Plunging Kenya Into Crisis, Opposition Leader Drops Out Of Presidential Race

Oct 10, 2017
Originally published on October 11, 2017 8:43 am

A little more than two weeks before a re-run of a presidential election, Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga dropped a bombshell.

During a press conference in Nairobi, he said he could not be sure that the Oct. 26 poll would be free, fair and credible so he dropped out.

"Considering the interests of the people of Kenya, the region and the world at large, we believe that all will be best served by [opposition party] NASA vacating its presidential candidature in the election," he said.

His decision moves the East African country further into a political crisis and closer toward a constitutional crisis that is likely to inflame tensions in a country that's already seen intense post-election violence.

Odinga and his party not only withdrew from the race but they are demanding new elections by pointing to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that calls for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission to cancel upcoming elections if a major presidential candidate dies or "abandons the electoral quest before the scheduled dates."

But lawyers for President Uhuru Kenyatta are pointing to regulations that say if there are only two candidates and one drops out after nominations, the remaining candidate is the winner.

The electoral commission tweeted that they were meeting with their legal team and "will communicate the way forward."

Douglas Gichuki, a law professor at Strathmore Univerisity in Nairobi, said he doesn't yet consider this a constitutional crisis. This issue, he said, was touched "in passing" by the Supreme Court in 2013. It was not, he said, the central question in the case.

"And to be fair, the constitution is itself very clear on what happens in this scenario," he said. In a two-candidate race, if a candidate drops out, the other candidate wins.

"The real questions are not questions of law," he said. "They are questions of legitimacy if these elections are conducted without one of the major parties."

But Gichuki also says that Kenya is a young country with a 7-year-old constitution and very little jurisprudence. The 2017 presidential elections are only the second being conducted under the new constitution, so this puts Kenya in uncharted waters.

Shortly after Odinga made his announcement, President Uhuru Kenyatta took the stage at a political rally in Western Kenya. He said Democracy was for everyone and no one individual could "stand in the path of the progress of 45 million Kenyans."

"It is his democratic right not to participate," Kenyatta said. "We tell him also it is the people's right to participate in an election to choose their leader. So whether you are there or not, we are proceeding to the people who have the sovereign right to elect the leader of their choice."

Since the elections of Aug. 8, Kenya has been on edge. The elections were followed by days of protests and a violent police crackdown that left more than 30 people dead.

Odinga petitioned the country's Supreme Court to throw out the results of the first presidential elections and they did. A majority found so many irregularities, they said the elections did not meet the threshold set out by the constitution. So they threw out Kenyatta's big victory and ordered new elections.

Since then Odinga has issued several demands, including calling for the ouster of a top elections official and an audit of the elections servers, which he argued had been hacked. The electoral board has balked at most of those changes and Odinga insisted he would not take part in an election that would repeat the mistakes of the previous one.

The opposition called for a mass rally in Nairobi on Wednesday. Mass action in Kenya is feared because it can quickly descend into violence, especially at a time of deep tribal division in the country. It was those fissures that led to the post-election tribal violence that left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead in 2007 and 2008.

Gichuki said it's clear that Kenya is currently in a political crisis and he thinks that the country is trying to litigate "fundamental problems or social, political organization through law."

He added: "I'm not clear that law is enough to solve this problem."

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Kenya's presidential race just got a lot more chaotic. Raila Odinga, the opposition leader there, has dropped out of a rerun of the presidential race. The original election results were thrown out by the Kenyan Supreme Court last month after complaints of voting irregularities. Now Odinga is demanding the entire election process begin all over again. NPR's Eyder Peralta joins us from Nairobi, where the opposition has called for a big protest, and Eyder, it sounds like stuff is already happening there in Nairobi. Where are you?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Yeah, stuff is happening. I am in the middle of streets here in downtown Nairobi, and there's a - there's about a thousand people here. They're - they're in cars. They're walking. They've got branches. And what they're saying is, no Raila, no elections, and no elections without reforms.

GREENE: So these are supporters of Raila Odinga, who - who has said that he's not going to run in this - in this redo?

PERALTA: That's right. But what they're saying is there will not be elections later this month if Raila is not part of them or if there are no reforms to the electoral commission, which is the same thing that Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, has said.

GREENE: OK. So - so remind us now. I mean, I thought that Odinga wanted a new election because of these irregularities. It seemed like he got what he wanted, but now he's saying that he's not satisfied with the process. He wants more to happen, more reforms before he would run in anything.

PERALTA: Yeah. No, this is - this is exactly what he wanted. He asked for a new election and he got it. But he says he's just not confident that a rerun would be free and fair. A big part of this is timing. He just didn't think there was enough time to make the kinds of reforms that he wanted and needed. And he also hasn't gotten some of the big stuff he's been asking for. He wanted to oust the elections of a big elections official. And he also wanted an audit of the electronic reporting system. And remember that following the August elections, Raila claimed that the reporting system had been hacked. And, to be fair, the elections commission still hasn't given a good explanation for a lot of things, including why some of the tally forms were overwritten multiple times or why some of the forms didn't have some of the prescribed security features.

GREENE: So if he doesn't run in this re-election, does the current president, President Kenyatta, just automatically win, or, do we have any idea?

PERALTA: That's - that's the big question. I mean, Raila's - Raila Odinga's lawyers are arguing that the constitution says if one of the major candidates drops out they have to rerun the election from the beginning, from the nominations. And I think one thing to keep in mind here that - is that this is a new country. You know, the constitution is seven years old. And, you know, it's now in the hands of the electoral commission to interpret how - what the law says and what the constitution says should be done. And once the electoral commission decides that, this might just go back to the Supreme Court to decide how the constitution envisions this playing out.

GREENE: Well, and - and meanwhile, I mean, this - this is a country that sadly knows violence in - in electoral environments. Could that sound behind you at some point turn into violence? Are people worried about that?

PERALTA: I - you know, it's already been violent. You know, 30 people were killed earlier this year during the elections. And the sort of tribal tensions here are at a peak. It's hard to tell what that will turn into, but it's dangerous.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Eyder Peralta on the streets of Nairobi. Eyder, thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.