Threat Update: Kenyan Election Crisis
A political crisis is escalating in Kenya after the nullification of presidential elections in September and a contested re-run election last month. Major unrest in Kenya would destabilize East Africa and compromise ongoing efforts to counter al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa.
The current crisis began with Kenya’s general election in August 2017. Opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga rejected the initial results of the vote and alleged hacking and manipulation. Tensions escalated on September 1, when the Kenyan Supreme Court nullified the election of incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta amid reports of irregularities and accusations of election fraud. The decision initiated a 60-day period requiring the country to address the inadequacies of the electoral commission and election monitoring that invalidated the first election. Kenyatta’s ruling party instead moved to amend election laws to prevent the invalidation of the re-run results, deployed police to contain opposition protests, and arrested members of opposition candidate Raila Odinga’s inner circle. Odinga responded by withdrawing from the ballot and calling on his supporters to boycott. The re-run election on October 26 saw extremely low turnout and violence between protesters and police. Kenyatta was re-elected with 98 percent of the vote, but the Supreme Court has agreed to hear challenges to the election’s validity.
Kenya now faces a crisis no matter the official ruling on the re-run election. The current deadlock reflects a longstanding power struggle between Kenya’s major ethnic groups. Odinga’s coalition seeks to reclaim power held by Kenyatta’s tribe through several successive presidencies. The contested presidential election has also raised challenges to Kenya’s parliament, which is dominated by President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party. Odinga declared his National Super Alliance party a “resistance movement” and called for civil disobedience to disrupt the October 26 election. Odinga’s party formed a new legislative body and called on counties to recognize it as a transitional legislature until legitimate elections occur. Current conditions risk violent escalation akin to the 2007-8 crisis, when ethnic violence following contested elections killed more than 1,000 people and displaced more than 500,000 others. Kenyatta has indicated that he will reject a power-sharing agreement like the coalition government that resolved the prior crisis. The political upheaval has also awoken a secessionist current in coastal Kenya, though the division of the Kenyan state remains unlikely.
Kenya is the economic center of East Africa and a key U.S. counterterrorism partner. Instability in Kenya reverberates throughout East Africa and beyond. Kenya is an economic and transportation hub for the region. The outbreak of violence after the 2007 election, which nearly escalated to civil war, slowed economic growth throughout East Africa and disrupted commercial and humanitarian traffic to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and southern Sudan. A similar crisis today risks destabilizing these states as well as Ethiopia, the other East African powerhouse already facing domestic turmoil. Mass unrest in Kenya would draw the Kenyan military away from the effort to counter al Shabaab in Somalia, which is heavily reliant on African partner forces. Kenyan forces pressure al Shabaab in southern Somalia, where the group once governed a “quasi-state” and retains key strongholds. The Kenyan presence is necessary to prevent al Shabaab from recapturing the south as well as disrupt al Shabaab’s efforts to attack Kenya directly from bases in western Somalia. A crisis akin to 2007 also risks displacing hundreds of thousands of Kenyans and causing another humanitarian disaster that the international community is ill-equipped to handle.
Below are the takeaways from the week:
- Saudi Arabia is using the ongoing Yemen war to justify an escalation against Iran and its proxies in the region. Saudi officials cited Iran’s provision of a ballistic missile to the al Houthi-Saleh bloc and Hezbollah’s involvement in its firing from Yemen toward Riyadh as a potential act of war by Iran and Lebanon. Saudi officials blamed Iran for the attack more directly than in the case of two prior al Houthi-Saleh missile launches targeting Riyadh in 2017. [See the latest Yemen Crisis Situation Report.]
- Al Shabaab activity is limiting U.S. diplomatic engagement in Somalia’s capital. The U.S. Department of State withdrew all non-essential personnel in response to a threat to the Mogadishu airport, where the U.S. Mission to Somalia is based. Instability in Mogadishu hinders the development of the non-military relationships that are necessary for the U.S. to support and strengthen the Somali Federal Government.