In Kenya, coalitions win elections – but at what cost?

Featured image:
A file photo of Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) leader Raila Odinga and Mombasa County politician Suleiman Shahbal. /Twitter/ Suleiman Shahbal (open access)

As Kenya’s August 2022 General Election approaches, politicians are in a frantic game of searching for survival, decamping from one political party to another and forming coalitions that they hope will lead them to victory in their various contests.

One such politician is Suleiman Shahbal, who intended to vie for the Mombasa governorship post. He surprised his supporters on April 15 when he announced that he was quitting the race following “thoughtful consideration of the needs and aspirations of the people of Mombasa”… “long deliberations with my party leader Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga, and advice from the chairperson of Azimio la Umoja Coalition, President Uhuru Kenyatta”.

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Alliance is just one of the political formations born in Kenya this year in a bid by Odinga, a former opposition leader, in a united front with President Uhuru Kenyatta to defeat their main rival William Ruto in the race for the top seat. Dr Ruto is incidentally the current Deputy President to Mr Kenyatta. But having been on the same side of a political partnership for the past 10 years, their relationship appeared broken after the President refused to back Dr Ruto for the seat. Azimio, as it is known for short, joins a long list of coalitions that have come and gone in the East African country where such formations are powerful and have won elections since 2002.

These coalitions are still powerful, if Shahbal’s about-turn is anything to go by. Their main point of attraction is usually a member of what have become known as political ‘dynasties’ – the Kenyattas, the Odingas and the Mois (Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya’s founding President, Daniel Moi was the second President, and Mr Odinga’s father was the first Vice-President), who are considered the governing elite, with power almost exclusively exchanging hands within their families.

The alliances also bring together politicians with strongholds in key tribal voter regions such as Western, Nyanza, Rift Valley and the Mountain, and have strong financial muscles. It is no wonder then, that even when the cost of joining one is too high, politicians still pay it. For Shahbal, it was a dream he had been trying to fulfill since 2013.

“I hereby announce that I have dropped my gubernatorial bid in support of my brother Abdulswamad Nassir. I have pledged to work with him for the future and development that would make Mombasa remain 001 in terms of development in Kenya,” he said, referring to the son of a one-time powerful minister Sharif Nassir. Azimio granted Abdulswamad Nassir a direct ticket to contest for governor.
The announcement was so unexpected that not even Shahbal’s inside men knew why he made the move.

“Only him, Raila, Uhuru and God know the reason,” said Mohamed Ahmed, who is Shahbal’s head of communications. “He only told us that he received a call from the President, who asked him to quit the race.”

Asked for his opinion on Shahbal versus Nassir’s leadership qualities, he said: “You can’t compare the two. Shahbal is a visionary leader, whom you could tell would bring change, while Nassir is a seasoned politician. You can’t expect much from a politician. I am disappointed that the change Mombasa deserves will never be achieved.”

Independent candidature a bad option

Change for Mombasa may not come soon but for Shahbal, a reward might be in the form of a top government post should Odinga end up in the State House, based on the trends over the years.
For politicians in his shoes, there are usually two options – bowing to the pressure exerted by coalitions and waiting for a possible ‘reward’ or going independent.

But political strategist Nyagah Kaweru is of the view that candidacy as an independent puts a politician in the weakest position imaginable, mainly because the campaign costs sky-rocket.

“You do not have the party resources and you do not have that party branding,” he said. “And then on ballot day, your name will probably be the last because they will list the big political parties first. You also have to come up with your own party symbol and do your campaigns all by yourself”.

Meanwhile, he added, your opponents, under the Constitution, can get money from the exchequer.

“Independent candidature is a headache I would not wish on anyone,” he said.

Former political aspirant Chris Masika shared Nyagah’s views. Chris counted his losses in 2017, when he vied for a Nairobi member of county assembly post under the ODM. He claimed the party’s nominations were shambolic and that he and others were rigged out so a hand-picked candidate could win the party ticket.

Chris said his were genuine intentions for the public so he could not sell his soul to please politicians who “are not there to provide solutions but to make money” any way they can.

He added that because political coalitions in Kenya are tribal, a candidate who is unsuccessful under one is not at liberty to join another, meaning independent candidature is the only option besides quitting, which he says is why he took this route.

“It was very clear that without the ODM ticket, you were going nowhere, so I had to fight to win the ticket, but once it was given to a favourite candidate, I had to seek refuge as an independent candidate,” he said.

“I couldn’t join another party or an opposing coalition. The winning party at the time was ODM, so joining smaller parties would still have put me at a disadvantage.”

An endless cycle

Coalition after coalition has emerged in Kenya since the 2002 General Election, winning elections and rewarding allies for their sacrifices, but also collapsing shortly thereafter, hence an endless cycle of new formations that do not last long enough to fulfil their manifestos.

The National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) arose in 2002 as the product of a fragmented opposition that saw wisdom in joining forces in order to defeat Kanu, the independence party. The result? A landslide victory for Kibaki.

Results of Kenya’s 2002 presidential election

CandidatePartyNumber of votesPercentage of votes
Mwai KibakiNarc3,646,27762.20
Uhuru KenyattaKanu1,835,89031.32
Simeon NyachaeFord-People345,1525.89
James OrengoSocial Democratic Party24,5240.42
Waweru Ng’etheChama Cha Umma10,0610.17
Source: IFES Election Guide

But Narc’s collapse came just three years later, after its constituent parties – the National Alliance Party of Kenya and the Rainbow Coalition/ Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – disagreed over their governance blueprint. Among the key issues were how to share power 50-50, the constitutional review process and whether or not Odinga (LDP) was the right person to become prime minister.

Nyagah said that for coalitions, two key bones of contention are the running mate equation and the matter of agreements governing their operations. He cited the relationship between Raila and veteran opposition politician Kalonzo Musyoka.

He said: “Kalonzo is busy issuing statements that the coalition agreement they signed as Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Alliance is very different from the agreement Raila wants to deposit with the Registrar of Political Parties. He and others are refusing to be part of that agreement because they think there are material changes to it. Right. So, as of last week, Kalonzo was in a marriage with Raila. As of right now, he’s a runaway bride.

He notes: “Unless they sign and deposit the agreements with the registrar, it is all just talk and no action.”

Coalitions continued to win the elections in 2007, when Kibaki retained his seat, but this time under the Party of National Unity (PNU), another outfit initially formed as a coalition. Kenyatta and Ruto won in 2013 under The National Alliance (TNA), and then again in 2017, but this time under what had morphed into The Jubilee Party.

Opposition leaders have also created their own coalitions each election year, the grand goal always being to form a force strong enough to defeat the government of the day. Key among them are the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and ODM-Kenya, whose candidates – Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka – contested against Kibaki in 2007. In 2013, Odinga and his allies formed the Cord coalition, while in 2017 they formed the National Super Alliance (Nasa).

Of all these alliances, only Narc and ODM are still in existence, albeit as regional, single-leader parties and not the powerful coalitions they once were. Narc’s leader is Charity Ngilu while ODM is being led by Odinga and is recognised as an opposition party even though he has since joined forces with the President.

The other coalitions collapsed for similar reasons as Narc, most of them stemming from internal wrangles among key leaders and an inability to seal coalition agreements.

Bulletin reel: Listen to this story in brief

This year, one of the new formations is the Kenya Kwanza Alliance (KKA). Launched in January, it brings together the Amani National Congress, led by Musalia Mudavadi; Ford-Kenya, led by Moses Wetang’ula and the United Democratic Alliance, led by Ruto. Ruto, KKA’s presidential candidate, will face off with Odinga of Azimio la Umoja in the poll set for August 9.

Any real impact?

Political analyst David Mwere described the continued rise and fall of these alliances in Kenya as a “ritual”, and said the trend will be replicated this year, in 2027 and well into the future. Asked what this means for Kenya, he spoke of wins for politicians but continued “suffering” for the public.
David said he regrets that Kenyan politicians woo the people using “very flamboyant manifestos, very attractive policy pronouncements and very encouraging promises”, only to serve their own ‘selfish’ interests once in office.

“Coalitions are like the clothes you put on every day and remove when you’re going to shower or sleep. In Kenya they are just for a season, because people come together only to win elections, so at the end of every election cycle, they change,” he said.

The political analyst added that politicians are in a frenzy over the poll yet nobody is addressing persistent issues such as the external debt figure that has soared to at least Sh10 trillion in the last 10 years, the Jubilee Party’s rule, insecurity, poverty and a high cost of living.

“It’s like politicians don’t care what Kenyans do or want. It’s like we’re back to the state of nature where you are on your own. Nobody seems to be bothered,” he said, terming the situation a ‘circus’.

David noted, however, that in order to clean up their act, Kenyan politicians must adhere to constitutional requirements on forming and running coalitions. He added that the country can learn from nations such as the United States, where the Democratic and Republican parties have remained the most powerful for ages. He also cited countries closer to home, like Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa, whose powerful parties – Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the National Resistance Movement and the African National Congress, respectively – have ruled for decades.

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