Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

As in the rest of the world, 2021 was not the best year for democracy in Africa. It has seen the return of military coups in West and Central Africa, in Sudan, Guinea, Chad and Mali. In Sudan, the putsch overthrew a democratic revolution that paved the way for an end to decades of military rule.

And just as democratic progress seemed to have finally taken hold in the Horn of Africa, civil conflicts and political violence made a comeback, as seen in Ethiopia and Somalia. In Uganda and Tanzania, free and fair elections have proved to be something of an elusive goal.

It is in this feverish environment that Kenyans are getting ready to face their own election demons in eight months. The country has had a complicated relationship with polls, especially presidential ones. They were sometimes tools for expressing popular will, as was the case in 2002 when former dictator President Daniel arap lost Moi’s preferred successor Uhuru Kenyatta by a landslide.

Just five years later, however, the country would almost tear itself apart after disputed election results. Since then, elections have become opportunities that inspire great hope for change as well as a terrible fear of what it might bring.

The last two presidential election cycles have seen this dynamic at work. In 2013, terror prevailed as memories of the 2007-2008 violence led to the suppression of doubts about the course of the elections, the first under a new constitution adopted in 2010, which was the culmination of a struggle of 25 years and which was accelerated by the shock of the violence two years earlier.

Despite ample evidence that the election was not conducted in strict compliance with the law, the newly formed Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a well-known pro-democracy activist and lawyer, went out of its way to validate the result. declare. Thus, Uhuru Kenyatta eventually became president.

In 2017, Kenyatta’s bid for re-election was initially derailed when the Supreme Court, this time led by David Maraga, an ultra-conservative judge who was considered by many civil society activists to be Kenyatta’s aptitude, the election for non-compliance with the law. It was the first time a court on the continent had stopped the re-election of a sitting president, representing another triumph for hope.

In the by-elections held in October of the same year, however, fear prevailed once again. The day before the election, the Supreme Court would hear a petition challenging the constitutionality of the poll, after Kenyatta’s main challenger, Raila Odinga, pulled out two weeks earlier. However, many of the court’s judges chose to stay away, startled by threats in the wake of the annulment and an attack that killed the deputy chief justice’s bodyguard. This paved the way for an “election” that was little more than a coronation and that severely polarized the country, killing dozens of suspected Odinga supporters.

Today, as the country stares in the course of another election, there are again reasons for optimism and pessimism. The courts have shown courage over the past year in defending the constitution and put the brakes on Kenyatta (and his new partner Odinga)’s efforts to change it.

Furthermore, elections, in which incumbents participate, tend to be the most prone to violence. Since 1992, there have been the least violent presidential polls in 2002 and 2013, when term restrictions prevented Moi and Kibaki from running for another term, respectively. Kenyatta faces the same hurdle next year and as before, politicians, bureaucrats and security forces are likely to exercise restraint and not risk retaliation from the eventual winner, whether it is Odinga or Kenyatta’s estranged deputy, William Ruto. if they find themselves. on the losing side.

Kenyatta, on the other hand, does have a horse in the race, having thrown his weight behind Odinga, and his willingness to threaten and co-opt independent institutions remains undiminished. Maraga has since retired and his successor, Martha Koome, a well-known lawyer and human rights defender in the form of Mutunga and the country’s first female chief justice, has shown little appetite for a fight with the executive.

Furthermore, the electoral system has not been reformed since the 2017 debacle and is still prone to abuse. In fact, many of the people who oversaw that election are still in place. There is little reason to believe that they will not be useful again to people trying to steal the elections.

Despite the challenges it has faced in 2021, support for democracy across the continent remains stubbornly high, according to opinion polls. Kenyans will no doubt wish that hope will triumph over fear again in 2022.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.

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