Kenya’s courageous judges


Once again Kenya’s courts have intervened in the political process. Last year they forced a rerun of August’s flawed presidential election. Now the Supreme Court has lifted for fourteen days a government ban on three TV stations that were showing the staged inauguration of Raila Odinga, the failed presidential candidate in the still-flawed rerun of the vote.

With the exception of the country’s judges, no one is coming out of this political imbroglio with any credit. It seems clear that Kenya’s politicians, with their discreditable record of corruption, strong-arm tactics and inefficiency, need to take a long hard look at themselves and what they are doing to their country.

Odinga is most obviously at fault. He lost the August vote and had grounds to complain that the ruling party of Uhuru Kenyatta had used its incumbency to bend the election in its favor. The Kenyan High Court accepted his case that the Electoral Commission had failed in its duty to ensure a fair election. However, the new vote was called so quickly, in October, that it was clear from the outset that the Commission did not have enough time to put its house in order.

Odinga, therefore, called on his supporters to boycott the rerun. In any democracy, this is always a risky tactic. It means that an opponent’s victory will be seen as illegitimate, even if the election was conducted fairly. And indeed the second vote was clearly imperfect. However, it was not simply a matter of manipulation by the incumbent, Kenyatta. Odinga’s people were out in force seeking to frustrate the exercise. There was clear evidence of intimidation, not simply of voters but of election officials. Ballot boxes were not delivered to remote polling stations because the truck drivers who were bringing them were threatened and forced to stay away.

Odinga and his people were determined to ensure that there would be a low turnout, which would thus undermine the mandate that Kenyatta would receive. In the event only 39 percent of the electorate went to the polling stations.

To cap this distortion of the political process, on Tuesday Odinga pressed ahead with the farce of a ceremony in which he inaugurated himself as president, with one of his members of parliament, TJ Kajwang, dressing in a wig and gown as if he were the chief justice.

Kajwang has since been arrested and the government is talking about charging Odinga and his top aides with treason. The opposition leader must have realized that this would be the likely outcome of his actions. At Tuesday’s “inauguration”, he declared himself to be the “Peoples’ President”. Nothing could be further from the truth. If he was genuinely concerned for the welfare of Kenyans he would not have edged his country back toward the vicious confrontations of 2007’s election which left 1,300 people dead and more than 650,000 people displaced.

Kenya is one of Africa’s more go-ahead and prosperous countries. But it is deeply divided. Corruption disfigures the political process. Political leaders seem more interested in shoving their heads into the trough than in steering a vibrant economy toward greater growth. Above this morass of deadly political infighting, the country’s judges have had the courage to mark out a path of moderation. Kenya’s leaders would do well to heed their example and put the common good before their own interests.