The bad news is that someone tried to steal yet another African election.  The good news is that it looks like they’re not going to get away with it.

The recently annulled election in Kenya is a tale of state development, post-colonialism, and institution building.  It’s the story of how tough it is to build a coherent state from a patch of land that can swap out leaders peacefully.  It’s also the tale of the perils of trying to manage one own’s interests while avoiding being killed by the opposition.

But first, what’s happening in Kenya?

A ruling party tried to steal an election

This is the perennial political development problem: how do you convince elites to give up power when they could command the state to keep them in charge forever?  This becomes compounded when elites use the state to plunder the nation and build up ever-larger coffers of cash.  Not only do old elites not trust or necessarily know new ones, but new elites have all the incentive in the world to go after the ill-gotten gains of the old.

British ex-colonies have tended to fare better than French ones, mostly because the British built up institutions and had them better poised for independence.  British imperialism aimed for a global Commonwealth of self-mangaging dominions in a closed market, cutting down on expensive occupation armies and risky nation-building exercises.  That contrasts starkly with the French, who sought to incorporate their domains into France itself as an extension of their nation.

Kenya, as a former British colony, has had its fair share of political violence, but has not faced the collapse of former French colonies like Mali or the civil wars of places like Algeria and Ivory Coast.  A sense of stability has long kept Kenya’s politics, while unwieldy, from exploding to Somalia or Democratic Republic of Congo-like anarchy.

The Jubilee Party of Kenya, only founded last year after combining with some 10 other political parties, had supposedly won the August election with a margin of 1.4 million votes.  Alas, it appears most of those votes were stolen or stuffed, and the country’s Supreme Court annulled the election, calling for a new one in 60 days.

What’s interesting about this annulment is that international observers initially signed off on the results – and now look like they did a slap-dash job of election monitoring.

As the first time an African court has annulled an election, the moment represents a stark change in the development of East Africa.  Not only did the court shoot down the election, but the sitting president has, thus far at least, not unleashed the state’s security forces on his opponents to stay in power.

It will remain to be seen if this can remain peaceful.  Already, people have been murdered in the run-up to the election.  Kenya’s tribal map and economic situation creates a volatile mix in which cynical elites can try to divide and rule.  The notion of a civil war is not impossible were a set of elites dead-set on termless power.


Yet President Kenyatta, who now must fight another election, has called for his followers to respect the Supreme Court’s decision.  There’s good reason for that.  To unleash a torrent of violence in Kenya is to risk annihilation.  There is no majority ethnic group in Kenya, and so there is no natural social backbone he can lean on to survive.  Kenyan nationalism is also increasingly underpinned by democracy itself (much as it is in the United States), meaning to undermine democracy is to break the only social link that allows President Kenyatta to command an effective multi-ethnic army and police force.

Moreover, the chaos in nearby Somalia would almost certainly rush into any power vacuum should Kenyatta gamble on violence.  Al-Shabaab, the flailing but still potent Sunni supremacist movement, has launched spectacular attacks in Kenya in the past, and would doubtless take advantage of any interruption in government authority.

There is also the problem of sanctions: should President Kenyatta go the bloody route of many an African leader, he risks losing major export partners.  Nearly 30% of Kenya’s exports go to the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands – countries that might impose sanctions should democracy take a tumble.

Instead, the rational calculation is to gamble on another election, this time by leveraging his humility and his natural power base to edge out a victory.  If not, he can always make another run at power during the next round of elections.

Yet Kenyatta may change his mind.  Corruption, that ever-lingering legacy of colonialism, has tainted him as well.  To lose power is to expose himself to prosecution, the cause of many a civil war.  Kenyatta has shown himself to be reasonable thus far, trying to tackle corruption and understanding his survival is more likely should he play by the rules.

Should he lose, it will remain to be seen if his opponents are as magnanimous as he.  But if they provoke violence, they will be taking the same risks as Kenyatta, exposing themselves to the same possibility of murderous defeat.