Kenya – Chaotic primaries and the threat of election violence – just like in 2013

Party primaries ahead of the August elections have been disrupted due to poor preparation, accusations of rigging and violence. Both the ruling Jubilee Party (JPK) and the main opposition party in the National Super Alliance (Nasa), the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), have been affected.

The results of JPK’s primaries held on Friday, April 21, were annulled due to the chaos caused by logistical delays and under-preparedness (President Uhuru Kenyatta emphasised that they were under-prepared rather than unprepared in a desperate attempt to save face).

The ODM’s primaries, meanwhile, were also characterised by poor planning and incidents of violence – particularly in its strongholds (such as Homa Bay, Migori, Kisii, Kwale and Busia, among others).

Parties have until May 1 to conclude their nomination processes. This delay puts further pressure on the electoral commission which is already struggling to keep to its preparation schedule.

The fear, as in 2013, is that the violence displayed portends further violence in August, but this does not necessarily follow.

Primaries in 2013 were also characterised by poor planning and violence and the same fear arose; however, the January primaries of that year were the high point for conflict and the elections passed in relative peace.

The chaos was largely expected at the most recent primaries. JPK had asked the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to conduct its primaries in order to ensure that they went smoothly and were accepted by aspirants to be free and fair (critics claimed that they also just wanted the government to foot the bill).

The opposition protested that taxpayer money should not be used for party primaries and threatened to oppose the idea in court. Their critics, meanwhile, said that opposition parties just wanted to use the primaries to raise money off of aspirants and as a way for the leaders within the party to manipulate the outcomes.

It is interesting to note that in 2013 the Wiper Democratic Movement (part of Nasa) had supported the idea of the IEBC conducting party primaries.

“All political parties will agree with me that going forward, we will have to have better ways of nominations and my observation is that they be IEBC-led because the polls body is the only institution that has the wherewithal to conduct the exercise,” Wiper Party Leader Kalonzo Musyoka said in January 2013.

In the end, the IEBC stated that it already has enough on its plate with the task of organising the general elections. Hopefully the chaos of the primaries will cause them to double their efforts to ensure that August’s polls go off without a hitch.

Next time calls for the IEBC to be involved may have more support.


As we can see from the graphs, conflict during the 2013 election season peaked around the primaries and then tapered off significantly. It is likely that this year will see the same pattern.

Levels of protests and riots, as recorded by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled), are much the same as they were in 2013 while the data on violence against civilians (by government security forces) indicates that tensions are markedly lower this time around.

Obviously, the 2013 elections were significantly tenser due to them being the first elections since the 2007/08 violence that killed over 1,200 people and caused hundreds of thousands to be displaced.

Are the fears of significant violence and instability warranted?

Analysis of the 2013 elections by Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis identified four reasons why the polls were more peaceful than previous ones: 1) the alliance between Mr Kenyatta and William Ruto (now deputy president) defused ethnic tensions between Kikuyus and Kalenjin’s (the main groups involved in the 2007/08 violence), 2) a pervasive peace narrative carried by all main contenders and the media, 3) democratic reforms instituted after the adoption of a new constitution, and 4) devolution and the creation of 47 new counties which allowed the opposition to win locally even though it lost nationally.

As these factors are still largely in play in the current situation, we can perhaps expect a similar level of conflict to characterise this election.

However, there are obviously new factors to consider.

The peace narrative is not as strong this time around – although Mr Kenyatta has lately been calling for cool heads to prevail – and rising inflation and food scarcity due to the drought has affected many.

Meanwhile, questions over the IEBC and the electoral process have been raised by the opposition, which raises the risk of challenges to the results.

Should Nasa break up before the election, this could bring new reasons to worry.

Dynamics in the Rift Valley, where Isaac Ruto of the Chama Cha Mashinani (CCM) party has joined Nasa, also need to be watched. Both he and Deputy President Ruto (no relation) have one eye on the 2022 election (along with Gideon Moi of the Kenya African National Union, Kanu) and this could see the fight for the Kalenjin vote turn violent.

On the positive side (with regard to risk) the opposition is in disarray and a JPK win in the presidential race would surprise few – meaning challenges to the result will not hold much sway and this could reduce the chances of post-election violence.

The chaotic primaries, then, do not necessarily portend violence in August. The factors that made 2013 far more peaceful than 2007/08 (not to mention elections in the early 1990s) are still largely in play.

New dynamics are ambiguous, with some likely to increase tensions (such as those in the Rift Valley) while others could further decrease the likelihood of violence (such as the slow start to the Nasa campaign and widely held expectations of a Jubilee win).

What we have learnt from the chaotic primaries is that there may in future be more support for the IEBC conducting them (which would add to the costs of elections for the government) and party politics in Kenya remains under-developed (Mr Kenyatta would perhaps prefer that description).

The effects of devolution are also once again evident, but while they may have helped spur the establishing of JPK as a national party, they have not brought about a similar national opposition party.

This may only occur in 2022 – which should be a more interesting election altogether.

Nasa is scheduled to announce its presidential candidate on April 27. It is expected that Raila Odinga (ODM) will once again be put forward with Kalonzo Musyoka (Wiper Party) as his running mate.

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