Kenyan’s go to the polls this week, August 8th to elect not just a president but a whole new parliament as well. The results of the election, the sixth since the end of the one-party state in 1991, are significant not just for Kenya, but also for the entire region as well.
Here are 5 reasons why Kenya’s elections are important to the region:
1 - A great deal of progress has been made on improving political participation across the continent. But genuine political competition in elections remains a challenge. More work is still needed to remove biases in favour of incumbents. Another area that needs work is lifting restrictions on access to state-controlled media by opposition parties. Kenya being East Africa ‘s powerhouse needs to demonstrate that it can have a free, fair and peaceful election process not just for the area but for Africa as whole.
2 – President Kenyatta’s main opponent, Raila Odinga, has taken issue with Kenya’s involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a major regional peacekeeping operation in which Kenya plays a central role. He has often called for the withdrawal of Kenya’s Defense Forces (KDF), despite being the prime minister of the government that sent Kenyan soldiers to Somalia for the first time. Numbering more than 3,600 and mainly responsible for Sector 2 – a large swath that encompasses the western and southwestern border of Somalia with Kenya – the KDF deployment plays a significant role in the regional effort to dismantle and defeat al-Shabab.
3 - An Odinga administration could, however, bring some much-needed enthusiasm to the East African Community’s (EAC) integration efforts. Tanzania’s protectionist policies, which impose both tariff and non-tariff barriers, threaten the free flow of trade within the EAC. Tanzanian President John Magufuli has managed to increase the profile of his nation on the global stage and as a result, Kenya’s relations with Tanzania have been lukewarm under the Kenyatta administration.
4 - Unrest in Kenya will destabilise a region already facing myriad challenges. South Sudan, the youngest country in the block, is facing a civil war. In Burundi, ongoing political unrest has killed hundreds of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. In Somalia, al-Shabab continues to wage a war against the newly inaugurated Somali government and poses a security threat to Kenya and other neighbouring countries. If Kenya also succumbs to political violence, regional peace will become a lot harder to achieve.
5 – Kenya’s economic status in the region is hard to ignore, and business as usual after the election is important for neighboring countries like Uganda. Uganda is Kenya’s largest export partner, receiving more goods and commodities from its neighbor than to the rest of the bloc combined. The relationship between Uganda and Kenya will only deepen as transportation costs dwindle as a result of improving intermodal infrastructure. This improved connectivity, along with Uganda’s emergence as a likely focal point for oil and as a potential exporter of petroleum products, will see Uganda’s exports to Kenya increase substantially.