Will Kenya's Military React to Election Violence?
Presidential elections are a full year away in Kenya, but clashes between the opposition and current administration have already turned violent. For those familiar with Kenyan politics, each day’s news depicts escalating confrontations between a familiar cast of characters: President Uhuru Kenyatta is exchanging rebukes with opposition leader Raila Odinga, and mobs from ethnic Luo communities are confronting well-armed riot police. But one group that has thus far remained above the fray is the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), considered among the most competent militaries in Africa. Recent scandals have damaged the KDF’s reputation for professionalism, however, and the manner in which President Kenyatta has deployed forces domestically signals a politicization of the military. In the event of a violent electoral crisis, it is increasingly likely that the KDF (or significant elements thereof) will forsake their commitment to political impartiality, much to the detriment of regional security.
A History of Electoral Violence
Elections can be a dangerous affair in Kenya. As in many African countries, Kenyans tend to vote along ethnic lines—partly a legacy of the colonial era, when the British played Kenya’s Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Luo, Luhya, and Kamba against each other to facilitate the direct rule of the colony. In recent years, inflation, increasing inequality, and nepotism have compounded the complex colonial legacy to create even more precarious political and socioeconomic divides between Kenya’s ethnic communities. Consequently, elections are a catalyst for inter-ethnic violence.
After the last round of electoral violence in 2007, the independent post-election investigation commended the military for its professionalism. That December, the electoral commission had declared presidential incumbent Mwai Kibaki (a Kikuyu) the winner in a vote thick with irregularities. Opposition candidate Raila Odinga (a Luo) and his parliamentary ally William Ruto (a Kalenjin) called on their constituencies to take to the streets in protest. The anger soon boiled over as the opposition began attacking Kikuyus. In response, Kibaki’s ministers organized ultra-nationalist Kikuyu gangs called Mungiki to massacre Luo and Kalenjin. The KDF refused to back either side and successfully dispersed violent crowds without bloodshed in the few instances they were asked to intervene. By contrast, the police, who are more amenable to local political pressure, were intimately engaged in the violence, killing at least 405 people.
By the time Kibaki and Odinga signed a UN-mediated power-sharing agreement in April 2008, more than 1,300 Kenyans had died and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Shortly thereafter, the International Criminal Court (ICC) filed charges of crimes against humanity against six top officials in the government and opposition. Thus, when Kenyans went to the polls again in 2013, the KDF prepared for another bout of violence. Yet election-related violence was minimal. Odinga ran again, this time against Kibabki’s protégé Uhuru Kenyatta (also a Kikuyu). Kenyatta chose former adversary William Ruto as his running mate to secure the Kalenjin vote (and to beat ICC charges, as both men had received indictments). When Kenyatta and Ruto’s ticket won, Odinga, cognizant of the international attention the elections had drawn, took the matter to Kenya’s highest court. When the court declared the results valid, Odinga and his Luo supporters offered muted protests but grudgingly dropped the matter, demonstrating a modicum of faith in the country’s newly formed electoral institutions.
Unfortunately, this year Kenya seems to have regressed towards yet another violent political contest. Regular protests have erupted over the “Chickengate” scandal, in which election commission officials received millions in bribes to award a UK firm printing contracts. The scandal has destroyed any trust that the opposition previously held in the commission, as the administration’s failure to finish its investigation of such flagrant corruption is evidence to some of a quid pro quo between Kenyatta and the nominally independent commission.
Kenyatta and Odinga, meanwhile, have been fanning the flames with heated rhetoric. After years of growing animosity between Odinga and the Kikuyu political establishment (Odinga’s father had a falling-out with Kenyatta’s father, Kenya’s first president, in the 1960s), the Luo politician has made clear he will put up a stronger fight than he did 2013. Kenyatta, for his part, seems happy to oblige, his chief of police even proclaiming that the police will arrest the entire opposition if necessary. The paramilitary riot police (General Service Unit or GSU) have responded to protests with deadly force, killing at least five. Kenyatta recently beat the ICC charges (because his government blatantly obstructed the investigation) despite compelling evidence that he had personally funded and mobilized the Mungiki in 2007. The Mungiki remain active in Kenyan politics and Kenyatta, having flouted international law once already, will likely find it convenient to turn to them once again in the event of an electoral crisis.
Internal Security and East Africa’s “Most Professional” Army
Apart from an ill-conceived coup attempt in 1982, the KDF have never unilaterally intervened in domestic politics and the armed forces enjoy a reputation for professionalism. Sixty-eight percent of Kenyans trust the KDF, according to a 2015 Afrobarometer survey, and the force has strengthened recruitment efforts to increase regional and ethnic diversity, minimizing the likelihood of defection by entire units along ethnic lines. Most critically, the KDF face more external adversaries than in 2007: the KDF maintain roughly 3,500 troops in the AMISOM peacekeeping mission in Somalia, while a significant portion of their remaining forces deploy along the Somali and Ethiopian borders to interdict al Shabaab and contain spillover from Ethiopia’s Oromia conflict, respectively. Commanders should recognize the foolishness of expending scant resources engaging in political contests while al Shabaab retains the capacity to strike within Kenya and the risk of violence along the Ethiopian border remains tangible.
Unfortunately, the military’s professionalism and morale have shown signs of erosion since 2013, suggesting that the KDF might indeed prove itself political in the event of election violence—strategically imprudent as that would be. After al Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall in 2013, several KDF soldiers were discharged for looting—but Kenyans suspect that many more soldiers were guilty. The KDF also received harsh criticism for their slow response to the Garissa University siege in 2015, and human rights groups have subsequently accused the KDF of the arbitrary torture and execution of Somali Kenyans (and the looting of victims’ property) in domestic counterterrorism operations. KDF officers defrauded the government of nearly a million dollars last year, and, most alarmingly, there is compelling evidence to implicate senior KDF commanders in supporting al Shabaab-controlled smuggling rings.
Both the government and opposition have attempted to extend their political influence into the KDF’s ranks. Following the loss of 180 Kenyan soldiers in Al Ade, Somalia—an incident thought to compound the dwindling morale of AMISOM forces—the opposition publicly stated that Kenya should withdraw its contingent from Somalia in a move aimed at gaining support from the KDF’s senior ranks. Odinga fears, however, that the KDF are already firmly in Kenyatta’s camp. In addition to accusing Kenyatta of tribalism in the promotion of senior KDF officials, the opposition has vociferously voiced their consternation over the 2015 KDF Amendment Bill, which allows the President to deploy the armed forces to quell civil unrest within Kenya. Similar bills in countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia have helped incumbents solidify their advantage over opponents prior to elections. More disconcerting is the KDF’s recent deployment during local elections. Soldiers were conspicuously absent in all regions except for the opposition stronghold of Malindi, prompting speculation that Kenyatta is using the military to intimidate opponents. Some have drawn parallels between such political posturing and the presidency of Daniel Arap Moi (1978-2002), a period in which the KDF underwent marked politicization.
The KDF Amendment Bill virtually guarantees that the military will not remain on the sidelines should violence occur this coming election. If the KDF could be trusted to uphold their institutional integrity, this would be a welcome intervention. Unfortunately, the indiscipline and corruption that have characterized recent operations, as well as Kenyatta’s apparent efforts to harass opponents with multiple branches of the security apparatus, suggest that such trust would be misplaced. International partners must therefore take steps to ensure that the KDF maintain their professionalism during next year’s elections, as a failure to do so would undermine a burgeoning success story in East Africa and detract from Kenya’s ability to combat international security threats such as al Shabaab. The United States and UK have particular leverage over Kenya’s security sector, as the former provided $89 million in security assistance in 2015 while the latter’s armed forces train multiple KDF units. International partners should make clear that any KDF unit that engages in political violence would lose foreign assistance and see its commanders sanctioned. Such harsh assurances will upset Kenyatta and his national security team, but the strategic importance of Kenya is such that the costs of international inaction are too severe.