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Makers of 2010 Constitution are Kenya’s Christmas heroes



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This time last year was a very sour season. The country had gone through a bitter and divisive election in August and a re-run in October after the Supreme Court nullified the presidential vote and there was enough acrimony in the air to provide electricity to Kenya for a year.

The controversial handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga that was to break the political ice dramatically was three months away.

Yet, for contrast, Christmas 2018 couldn’t be more different from Christmas 2017. It is, therefore, a good time to reflect on what happened at the close of last year — and even earlier, to the election of August 2013.

In the goodness of time, history will come to regard the architects of the 2010 Constitution as geniuses. They did many things, some of which they probably were unaware of. One of them is that they freed Kenyan Christmas from politics. The other was a clever bit of climate change political engineering.

Until the new Constitution, elections used to take place in Kenya in December, just after Christmas. That of itself tells you of the silent sway fundamentalist evangelical tendencies that regard the over-indulgence of modern Christmas to be heathen had over the Daniel arap Moi government.

It was bad timing, considering that as the year ends many people are seriously auditing their achievements of the year. Therefore, having an election in December, as opposed to August, means people — the majority of who rarely fare well in Africa — go to the ballot when they have crystallised their anger at having made little progress.

To make it worse, there is, perhaps, no time when the poor in predominantly “Christian” countries like Kenya, Uganda or Tanzania feel their marginalisation more than over Christmas, when they see all the lights at the malls and the better-off folk setting up for festive season feasts they only read about in the Bible. Holding elections in late December meant that, after the ethnic animus that rules Kenyan politics, by that timing it was always bound to be a grievance vote.

Then it was moved from December. It is hard to measure how much that affects election behaviour but it might partly explain why the elections of 2013 and 2017 didn’t break out in large-scale violence although, in some respects, they were more acrimonious than the December 2007 poll that plunged Kenya into hell.

The other thing is that the August vote takes place when the weather is cooler, and the most intense campaigns take place between May and July, when it’s quite cold in parts of Kenya. Some years ago, I read an article that speculated that, because the elections were happening at the end of the year when it’s hot, in the tin-shack slums that ring Nairobi, the ambient temperatures were so high the wananchi were far more agitated than during the cold season. They were, therefore, more likely to erupt in violence when cheated.

So, the framers of the 2010 Constitution also seemed to understand the impact of weather on national temperament. Of course, if this is true, it also means the risks of stealing an August election are lower than doing it in December because the backlash will likely be more measured.

If we look at the 2007 vote and the resultant post-election violence (PEV) at the start of 2008, then at the 2013 election, we also get some interesting pointers. The 2008 PEV energised Kenya’s conservative political forces but also defined the type of alliance that Raila could build for his 2013 bid.

The raw nerves exposed by the PEV meant that, in 2013, the political cost for moderates and people from the left in pro-Mwai Kibaki areas supporting Raila was too high and few of them could do so openly. Kibaki, therefore, managed to put together mostly a loose regional coalition around his candidacy.

However, because there was no violence in 2013, that cost was very low in 2017. The result was that the Nasa coalition, on which Raila ran last year, was largely a left of centre alliance, the first time that happened in Kenya in a long time.

In 2002, yes, there was a large left of centre contingent in the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) that catapulted Kibaki to victory, but it was a co-habitation with the conservatives. In the end, the conservatives won out after Kibaki was installed President.

The Nasa left and moderates did not seek to fight over Kenya on the streets. They proposed to re-engineer the country, a cerebral exercise, not to take to the barricades. That further meant that 2008-style election violence was averted. All this thanks, in part, to whoever freed Kenya’s Christmas in 2010.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of and explainer @cobbo3