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Towards the Home Stretch: Poll Update in an Evolving Electoral Context

20 min read.

This is the fourth in a series of articles that will review and comment on surveys related to the August 2022 general election, providing analytical tools to enable the reader to assess their credibility and potential impact.



Towards the Home Stretch: Poll Update in an Evolving Electoral Context
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With less than one month until the general election it was to be expected that at least one further round of national polls would have been conducted/released since my previous (and third) piece for The Elephant, leaving me with two more pieces to offer: one before and one after August 9. The five main developments and issues that are covered here are: a summary/comparison of the results of the three surveys relating to the presidential contest; consideration of respondents claiming to be “undecided” about their presidential voting intentions; some challenges in weighing the impact of deputy presidential running mates as well as of “the gender factor”; issues related to the interpretation of county-level data and media performance in this regard; a comparison of the sub-national regions/zones now used by the three mainstream pollsters, as well as the implication of such areal categories for consideration of the “Elephant in the room”: the ethnic factor in Kenya’s electoral politics.

Comparison of the three polls: third horse entry?

Each of the three “mainstream pollsters” that this series has been tracking – TIFA Research, Infotrak and Radio Africa – released results during the week of 10 July. Though TIFA had conducted its survey during the last week of June, it delayed release of its data to give a client, the Standard newspaper, enough time to publish findings from the issue-based questions that it had loaded onto the questionnaire.  These questions constituted about one-third of the survey’s total content, thus in declaring “the sponsor” of the poll as required by the Publication of Electoral Polls Act of 2012, TIFA was not obliged to identify The Standard Group, although the Standard’s own article reporting and analysing the findings clearly stated that it had engaged TIFA for the purpose.

As the table below shows, the main change since the previous round of surveys is the emergence of a third candidate – George Wajackoyah – whose initial ratings suggest the profound impact he could have on the “two-horse” race by denying both of them the required “50 per cent + 1” to avoid a second round run-off contest.

Before offering a few points about the figures – and without casting any personal aspersions on Wajackoyah – the various and non-mutually exclusive possible motivations for such “minor candidate” ballot appearances for all elective positions in Kenya, and in no particular ranking order of importance or actual occurrence, may be suggested: to build one’s public profile for a possible future run or for shorter term business or professional benefits, or even just for social purposes, or with the aim of obtaining an appointed position by the eventual winner or winning political party (at either the county or national level); to draw votes away from one or more of the leading candidates, whether self-motivated or instigated/supported by others; and to promote a particular policy agenda, whether individual or on behalf of some issue-based party or lobby group (e. g., environmental protection).

Clearly, in a contest such as Kenya’s presidential one where a second round, run-off, contest must be held if no candidate initially garners enough votes spread out over enough of the counties to achieve a win, the bargaining power of any candidate who can take “credit” for this outcome, increases significantly. (Although an alternative outcome is for any such candidate(s) to be “enticed” to stand down – at least through a public declaration if it is too late to have any names removed from the ballot paper – for whatever motivation or benefit.)

Firms Sample Size/Margin of Error Data Collection Dates (2022) Ruto  Odinga Wajackoyah Undecided/NR
TIFA* 1,308 / +/-2.7% 25-30 June 39% 42% 4% 14%
Infotrak 9,000 +/-1% 2-7 July 37% 43% 4% 16%
Radio Africa** 3,000 / +/-1.8% 7-10 July 45.3% 46.2% 5% 3%
3 Survey Average 40.4% 43.7% 4.3% 10.7%


* The TIFA survey sample was 1,533, but after removing those who declared that they are not registered voters, as well as those who said that they were but would “definitely not vote” on August 9, the sample decreased to this figure.

** Information on the sample size, the (correct) margin of error(not +/-0.8 per cent as reported by the Star), and the mode of data collection (not indicated by the Star, and not by SMS “invite” as in Radio Africa’s three previous surveys but by “ordinary” CATI) and dates (not 7-11 July as reported by the Star) was obtained from a senior Radio Africa editor, but who also (incorrectly) stated that the margin of error is +/-1 per cent). Radio Africa also announced (in the Star) that they will be conducting “weekly polls” between now and the election.

A few comments about these three polls should be added.  First, looking at the error margins of the TIFA and Infotrak results provides a useful lesson about random national surveys: that even massively increasing sample size (with the accompanying cost) adds little value in terms of the (national only) results. Specifically, even with a sample size of nearly nine times that of TIFA’s, Infotrak’s results fall within the margins of error of the two surveys (as shown, +/-2.7 per cent for TIFA’s and only +/- 1 per cent for Infotrak – and this is so even if there was a full week (and more) difference in the data collection dates).

Another point is that even if all three surveys were conducted by CATI, the Radio Africa poll once again reports a far lower proportion failing to answer the “which presidential candidate will you vote for” question. Why this survey has no figure for “no response” is puzzling; so, too, is Radio Africa’s reversion to a CATI methodology given that its last several surveys have been based on SMS “participation invitations”; the accompanying story offered no explanation for this.  It seems improbable that this contrast (i.e., only 3 per cent “undecided” vs. 10 per cent in TIFA’s and 16 per cent in Infotrak’s) is a consequence of Radio Africa’s slightly later data collection date, although this absence of a “No Response” figure explains Radio Africa’s significantly higher figures for both of the main candidates. (I have sought an explanation from Radio Africa about this – for example, do their interviewers put any “pressure” on their respondents to “just name the candidate you think you might vote for”?  I await a reply. In this regard, it is also unclear why the Daily Nation writers of the story on the Infotrak survey, in noting TIFA’s “delay” in releasing their results (on 12 July) suggested that this “could make the [TIFA] numbers obsolete in a fluid political situation”, yet – as noted above – they are statistically identical with those of Infotrak.

If Wajackoyah can maintain the level of his current popularity, he has the potential of forcing a run-off.

Whatever the case, the overall conclusions from these three recent surveys are first, that while Odinga maintains his lead over Ruto, he has not increased it over the last month – if anything, it has decreased slightly – and second, that if Wajackoyah can maintain his current level of popularity, he has the potential of forcing a run-off. This is evident if all those respondents who stated that they were as yet “undecided”, together with those who declined to answer this question at all (for whom, as noted, Radio Africa reported no figure), are removed from the calculation. Nevertheless, this reality exists even if the figures from one firm (Infotrak) put Odinga barely over the required “50 per cent + 1” threshold.  (Interpreting these same figures, James Mbaka of the Star is thus in error when, after recently reporting the results shown in the above table, he asserted that “Three recent opinion polls by credible firms projected that neither Raila nor Ruto would manage to win . . . in the First Round. . .” since he evidently failed to do this adjusted arithmetic. (Whether the Treasury can afford a run-off contest is another matter.)

Preferred Next President with Running Mate
One example of the failure to do such basic re-calculations was provided by Brian Otieno of the Standard in suggesting that “Ruto . . . would need the entire undecided vote to swing in his favour and also some two per cent from his opponent’s – Raila or George Wajackoyah, at four per cent baskets.”  Again, he failed to do the required (and quite simple) calculation.

Regardless of the likelihood of a runoff, such ratings for Wajackoyah raise the question as to just who his would-be voters are. As shown by TIFA in its media Release (of 11 July), they are most numerous (in proportionate terms) in the South Rift (8 per cent), Lower Eastern (7 per cent) and Mt. Kenya (6 per cent).

Further, and perhaps more significant, among probable voters, more than three times of those declaring an intention to vote for him are among the youngest age cohort (i.e., 18-24) as among the oldest (above 35): 7 per cent vs. 2 per cent. And recall here that such voting-intention questions were asked only to those who claimed to be registered voters, excluding those who said that they “definitely” would not vote.

More generally, and just on the basis of speculation, four (again, non-mutually exclusive) motives may constitute the basis of the support for Wajackoyah that these surveys have captured. At least among those who, on the basis of such polls (or other information), realize that he has absolutely no chance of winning, it could be an unhappy “protest” vote against the main ballot-choice of Ruto and Odinga (for whatever reasons), the “fun” of voting for an extremely “non-conformist” candidate based on whatever combination of his character and advertised policies (e.g., the legalization/promotion of the growing and marketing of marijuana, the execution of those convicted of corruption, etc.), the hope that his vote total will force a run-off contest in which he may be able to “sell” his overt support in exchange for some personal or policy presence in the next government, and/or the hope that he will be encouraged to participate in some future election (for whatever position) with a better chance of winning.

Regardless of the likelihood of a runoff, such ratings for Wajackoyah raise the question as to just who his would-be voters are.

At the same time, it is possible that such figures will not be reflected in the official results after the votes are counted, based on the fact that such survey responses were either not sincere when they were given, or that at least a significant proportion of such people will decide that votes cast for him will be ‘wasted’, and therefore force themselves to choose between the two viable candidates on August 9, especially if the polls continue to show the Odinga-Ruto race as ‘too close to call’.  Time (and further survey research) will tell.

The undecideds: Who’s who and why?

Again, based on these survey figures, we have seen, as expected, that the proportion of all respondents who were unable or declined to mention a preferred presidential candidate has continued to decrease since the beginning of the year. For example, according to TIFA, it has dropped by about half, from 30 per cent in January to just 14 per cent in late June. At the same time, it cannot be assumed that all such respondents have not, in fact, made up their minds, but may be too shy to reveal their voting intentions, for one reason or another. Indeed, only with the benefit of credible official results will it be known if at least some of those declining to reveal their voting intentions have actually concealed them – similar to the significant proportions of respondents in the surveys that were “wrong” with regard to Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US election and in the UK’s “Brexit” vote the same year. Assuming that is the case, who between Ruto and Odinga will benefit most when the real votes are counted?

While an answer to this question must wait a bit longer, it is clear that the proportion of respondents who have declined to name a preferred presidential candidate in this electoral season remains larger than it was in the period leading up to any of the last three elections. The relevant figures taken from surveys conducted about one month before them are as follows: in 2007, 1 per cent; in 2013, 5 per cent; and in 2017, 9 per cent. It should also be noted that the surveys which yielded these figures were all conducted face-to-face at respondents’ households, in contrast to the three at issue here. It may be assumed that in the former setting, where interviewers and respondents are able to establish a more “personal” relationship, it would be more “awkward” for a respondent to avoid answering this question.

Aside from any differential impact of methodology, however, it may also be suggested that the choice of the main presidential candidates in this election is rather more complex or challenging than in any previous (multi-party) contest, in that the leading contenders have largely exchanged their political “clothing”. For his part, the deputy president is largely campaigning against his president – and thus the status quo – even if throughout their first term, there appeared to be not an iota of daylight between them. By contrast, the former prime minister finds (or has put) himself in the somewhat awkward position of trying to sit in two chairs at the same time: competing with the DP in offering credible “change” improvement for the vast majority of the electorate currently suffering a plethora of economic (among other) woes, while largely unable to attack the outgoing president to whom he owes whatever advantage the latter’s support provides. Indeed, in a TIFA survey of June 2021, fifty per cent more respondents identified Ruto rather than Odinga as “the political leader most active in terms of criticizing the Jubilee government and trying to hold it to account”, and in TIFA’s April 2022 survey, some three-quarters of respondents identified Odinga as “Uhuru’s preferred successor”.  Such a situation makes it largely impossible for Odinga to assume the anti-government posture he has assumed in the last five elections, notwithstanding his short-lived absorption into Moi’s KANU government and party in 2001.

The proportion of all respondents who were unable (or declined) to mention a preferred presidential candidate has continued to decrease since the beginning of the year

Whatever reasons might be offered about such higher figures, the question remains as to just who these “undecideds” are (as well as those who simply declined to answer the question – coded as “No Response”).  A cursory look at the data offers some indication. First, dividing all respondents who claimed to be registered voters into those who did vs. those who did not name any candidate, rather more of the former answered the question about their likelihood of voting by saying they “will definitely vote” (71 per cent vs. 63 percent), suggesting a somewhat greater interest among them in the election altogether. An even greater contrast is found in terms of gender, with almost three times as many women as men not naming a preferred candidate (21 per cent vs. 8 per cent). Again, whether this is due to shyness, a lower level of interest in elections, or taking longer to make this ballot choice, perhaps due to Kenya’s largely patriarchal culture in which women receive “instructions” various issues from husbands, fathers, etc., cannot be discerned. Such a contrast is nearly equally apparent in terms of education levels, as significantly fewer of those without any or just a primary education named any candidate as compared with those with secondary or higher education. Further, in ethnic terms, while at least nine out of ten Luo and Kalenjin named a candidate, the figures for nearly all other (major) groups is about 10 per cent lower, aside from those in the Mt. Kenya grouping, who are in an intermediate position, evidently based on the presence of a fellow ethnic running mate candidate on both sides of the main partisan divide.

On the other hand, no contrasts in the proportions of those who did vs. those who did not name a candidate are found in terms of political party/coalition alignment, age, and employment status. (Actually determining the relevant salience of each factor would require a complicated regression analysis that goes beyond the confines of this piece!)

In sum, it seems clear that the most frequent response of the “undecideds” in TIFA’s April survey as to what would most enable them to decide whom to vote for – “more information about policies/manifestos” – is not the whole story.

The running mate (and gender) factor

Precisely measuring the impact of running mates on campaigns is always a challenging task, in large part because many respondents may be unclear about this in their own minds, or unwilling to acknowledge it even if they are. When the respective supporters of the two main presidential candidates were asked a more general question in TIFA’s last survey, “How satisfied are you with Raila’s/Ruto’s choice of Martha Karua/Rigathi Gachagua as his deputy president running-mate? Are you…?”, there was a marked contrast in their responses, with considerably more of Odinga’s than Ruto’s supporters stating that they were “very satisfied” (90 per cent vs. 67 per cent), yet Ruto’s overall support rating rose slightly more than Odinga’s (4 per cent vs. 3 per cent compared to the previous survey, although this 1 per cent difference is within the survey’s margin of error).

(One other point: When the Standard reported these results – based on several questions they had sponsored in TIFA’s June survey, as noted above – the story’s caption was: “Poll: Karua will net more votes for Raila than Rigathi for Ruto”, yet as Nzau Musau explained in his first sentence, this conclusion was derived from a perception question, not an analysis of the actual candidates’ ratings/change of fortunes since TIFA’s previous survey. That is, whereas 49 per cent stated that Karua will add to Raila’s vote total, only 30 per cent felt likewise about Ruto’s choice of Gachagua, with another 21 per cent not certain as to which running-mate will bring along most votes.)

In ethnic terms, while at least nine out of ten Luo and Kalenjin named a candidate, the figures for all other (major) groups are about 10 per cent lower.

Moreover, with specific regard to the Karua/gender factor – and again, notwithstanding the perception that she is considerably more useful in terms of adding votes to Odinga than Gachagua is to Ruto – the rise in their respective ratings is (as noted) statistically identical.  Further, Odinga suffers from a significantly greater “gender gap” (i.e., male vs. female) than does Ruto (47-37 per cent for the former but only 40-38 percent for the latter). Indeed, this 10 per cent gap for Odinga is exactly what it was at the end of April (37-27 per cent) before running mates were announced.  At the same, it may be the case that her presence on the Azimio ticket will encourage higher voter turnout among women on August 9 (whether to vote for her and Odinga, or across the board), but the main point is that whatever Karua is contributing to Odinga’s electoral prospects, there does not appear to be any “gender” advantage – so far, at least.

County-level data and ‘battlegrounds’

Reporting the latest Infotrak poll, Daily Nation writers Collins Omulo and Onyango K’Onyango began by referring to “ten crucial counties with a total of 3.6 million votes” that “recent opinion polls have classified as battlegrounds, where the vote could go either way.”

It should first be noted that only Infotrak (once again) used this term in releasing its results, without, however,  giving it any numerical definition. (In June the number of respondents from each county was reported, but not for July; since the sample size in both surveys was identical, it can be assumed that the county numbers are the same.) For example, these writers stated that: “However, Mombasa with 641,913 voters and Tana River with 143,096 voters are now battlegrounds with Mr Odinga’s popularity in Mombasa at 46 per cent, Dr Ruto at 27 per cent and 20 per cent being undecided voters.” In other words, in Mombasa Odinga enjoys a 19 per cent margin. Yet with some 270 respondents drawn from this county, the margin of error is +/-6 per cent, equal to a 12 per cent spread – giving Odinga a clear lead of (at least) 7 per cent. So how much larger would Odinga’s lead have to be for Infotrak to classify Mombasa as among his “strongholds”?  We have no idea.

In any case, such a statement is misleading in three senses. First, since Kenya does not have a US-type electoral college system, counties are not electoral units that are “won” or “lost”; the only thing that matters is how the votes are distributed between the candidates across the entire country in their efforts to attain the “50 per cent + 1” threshold.  (This statement assumes that neither of the two main candidates will have any difficulty in obtaining at least 25 per cent of the vote in at least 24 of the 47 counties – which all recent polls suggest is certain to be the case.)  In the Kenyan context, therefore, “winning” a sparsely populated county (in terms of registered voters who actually turn out to vote on election day) such as Lamu or Marsabit by netting a few more votes than one’s main opponent is not nearly as critical as “losing” a highly populated county such as Nairobi or Nakuru by simply increasing one’s share of the vote there by a few per cent.

Second, and more egregiously (as suggested above), the Daily Nation’s writers fail to interrogate the statistical basis of Infotrak’s lists of counties in the “grip” of either Odinga or Ruto: 21 in that of the former and 16 in that of the latter. Specifically, there is no reference to any definition of this term; presumably, some stated margin between the two candidates’ ratings in each county.  To repeat the point from my previous Elephant piece, before accepting Infotrak’s “stronghold” lists, it is necessary to calculate the margin of error for each of these counties. For example, Garissa, with a Ruto-Odinga gap of 22 per cent (based on figures of 50 per cent vs. 28, respectively), is included among Ruto’s “strongholds”.  Yet with a registered voter population of about 165,000 and an allocated sample of about 85, the resultant margin of error is +/-11 per cent, equal to a 22 per cent spread – exactly the difference between them. Should that earn Garissa the “stronghold” label in the Ruto list?

In other words, while a national sample of 9,000 looks impressive, when divided (proportionally) into 47 counties, the resultant margins of error require attention.

This Nation piece further reports the Infotrak CEO as stating that: “We have seen a complete flip in Lamu and Kwale”, referring to an increase for Odinga from June to July of 26 per cent in the former county and of 19 per cent in the latter. Yet the margins of error for these counties are +/-17 per cent in the former (for a 34 per cent spread) and nearly +/-8.5 per cent in the latter (for a 17 per cent spread), meaning that the change in the figure for Lamu falls within this county’s margin of error and that of the latter only just outside its margin of error (i.e., 2 per cent), perhaps not qualifying for the description of “a complete flip”.

While it does not employ any vote-support categories (such as “battlegrounds”), TIFA likewise could be more explicit about the error margins of the nine zones for which it provides sub-national results. The most extreme case is that of South Rift (which, as shown, is comprised of just two counties: Kajiado and Narok (see below). Constituting only 5 per cent of TIFA’s total sample (in this most recent survey of 1,533 – but as shown, only 1,442, having removed those who stated that they are not registered voters, and then leaving only 1,308, having also removed those who state that they “will definitely not vote”), this amounts to only (“likely to vote”) 65 respondents. Based on a total registered voter population of about 1,270,000, the margin of error is +/-12 per cent, equal to a 24 per cent spread. Keeping this in mind, neither the increase for Odinga-Karua by 17 per cent, nor even the decrease for Ruto-Gachagua by 33 per cent looks quite so dramatic (since the former’s gain could really be just 5 per cent, although the latter’s loss remains a hefty 21 per cent).

Similarly (in the same Nation article), Infotrak reports that over the last month, Ruto’s popularity (i.e., the expressed intention to vote for him) “jumped” from 52 per cent to 55 per cent in Mt Kenya while “Mr Odinga’s approval [sic] currently stands at 24 per cent from 27 per cent in June.”  In other words, even if Odinga gained so much in the (sparsely populated) South Rift so as to overtake Ruto by 10 per cent there, the 3 per cent gain in Mt. Kenya, combined with Odinga’s decline of the same amount, gives the DP a far more (potential) vote boost, given the vastly greater population of registered voters in the latter zone.

Since Kenya does not have a US-type electoral college system, counties are not electoral units that are “won” or “lost”.

As for Radio Africa, the report of their most recent survey offered correlations of preferred presidential candidate with (reported, presumably monthly) income. In doing so, the second category shown (after “no income”) is Shs1-30,000/-, which surely must include at least half of the sample. Yet they then use five additional more affluent categories, the highest being “above Shs150,000/-“ which, based on data from the last few years of TIFA surveys, could not have included more than a handful of respondents, if that. For example, in TIFA’s most recent poll, only 4 per cent of respondents reported earning more than Shs50,000/- per month, yet Radio Africa presents results for four high income categories beginning with Shs50,000/- to Shs70,000.  Based on a sample of 3,000, that would be equivalent to about 120 respondents, for whom the margin of error (if all those with reported monthly earnings above Shs50,000/- were lumped together) is +/- 9 per cent – equal to an 18 per cent spread. In other words, even if Radio Africa did not display the margin of error for each income category, they should have shared the number of respondents in each one with their readers and let them judge what, if any, statistical integrity such correlations have.

Perhaps the overall point is that even if there is no agreed minimum number of respondents among even ‘credible’ survey firms for which such sub-total results should be presented, whether such categories are income, regions, or any other variable, there should be more transparency about such sub-national error-margins.

Zone comparisons and the (other) elephant in the room

Radio Africa has now jumped on the TIFA “bandwagon” by adjusting its previous sub-national categories as Infotrak began to do, starting with its most recent previous survey (although they did not include a chart for these as they have done in the past; TIFA always includes a list of its nine zones, listing the counties in each one). All three firms have thus now moved away from using the eight pre-2010 provinces for this purpose. The table below shows the sub-national units each one used in releasing their most recent survey data reported above.

Regions / Zones (TIFA) TIFA Radio Africa Infotrak
Nairobi* X X X
Coast* X X X
Lower Eastern X X X
Mt Kenya X X X
Northern X
Central Rift X
South Rift** X X X
Western* X X X
Nyanza* X X X
Upper Eastern X
North Rift X X
North Eastern* X X

*These regions/zones were provinces in the pre-2010 Constitution era.

**TIFA includes only Kajiado and Narok in this zone while for Infotrak it also includes Kericho and Bomet. While this makes geographic sense, TIFA prefers to place all the main Kalenjin areas in Central Rift.

Although, as shown, the regions (or in TIFA’s terminology, “zones”) differ slightly across the three firms, they nevertheless allow for some comparisons at this sub-national level, even if none of them includes the margin of error for each one, an omission which helps to explain a certain amount of erroneous interpretation by journalists in asserting that one candidate or another has “gained” or “lost” votes in a particular region when the change actually falls within that region’s margin of error, which is by necessity much greater than for the national sample as a whole, as also discussed above.  At least Infotrak and TIFA always show the percentage of the total sample that was drawn from each region/zone, so that, knowing the total sample size, it is possible to take a margin of error table and a calculator and do the “math” to ascertain these.

Presenting survey results at this sub-national level raises a question rarely asked by local journalists (or others), even if it seems that many are thinking about: To what extent can these units be considered as “substitutes” for at least the main ethnic group resident within each one?

This question arises simply because no survey firm releases results with ethnic correlations, for the (perhaps obvious) reason that none of them (nor any media house) would want to be accused of “dividing Kenyans”, let alone “threatening national unity”, even when – as is certainly the case in this pre-election season – the data reality shows that Kenyans are much less polarized along ethnic lines than many assume. (Let me also note here that several attempts over recent years to obtain public policy “guidance” on this issue from the National Cohesion and Integration Commission yielded no “edible” fruit, notwithstanding the apparent interest they displayed in the figures that were shared with them.)

For example, it was found (in a June 2021 TIFA survey) that only 40 per cent of Kenyans answered the question, “Is there anyone who you consider to be the main leader of your ethnic community?” in the affirmative.  True, this national figure rose as this year’s election approached (in TIFA’s June 2022 survey) to 54 per cent – clear evidence that like the proverbial “hangman’s noose”, elections tend to concentrate communal minds, but this seems far below what most people consider to be the case. And this defiance of “common knowledge” holds true even if the specific figures are as high as two-thirds among the Luo, Kalenjin and Kamba and below 50 per cent for the Kikuyu and Gusii. Also significantly, among those who believe their community has such a leader, there is far from unanimity as to who that leader is, even for the two communities with “serious” presidential candidates: the Luo and the Kalenjin. (The lower figures for the Kikuyu and Gusii are clearly in part a reflection of the fact that neither has a serious presidential candidate in this election, while the former has two deputy presidential candidates and a president about to retire.)

While thoughtful people may reasonably disagree about what the impact of releasing such figures would be, given such widespread assumptions about their salience in electoral choices, it is clear that much analytical capacity – and thus public understanding – is lost by “hiding” them (even when it is clear that the major campaign teams make considerable use of such data in crafting and implementing their vote-hunting and turnout strategies).

In the absence of such ethnic correlations in publicly released findings, the public is left with the regional correlations that the main survey firms almost always include.

The following table (based on TIFA’s June survey data) shows the largest (and where included, also the second largest) ethnic group in each region.

Zones (TIFA) Predominant Ethnic Group(s) Per Cent
Nairobi Kikuyu 35
Coast Mijikenda 50
Lower Eastern Kamba 80
Mt Kenya Kikuyu / Meru 60 / 20
Northern Somali / Turkana 35 / 20
Central Rift Kalenjin / Kikuyu 65 / 20
South Rift Maasai 45
Western Luhya 75
Nyanza Luo / Gusii 50 / 25


It is clear, therefore, that while one or another ethnic group predominates in most of these zones, there remains considerable heterogeneity in most of them.

Moving from ‘what’ to ‘why’, and other Issues 

Given the reality (described above) that not a single ethnic group is homogenous in terms of its presidential voting intentions, the question arises as to what accounts for these intra-ethnic divisions. For example, within a (largely) ethnically homogenous area such as Mukurwe-ini in Nyeri or Kilungu in Makueni, what factors explain why some people will vote for Ruto and others for Odinga? At this stage, what should be clear is that even beginning to answer this question requires not assumed generalizations but detailed research, and of a nature that would best include and also go beyond quantitative surveys.

Another issue not considered here is the so-called “bandwagon” effect: that candidates or parties shown to be leading in polls will thereby attract more votes, based on the assumption that many people want to be on “the winning side”.  For now, it is enough to say that it is widely assumed to exist, and at a significant level. If not, why would we see candidates and other partisans so vociferously bashing results that do not show them leading, as well as sponsoring “fake” polls – sometimes by “unknown” survey firms, and at other times attributing results to credible firms that had nothing to do with them. The non-profit research organization, Code for Africa, recently reported that it has been identifying six to seven “fake” polls per week over the recent past – which they define as attributing survey results to firms that did not conduct them. What is clear is that candidates find it difficult to remain silent when a credible survey firm shows them trailing, or even just decreasing in popularity. Just how the impact of such “fake” – as well as genuine – polls might be measured will be taken up in my next piece.

In the meantime, with less than three weeks remaining before the 5-day embargo period prescribed in the Publication of Electoral Polls Act kicks in, and with all the mainstream pollsters either having begun or about to launch their final (or nearly final) round of surveys, there is certain to be plenty more material to present and discuss before “D-Day” on August 9.

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Dr Wolf is a research consultant currently associated with TIFA Research in Nairobi. He has written this piece in his personal capacity.


Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?

Somalia must first ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the East African Community.



Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
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The current members of the East African Community (EAC) are Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The Somali Federal Government, under the leadership of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has expressed a strong interest in joining the EAC, sparking questions among Somali citizens as to whether the country is ready to join such a large and complex regional bloc.

During President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud initiated Somalia’s pursuit of EAC membership during his previous term as a president from 2012 to 2017. However, little progress was made during his first term and, following his re-election, President Hassan reignited his pursuit of EAC membership without consulting essential stakeholders such as the parliament, the opposition, and civil society. This unilateral decision has raised doubts about the president’s dedication to establishing a government based on consensus. Moreover, his decision to pursue EAC membership has evoked mixed responses within Somalia. While some Somalis perceive joining the EAC as advantageous for the country, others express concerns about potential risks to Somalia’s economic and social development. President Hassan has defended his decision, emphasising that Somalia’s best interests lie in becoming a member of the EAC.

To assess Somalia’s readiness to join the EAC, the regional bloc undertook a comprehensive verification mission. A team of experts well versed in politics, economics, and social systems, was tasked with evaluating Somalia’s progress. The evaluation included a thorough review of economic performance, trade policies, and potential contributions to the EAC’s integration efforts. During this process, the team engaged with various government institutions and private organisations, conducting comprehensive assessments and discussions to gauge Somalia’s preparedness.

One of the key requirements for Somalia is demonstrating an unwavering commitment to upholding principles such as good governance, democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Successful integration into the EAC would not only elevate Somalia’s regional stature but would also foster deeper bonds of cooperation and shared prosperity among the East African nations. While this is a positive step towards regional integration and economic development, there are several reasons for pessimism about the potential success of Somalia’s membership in the EAC.

Somalia must also showcase a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration.

Somalia has faced significant challenges due to prolonged conflict and instability. The decades-long civil war, coupled with the persistent threat of terrorism, has had a devastating impact on the country’s infrastructure, economy, governance systems, and overall stability.

The following fundamental factors raise valid concerns about Somalia’s readiness to effectively participate in the EAC.

Infrastructure development

Infrastructure plays a critical role in regional integration and economic growth. However, Somalia’s infrastructure has been severely damaged and neglected due to years of conflict. The country lacks adequate transportation networks, reliable energy systems, and while communications infrastructure has improved, internet penetration rates remain low and mobile networks – which are crucial for seamless integration with the EAC – can be unavailable outside of urban centres. Rebuilding such infrastructure requires substantial investments, technical expertise, and stability, all of which remain significant challenges for Somalia.

Political stability and governance

The EAC places emphasis on good governance, democracy, and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership. Somalia’s journey towards political stability and effective governance has been arduous, with numerous setbacks and ongoing power struggles. The lack of a unified government, coupled with weak state institutions and a history of corruption, raises doubts about Somalia’s ability to meet the EAC’s standards. Without a stable and inclusive political environment, Somalia may struggle to effectively contribute to the decision-making processes within the regional bloc.

Economic development and trade

Somalia’s economy has been heavily dependent on the informal sector and faces substantial economic disparities. The country needs to demonstrate a vibrant market economy that fosters regional trade and collaboration, as required by the EAC. However, the challenges of rebuilding a war-torn economy, tackling high poverty rates, and addressing widespread unemployment hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in regional trade and reap the benefits of integration.

Security Concerns

Somalia continues to grapple with security challenges, including the presence of extremist groups and maritime piracy. These issues have not only hindered the country’s development but also pose potential risks to the stability and security of the entire EAC region. It is crucial for Somalia to address these security concerns comprehensively and to establish effective mechanisms to contribute to the EAC’s collective security efforts.

Economic Disparity and Compatibility

Somalia’s economy primarily relies on livestock, agriculture, and fishing, which may not align well with the more quasi-industralised economies of the other EAC member states. This mismatch could result in trade imbalances and pose challenges for integrating Somalia into the regional economy. For instance, according to the World Bank, Somalia’s GDP per capita was US$447 in 2021 whereas it is US$2081 for Kenya, US$1099 for Tanzania, and US$883 for Uganda. Furthermore, Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

This divergence in economic structures could lead to trade imbalances and impede the seamless integration of Somalia into the regional economy. The substantial economic gap between Somalia and other EAC member states suggests a significant disparity that may hinder Somalia’s ability to fully participate in the EAC’s economic activities. Additionally, Somalia has yet to demonstrate fiscal or economic discipline that would make it eligible for EAC membership. While Somalia has a functioning Central Bank and the US dollar remains the primary mode of financial transactions, the risk of integration lies with the other EAC members; cross-border trade would occur in an environment of instability, posing potential risks to the other member state.

Somalia faces significant economic challenges, including capital flight that drains resources from the country, contributing to its status as a consumer-based economy.

While these fundamental challenges remain, it is important to acknowledge the progress Somalia has made in recent years. This includes the gradual improvement in security conditions, the establishment of key governmental institutions, and the peaceful transfer of power. One can also argue that many of these fundamental economic, infrastructure, political instability, and security concerns exist across the East African Community. However, what makes Somalia unique is the scale of the challenges it faces today. Somalia has adopted a federal political structure, which has not worked well so far. This level of fragmentation and civil political distrust makes Somalia’s case unique. More than ever, Somalia needs meaningful political and social reconciliation before it can embark on a new regional journey.

The absence of an impact assessment by the relevant ministries in Somalia is alarming. Without this assessment, it becomes challenging to make informed decisions about the potential benefits of joining the EAC and the impact on our economy and society. Conducting this assessment should be a priority for Somalia’s ministries to ensure a comprehensive evaluation of the potential benefits and risks involved in EAC membership. Furthermore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s decision to pursue Somalia’s integration into the EAC lacks political legitimacy as a decision of this nature would normally require ratification through a popular vote and other legal means through parliament. The failure to achieve this could potentially allow another president in the future to unilaterally announce withdrawal from the EAC.

Fragile state of Affairs and internal disputes

The recent reopening of the Gatunda border post between Uganda and Rwanda after a three-year period of strained relations indicates a fragile state of affairs. The East African Court of Justice has ruled that Rwanda’s initial closure of the border was illegal, highlighting the contentious nature of inter-country disputes. Furthermore, Tanzania and Uganda have formally lodged complaints against Kenya, alleging unfair advantages in trade relations, and have even gone as far as threatening Kenya with export bans. These grievances underscore the underlying tensions and competition between member states, which could potentially hinder the harmonious functioning of the East African Community. These political and economic disagreements among member states increase the risks associated with Somalia’s membership. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions. Joining the East African Community at this juncture carries the risk of being drawn into ongoing disputes and potentially being caught in the crossfire of inter-country rivalries.

Conflict in South Sudan

The prolonged conflict in South Sudan, which has been ongoing since its admission to the East African Community (EAC) in 2016, serves as a cautionary tale for Somalia. Despite the EAC’s efforts to mediate and foster peace in the region, the outcomes have been mixed, resulting in an unsustainable peace. This lack of success highlights the challenges faced by member states in resolving conflicts and maintaining stability within the community. Somalia must carefully evaluate whether its participation in the EAC will genuinely contribute to its stability, economic growth, and development, or if it risks exacerbating existing internal conflicts. Joining the community without a solid foundation of political stability, institutions, and peace could potentially divert resources and attention away from domestic issues, hindering Somalia’s progress towards resolving its own challenges. South Sudan’s admission to the EAC in 2016 was seen as a major step towards regional integration and stability. However, the country has been mired in conflict ever since, with two civil wars breaking out in 2013 and 2016. The EAC has been involved in mediation efforts, with mixed results.

Assessing Readiness

Somalia must evaluate the readiness of its institutions, infrastructure, and economy to effectively engage with the East African Community. Comprehensive preparations are crucial to ensure that joining the community is a well thought-out and strategic decision, rather than a hasty move that could further destabilise the nation. Somalia needs to assess whether its infrastructure, institutions, and economy are sufficiently developed to cope with the challenges and demands of integration. Premature membership could strain Somalia’s resources, impede its growth, and leave it at a disadvantage compared to more established member states.

Somalia must carefully evaluate whether it is entering a united and cohesive bloc or one plagued by internal divisions.

Somalia must ensure sustained progress in stability, infrastructure development, governance, and economic growth before considering full membership of the EAC. A phased approach that prioritises capacity building, institution-strengthening, and inclusive governance would enable Somalia to lay a solid foundation for successful integration and reap the maximum benefits from EAC membership in the long term. Failure to address these concerns would make Somalia vulnerable to exploitation and market monopolies by stronger economies, and could also risk a lack of seamless convergence for Somalia’s membership. While there is political will from EAC leaders to support Somalia’s membership, it is vitally important that they make the right decision for Somalia and the EAC bloc as a whole to ensure a successful integration. I believe that, at this juncture, the disadvantages of Somalia joining the EAC outweigh the benefits.

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2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?

It was a landmark case for its time, a first for East Africa and possibly for the continent. A group of Africans challenged a colonial power in a colonial court to appeal a major land grab and demand reparations. They lost on a technicality but the ripple effects of the Maasai Case continue to be felt.



2023 Marks 110 Years Since the Maasai Case 1913: Does it Still Matter?
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In the name Parsaloi Ole Gilisho there lies an irony. It was spelled Legalishu by the colonial British. Say it out loud. He gave them a legal issue, all right. And a 110-year-old headache.

This extraordinary age-set spokesman (a traditional leader called ol-aiguenani, pl. il-aiguenak) led non-violent resistance to the British, in what was then British East Africa, that culminated in the Maasai Case 1913. Ole Gilisho was then a senior warrior, who was probably in his mid- to late thirties. In bringing the case before the High Court of British East Africa, he was not only challenging the British but also the Maasai elders who had signed away thousands of acres of community land via a 1904 Maasai Agreement or Treaty with the British. This and the 1911 Agreement – which effectively rendered the first void – are often wrongly called the Anglo-Maasai Agreements. In Ole Gilisho’s view, and those of his fellow plaintiffs, these elders had sold out. The suit accused them of having had no authority to make this decision on behalf of the community. This represented a very serious challenge by warriors to traditional authority, including that of the late laibon (prophet) Olonana, who had signed in 1904, and died in 1911.

The British had expected the Maasai to violently rebel in response to these issues and to colonial rule in general. But contrary to modern-day myths that the Maasai fought their colonisers, here they resisted peacefully via legal means. They hired British lawyers and took the British to their own cleaners. Spoiler: they lost, went to appeal, and lost again. But archival research reveals that the British government was so convinced it would eventually lose, if the Maasai appealed to the Privy Council in London (they didn’t), that officials began discussing how much compensation to pay.

The facts are these. The lawsuit was launched in 1912. There were four plaintiffs, Ole Gilisho and three fellow Purko (one of the 16 Maasai territorial sections) Maasai. In Civil Case No. 91 they claimed that the 1911 Maasai Agreement was not binding on them and other Laikipia Maasai, that the 1904 Agreement remained in force, and they contested the legality of the second move. They demanded the return of Laikipia, and £5,000 in damages for loss of livestock during the second move (explained below). Ole Gilisho was illiterate and had never been to school. But he and his fellow plaintiffs were assisted by sympathetic Europeans who were angered by the injustice they saw being perpetrated against a “tribe” that British administrators conceded had never given them any trouble. These sympathisers included people who worked for the colonial government, notably medical Dr Norman Leys and some district officials, lawyers, a few missionaries, the odd settler, and a wider group of left-wing MPs and anti-colonial agitators in Britain.

What had led up to this? After the 1904 Agreement, certain groups or sections of Maasai had been forcibly moved from their grazing grounds in the central Rift Valley around Naivasha into two reserves – one in Laikipia, the other in the south on the border with German East Africa. The British had pledged that this arrangement was permanent, that it would last “so long as the Maasai as a race shall exist”. But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the “northern” Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve. In all, it is estimated that the Maasai lost at least 50 per cent of their land, but that figure could be nearer 70 per cent. The ostensible reason for moving them was to “free up” land for white settlement – largely for British settlers but also for South Africans fleeing the Boer War (also called the South African War).

But just seven years later, the British went back on their word and moved the ‘northern’ Maasai again, forcing them at gunpoint to vacate Laikipia and move to the Southern Reserve.

By the time the case came to court, Ole Gilisho had become a defendant, even though he was in favour of the plaint. So were at least eight other defendants. He had signed the 1904 Agreement, and now stood accused with 17 other Maasai of having no authority to enter into such a contract. The first defendant was the Attorney General. Ole Gilisho’s son-in-law Murket Ole Nchoko, misspelled Ol le Njogo by the British, and described as a leading moran (il-murran or warrior) of the Purko section, was now the lead plaintiff. The plaint was called Ol le Njogo and others v. The Attorney General and others.

Challenges facing the plaintiffs

Most Maasai were illiterate in those days, and this obviously placed them at a major disadvantage. They could not write down their version of events. They were forced to rely, in their dealings with officials and their own lawyers, upon translators and semiliterate mediators whose reliability was questionable. But it is evident, from the archival record which includes verbatim accounts of meetings between Maasai leaders and British officials in the run-up to the moves and case, that the level of verbal discourse was highly sophisticated. This comes as no surprise; verbal debate is a cornerstone of Maasai society and customary justice. Unfortunately, that alone could not help them here. They knew they needed lawyers, and asked their friends for help. Leys, who was later sacked from the colonial service for his activism, admitted in a private letter: “I procured the best one in the country for them.” This was more than he ever admitted openly.

Local administrators used intimidation and all kinds of devious means to try and stop the case. (I didn’t come across any evidence that the Colonial Office in London sanctioned this; in fact, it ordered the Governor not to obstruct the main lawyer or his clients.) They allegedly threatened Ole Gilisho with flogging and deportation. They threatened and cross-questioned suspected European sympathisers, including Leys and the lawyers. They banned Maasai from selling cattle to raise the legal fees, and placed the Southern Reserve in continuous quarantine. It was hard for the plaintiffs, confined to a reserve, to meet their lawyers at all. At one point, lawyers were refused passes to enter the reserve, and their clients were prevented from leaving it.

We hear Ole Gilisho’s voice in the archival record. Forced to give a statement explaining his actions to officials at Enderit River on 21 June 1912, when asked if he had called Europeans to his boma, he replied: “Is it possible for a black man to call a white man?” He denied having called the Europeans (probably lawyers or go-betweens), saying they had come to him. Leys later explained to a friend that Ole Gilisho had probably been “terrified out of his wits”, and hadn’t meant what he said.

What happened in court

The case was thrown out when it first came before the High Court in Mombasa in May 1913. The Maasai appealed, and that is when the legal arguments were fully aired by both sides – lawyers for the Crown and the Maasai. The appeal was dismissed in December on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims were not cognisable in municipal courts. The two agreements were ruled not to be agreements but treaties, which were Acts of State. They could not, therefore, be challenged in a local court. It was impossible for the plaintiffs to seek to enforce the provisions of a treaty, said the judges – “The paramount chief himself could not bring such an action, still less can his people”. Claims for damages were also dismissed.

The Court of Appeal’s judgement centred on the status of a protectorate, in which the King was said to exercise powers granted to him under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890. Irrational as it sounds, the Crown claimed that British East Africa was not British territory, and the Maasai were not British subjects with any rights of access to British law, but “protected foreigners, who, in return for that protection, owe obedience” to the Crown. As Yash Pal Ghai and Patrick McAuslan later put it, when discussing the case in a 1970 book: “A British protected person is protected against everyone except the British.” On the plus side, the judges ruled that the Maasai still retained some “vestige” of sovereignty. (The Maasai’s lawyer argued that they did not.) This triggered later moves by Maasai politicians, in the 1960s, to float the idea of secession from Kenya and the possible creation of a sovereign Maasai state. John Keen had threatened this in 1962 at the second Lancaster House Conference in London, attended by a Maasai delegation.

Alexander Morrison, lawyer for the Maasai, argued that British rule and courts were established in the protectorate, which had not been the case 30 years earlier. The Maasai were not foreigners but equal to other British subjects in every way. The agreements were civil contracts, enforceable in the courts, and not unenforceable treaties. If one took the Crown’s claim about Acts of State to its logical conclusion, he argued, a squatter refusing to leave land reserved for the Maasai could only be removed by an Act of State. None of his arguments washed with the judges. (See my 2006 book Moving the Maasai for a fuller account.)

Morrison advised his clients to appeal. It seems they couldn’t raise the funds. However, oral testimony from elders reveals a different story: Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea. This is impossible to verify, but it rings true.

In an interview carried out on my behalf in 2008 by Michael Tiampati, my old friend John Keen had this to say about the outcome of the case: “If the hyena was the magistrate and the accused was a goat, you should probably know that the goat would not get any form of justice. So this is exactly how it was that the Maasai could not get any fair justice from British courts.”

Contemporary African resistance

Unbeknown to the Maasai, there was growing anti-colonial resistance in the same period in other parts of Africa. All these acts of resistance have inspired African activists in their continuing struggles. To mention a few: the Chilembwe rebellion in Nyasaland, now Malawi (1915); the Herero revolt in German South West Africa, now Namibia (1904–1908); resistance in present-day Kenya by Mekatilili wa Menza (largely 1913-14); the First Chimurenga or First War of Independence in what is now Zimbabwe (1896–1897); and the Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa, now Tanzania (1905–1907). But none of these rebellions involved lawsuits. The closest precedent may have been R vs Earl of Crewe, Ex-parte Sekgoma in 1910. Chief Sekgoma, who had been jailed by the British in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) after many attempts to remove him as chief, instructed his lawyer to bring a writ of habeus corpus against the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Crewe. He demanded to be tried in an English court, refusing an offer of release on condition that he agrees to live in a restricted area of the Transvaal. The suit was dismissed, the court ruling that the King had unfettered jurisdiction in a protectorate, and his right to detain Sekgoma was upheld. Sekgoma apparently said: “I would rather be killed than go to the Transvaal. I will not go because I have committed no crime – I wish to have my case tried before the courts in England or else be killed.” Freed in 1912, he died two years later.

Enduring myths

The case, and other key events in early twentieth century Maasai history, have given rise to several myths. They include the idea that the stolen land should “revert” to the Maasai after 100 years, but that was not stated in the 1904 Agreement, which was not limited in time, was not a land lease, and has not “expired” as many people claim. Neither agreement has. Keen knew this, but nonetheless called for the land to “revert”. Other myths include the idea that Olonana’s thumbprint was placed on the 1911 Agreement posthumously, and it must therefore be invalid. But neither his thumbprint nor name are on the document, which was “signed” by his son Seggi. Anyhow, Olonana was a key ally of the British, who had no reason to kill him (which is another myth).

The original of the 1904 Agreement has never been found, which has led some Maasai to believe that it never existed and therefore all the land must be restored and compensation paid for its use to date. There may be sound legal arguments for restorative justice, but this is not one of them. These myths are ahistorical and unhelpful, but may be understood as attempts to rationalise and make sense of what happened. Some activists may wish that the Maasai had resisted violently, rather than taken the legal route. Hence the insistence by some that there was a seamless history of armed resistance from the start of colonial rule. Not true. There are much better arguments to be made, by professional lawyers with an understanding of international treaty rights and aboriginal title, which could possibly produce results.

Ole Gilisho had planned to sail to England to appeal to the Privy Council, but he was threatened with drowning at sea.

Where does all this leave the Maasai today? Over the years, there has been much talk of revisiting the case and bringing a claim against Britain (or Kenya) for the return of land or reparations for its loss. None of this has resulted in concrete action. I attended a planning workshop in Nairobi in 2006 when plans were laid for a lawsuit. VIPs present included the late Ole Ntimama, scholar Ben Kantai and John Keen. Keen declared, with his customary flourish, that he would stump up a million shillings to get the ball rolling. I don’t know how much money was raised in total, but it disappeared into thin air. As did the lawyers.

Leading lawyers have advised that too much time has passed, and (unlike the successful Mau Mau veterans’ suit) there are no living witnesses who could give evidence in court. It is unclear whether the agreements still have any legal validity. The British government might argue, as it previously has, including in response to my questions, that it handed over all responsibility for its pre-1963 actions to the Kenyan government at independence. This is a ludicrous argument, which is also morally wrong. Former colonial powers such as Germany have accepted responsibility for historical injustices in their former colonies, notably Namibia. Has the time come for Ole Gilisho’s descendants to call a white man to court?

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Who Is Hustling Who?

In Kenya, political elites across the spectrum are trying to sell off the country for themselves—capitulation is inevitable.



Who Is Hustling Who?
Photo: bennett tobias on Unsplash.
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There should be no doubt that Kenya is in an intractable economic crisis. Filling up gas for a drive from Nairobi to my hometown in Limuru cost 10,000 ksh (about USD70). As a result of the high gas costs prices for everything else have gone up, including public transportation. And those who cannot hike up operating costs, such as the hordes of boda boda motorcycle taxis, are hardly making anything or operating at a loss.Tax hikes mean those who are employed are taking less money home. And no point in kidding ourselves, in a corrupt country some of that money being generated from the higher taxes is going to the politicians. As will the promised 1 billion USD loan from the IMF on whose behest the new austerity measures are being implemented. It is a form of madness to think that a corrupt government will only steal money generated by taxes and do public good with the IMF loan. In short, in a country where close to half the population lives on less than USD2 a day, Kenya is simply unaffordable and the promise of relief is a lie—certainly a convenient lie for the government and IMF officials but a devastating one for Kenya’s majority poor.

My drive to Limuru happened on the first Wednesday (July 19) of the protests. Everything was eerily quiet, Nairobi, renowned for its traffic jams, was quiet. Matatus and buses were parked in their hubs. Shops and stalls were closed. Even the hawkers that dot the roads and highways stayed home. Save for the heavy police presence everywhere, it felt like the country had come to a standstill.

We got to Kangemi shortly after the police had shot and wounded two protestors—the road was strewn with stones and armed riot police huddled by the side of the road waiting for the next wave of attacks that never came. In the end, six people would be shot to death throughout the country, and countless were injured and arrested. Coming from the US, where police arrest protestors and shoot black people, there were no surprises here. The US can hardly be the standard of good policing or democratic practices, but the lives lost simply for asking the government to center the people in its economic planning seemed especially cruel.

But it was the emptiness of the roads that made the whole drive eerie. Perhaps I was refracting what was happening in Kenya through what followed the 1982 coup in which 240 people were killed; or the ethnic clashes of the 1990s that culminated in the 2007 post-election violence. Yet, there was a general agreement among people that there was something different about the Kenya of today—that something was already broken and the nightmares to come were slowly but surely revealing themselves—like a bus carrying passengers and the driver realizing the brakes were out just as it was about to descend a steep hill.

Voting with the middle finger

But all this was predictable. President Ruto has been a known quantity since the 1990s when he led the violent Moi youth wingers. He and his running mate and later president, Uhuru Kenyatta, were brought in front of the ICC to face charges of crimes against humanity following the post-election violence in 2007. Some key witnesses disappeared and others were intimidated into silence. Who in their right mind gives evidence against those in control of the state? The ICC was already discredited as being Western-crimes-against-humanity friendly (the US has never been a signatory rightly afraid its former presidents, such as George Bush, would be hauled before the court). The ICC eventually withdrew the case in March 2015.

I kept asking everyone I met, why was Ruto voted in spite of his history? The answers varied: He rigged the elections; he did not rig and if he did, he only managed to be better at it than Raila Odinga; he appealed to the youth with the idea of building a hustler nation (what a telling term); the Kikuyus have vowed never to have a Luo president and therefore opted for Ruto who is Kalenjin as opposed to Odinga who is Luo.

I sat with older Kikuyu men in the little Nyama Choma spot in Limuru Market and they talked about a generational divide between the Kikuyu and youth (Ruto) and the elderly Kikuyus (Odinga). But the one I heard over and over again was that Kenyans are tired of the Kenyatta and Odinga political dynasties. As one Trump supporter was to say, they voted for him with the middle finger. And so, the Kenyans who voted for Ruto were giving a middle finger to the Kenyatta, Moi and Odinga political dynasties. But no one had really expected buyer’s remorse to kick in one year into the Ruto presidency.

I also asked about Odinga’s protests: what was the end game? One theory is that he was looking at power-sharing, having done it once before, following the 2007 elections. In our shorthand political language, he was looking for another handshake. Some said the people have a right to protest their government, and he is simply asking the government to repeal the tax hikes and reinstate the fuel subsidies. Others believed that he wants to be a genuine and useful voice of opposition for the good of the country and its poor.

My own theory is that he is attempting a people-powered, centered, democratic, and largely peaceful takeover—where people take to the streets to overthrow an unpopular government. We saw this in Latin America in the 2000s. In response to Odinga’s absence during the three days of protests (he was sick), some leaders in his Azimio party have started using this language. The only problem with this strategy is that the sitting government has to be wildly unpopular. Ruto still has a lot of support, meaning that he does not have to compromise or give up power. It was to my mind turning into a stalemate and I was worried that the state would respond with more state-sponsored violence.

But real economics broke the stalemate. In a country where people are barely surviving and the majority are poor without savings to rely on, or relatives to reach out to for help, the hawkers, small stall and shop owners simply went back to work. In other words, those that would have been hurt the most by three days of protests (a day at home literally means a day without food for the family) simply went back to work, and the matatus and buses hummed back to life, slowly on Thursday and full throttle by Friday.

Saturday around Westlands might as well have been as busy as a Monday as people overcompensated for lost time to either sell or shop. If the protests were going to succeed the opposition (composed of some of the wealthiest families in Kenya, including Odinga’s) really should have thought about how best to protect those who would be the most affected. They should find legal and innovative ways to put their money where their political mouths are.

Cuba as Kenya’s north star

Odinga had to change tactics and called for a day of protest against police violence instead of three-day weekly protests in perpetuity. He is now in danger of turning into a caricature of his old revolutionary self and becoming an Al Sharpton, who instead of protesting the American government for the police killings of black people, protests the police themselves leaving the government feeling sanctimonious. Obama or Biden could weigh in, in righteous indignation without offering any real change (remember Obama’s emotional pleas over gun shootings and police shootings as if he was not the one occupying the most powerful office in the US)?

The one question that keeps eating at me is this: why is the most apparent outcome at the time a surprise later? Ruto was always going to sell off Kenya with a percentage for himself and his friends. Odinga was always going to capitulate. The end result is that the Kenyan bus will continue to careen on without brakes. So, what is to be done?

I was in Cuba earlier this year. I got a sense of the same desperation I felt in Kenya but the difference is Cubans have free access to healthcare, education, housing, and food security. They have free access to all the things that make basic survival possible. Before calling for the tax hikes and cutting fuel subsidies might it not have been more prudent to have a safety net for Kenyans? Would that not have been the most logical thing? But of course not, Ruto is acting at the behest of the IMF and big money. Ruto has learned the art of pan-African political rhetoric. Abroad he can call for a different non-US-centered economic system and castigate the French president over paternalism but at home, his politics are hustler politics.

Life in Cuba is difficult, as a result of relentless sanctions from the US,  but it is far from impossible. It remains the north star for those who understand discussions around fundamental change as the only starting point. We can have arguments about the nature of those fundamental changes, but we can all agree we should not be a country where one family, say the Kenyatta family, owns more than half a million acres of land. Or where, as Oxfam reported, four individuals hold more wealth than that held by 22 million Kenyans. The kind of politics that begin with a necessity for fundamental change will obviously not come from Ruto.

But one hopes it can still come from the Odinga camp.  Or even better, from a genuinely progressive people-powered movement that has inbuilt questions of fundamental change in its political, economic, and cultural platform.

In spite of the empty roads, Limuru Market was thriving and Wakari Bar kept its reputation as one of the best places for Nyama Choma and for lively political conversations. People are paying attention, after all, it is their lives and livelihoods on the line. Politicians, especially those in the opposition and the political left should listen as well.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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