1959-1962 which flipped Rwandan society on its head. Successive Hutu-controlled governments continued the colonial practice of oppression, although now focussed particularly, though not exclusively, on the Tutsi.

Many Tutsi went into exile during this period and returned to Rwanda in 1990 as the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) seeking to reclaim power. This resulted in the civil war between the Tutsi-dominated RPF and the Hutu-controlled government. Externally pushed political liberalisation to resolve the Hutu/Tutsi conflictual relationship failed, as the historical nature of exclusion in Rwanda meant power-sharing was impossible. The conflict ended following the 1994 genocide, which was stopped by the RPF, leading to its accession to power. Ever since the genocide, political identification along ethnic lines has been suppressed, with a policy of national unity implemented to foster a national identity. The suppression of identity politics has allowed the RPF-led government to consolidate power, resulting in elections that have been foregone conclusions, as will be August 4th.

Your perception of this election essentially depends on your perception of the Rwandan situation. Some see the suppression of identity as a way of maintaining Tutsi power due to the demographics of Rwanda, whilst the government see it as essential in ensuring peace and socio-economic development. The issue is whether you see a necessary trade-off between an individual’s rights to prescribe their own identity on the one hand, and collective peace and development on the other. Only the citizens of Rwanda can decide.

Seen here, we have two African elections next month that are significant for the continued stability of these countries. Superficially, these two elections could not be more different, with one a forgone conclusion and the other extremely contentious. However, the historical contextualisation provided here illuminates the importance of identity in both instances. In Kenya, the manipulation of ethnic identity is central, whilst in Rwanda, the suppression of ethnic identity is central. If regular elections are going to be part of the process to ensure socio-economic development and stability in these countries going forward, perhaps a movement towards policy politics will be crucial.

Featured image | Kenya 2013 election posters | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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