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W&L Expert Analyzes Upcoming Kenyan Election

Along with observers around the world, Tyler Dickovick, a Washington and Lee University politics professor, will be watching Kenya’s election on Monday with a mixture of apprehension and hopefulness.

An expert on the decentralization of government who specializes in sub-Saharan Africa, Dickovick has spent parts of the last two summers working with the Transition Authority, composed of officials in Kenya, as they attempt to shift power from the central government to 47 counties.

In large measure that effort was the outgrowth of the violence that followed Kenya’s last election, in 2007, when 1,300 people died and 600,000 were forced from their homes in the aftermath.

“I wish I could be more confident that the decentralization will have some success,” said Dickovick, whose work under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) led to his participation in the Transition Authority. “Prognostications are always risky. The two African countries that I study the most are Ghana and Kenya. In the lead-up to the Ghanaian election in December, there was some tension and the potential for a bit of ethnic strife. Yet, I felt confident predicting that you would not have in Ghana a significant blowup.

“I am not confident in making any prediction for Kenya about whether events of 2007 and 2008 will repeat themselves or not. I would not be surprised either way.”

The idea of shifting from a government with all the power at the center to one in which power is distributed to smaller units — the counties, in this case — is to avoid the sense that an election gives the winners all the chips. In countries like Kenya with clear ethnic divisions, the hope of a decentralized system is that the side that loses the presidency will at least have elected governors or mayors from its tribe who will be playing significant roles in governing.

As Dickovick explained, Republicans and Democrats in the United States can fight over the White House. In the same year, however, that, say, Democrats, win the White House, Republican governors may have won elections in half the states or more.

“In this kind of system, the losing side continues to have a stake in being part of the system,” he said. “It would be a much more troubling system in the U.S. if whoever won the White House also controlled all 50 governorships and on down the line,” he said. “That was the notion behind going from this really centralized system to a more decentralized system, to give everybody a stake and to get rid of this winner-take-all formula.”

What gives Dickovick pause when it comes to Monday’s election is not so much whether or not the new system will work but how quickly it has been developed and how little time Kenyans have had to get accustomed to it.

The change, he said, was swift. Making a country so different in such a short period of time requires significant shifts in thinking. “You cannot go from having a political system that looks like Russia’s to a system that looks like the U.S. overnight,” he said. “The time frame in which Kenyan decentralization was expected to work its magic was really, really short.”

When Kenyans go to the ballot box, they will no longer be voting for only a president, Dickovick noted. Now they will vote for six people: president, senator, representative, woman representative in their new county, representative to their county assembly and governor. Despite what he said have been extraordinarily thoughtful people who have worked hard to make this change, Dickovick is not sure that it will be possible to get everybody ready for this election, with its new system.

Whatever the outcome, Dickovick said, it will be hard to decipher what impact the decentralized system has had on this election. “If there is violence, it won’t mean that decentralization failed but that it wasn’t sufficient to overcome the many social conflicts Kenya has,” he said. “If there is not violence, it will not mean that decentralization alone is responsible since many other things, including the government’s preparations, will have come into play.”

Complicating a clear analysis further are the personalities of the two primary candidates — Raila Odinga, the current prime minister, and Uhuru Kenyatta. Odinga is a Luo, the rival tribe historically of the Kikuyu tribe, of which Kenyatta is a member.

“Odinga is the son of one of Kenya’s founding fathers, while Kenyatta is the son of the founding father of Kenya,” said Dickovick. “So they are the next generation of the initial rivalry between two of the founding fathers and two of the largest tribes. Their personalities matter, of course, but most analysts would say that ethnicity matters most.

“The fact that these are the leading candidates and the polls indicate they are neck-and-neck simply makes it even more difficult to predict what will happen on Monday.”

A member of the W&L faculty since 2004, Dickovick is the author of “Decentralization and Recentralization in the Developing World: Comparative Studies from Africa and Latin America,” published in 2011 by the Pennsylvania State University Press.

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