Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Two key developments in the Kenyan presidential campaign

Today sees two important stories likely to impact heavily on Kenya's election of 4 March. The first is presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta's decision not to appear in the second round televised debate. After much discussion following the unprecedented exchanges in the first presidential debate, Kenyatta has chosen to withdraw participation in the next round. His Jubilee Alliance campaign team stated: "Our Candidate’s time can be better spent on the campaign trail rather than participating in a skewed, shambolic and farcical Second Debate." This means that only 7 of Kenya's main presidential candidates will appear on the evening of 25 February, guaranteeing weight and attention for Raila Odinga, who rivals Kenyatta in the opinion polls.

The decision of the Jubilee Alliance seems based on the way in which Kenyatta was seemingly victimised through discussion of his ICC trial. The campaign team explained: "It was profoundly unprofessional and tasteless for Kaikai [the TV presenter] to use the ICC indictments as a platform for allowing the other candidates to ride roughshod over Uhuru without equally raising questions related to their suitability and competency."

However, spokespersons of Odinga's coalition, CORD, have framed this as an avoidance of the land question, due to be discussed at the next debate. The CORD campaign team commented: "We are shocked that the Jubilee Alliance’s flag bearer Hon. Uhuru Kenyatta has persistently evaded the issue of land whenever questions are raised and we are not surprised at his withdrawal from the 2nd National Presidential Debate".

The land question is so politically charged that this framing of Kenyatta's actions will certainly embitter relations between the two parties as the country enters the more intense weeks of the campaign trails. The likely outcome is that sensible communication between the groups about ownership of land or land distribution grinds to a halt. At the same time, Kenyatta's refusal to participate in the second debate will be used by political opponents to emphasise his unwillingness to engage in peaceful discussion.

In a second key turning point, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga has today announced that he received a death threat from a group describing themselves as the "Mungiki Veterans Group / Kenya Sovereignty Defence Squad". As Dr Mutunga explained, "The letter warns against an adversarial ruling on the presidential and deputy presidential candidacy of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. The letter extols the violent 'exploits' of the Mungiki Movement and threatens dire consequences." It arrived prior to the decision on whether to bar Kenyatta and his running-mate William Ruto from standing in the election due to their statuses as ICC suspects. 

However, it is not clear who the real author of the letter was. The Mungiki allegedly disbanded as a militant group in 2009, and its previous leader, Maina Njenga, recently joined the CORD Alliance under the political party Mkenya Solidarity. There has not yet been any commentary on whether the letter to the Chief Justice swayed the judgment that gave the green light to Kenyatta and Ruto's running for office, but regardless of this fact, the mere awareness of previous Mungiki supporters operating in connection to one of the two main electoral blocks is unnerving for the political situation. Although this is likely to be interpreted as something coordinated through the highest levels of the Jubilee Alliance in order to force the hands of the courts, an article in The Standard, one of Kenya's most established newspapers, does well to point out: "It has not been established whether the letter came from Mungiki, supporters of the two Jubilee leaders or political rivals using it as a black propaganda attack." If framed as the latter, it will necessarily intoxicate relations between supporters of Kenyatta and supporters of Odinga. Combined with Kenyatta's recent refusal to participate in televised debate, the scene is set for the same to-and-fro of allegations that led to upheavals in the past.