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The climate, economic and political shifts that shaped Kenya’s 2017 election

Written by Elizabeth Carabine


As Kenyans awaited the results of last week’s elections, tensions boiled over amid accusations of vote rigging and outbreaks of rioting. Several days after polls closed, the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta has been declared the winner of the presidential race.

But the anxiety is not over as people await the reaction of his opposition, Raila Odinga. As was the case when post-election violence broke out after the 2007 elections the reasons for the tensions are complex and multifaceted. But over the last ten years, Kenya has seen major environmental, economic and political shifts, which may be influencing these tensions – and will continue to do so unless they are addressed.

Climate risk has increased in recent years

Average yearly temperatures in many of Kenya’s arid and semi-arid counties appear to have already exceeded the global target of 1.5 degrees centigrade and a series of severe droughts have struck the country. The 2008-2011 drought in East Africa was the worst humanitarian crisis to hit the country in several decades, affecting over 13 million Kenyans.

In February of this year the government declared a state of drought emergency that has doubled the number of food insecure people and led to rapid nationwide inflation of food prices, including for staples like maize and sugar.

Drought also increasingly threatens the national economy, directly impacting the agriculture and water sectors, as well as indirectly affecting growing sectors like energy and services, and export markets. During the election campaign, the collision of this and land tenure insecurity has contributed to violent clashes in the Laikipia region. Climate risk is undermining equitable economic development, particularly at local level, increasing tensions across the country.

Economic growth in Kenya has been rapid

Kenya has experienced an impressive rate of economic growth in recent years, helped significantly by development in service sectors such as telecommunications, finance and tourism. Between 2009 and 2016, annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaged 5.65% (compared to 1.48% in the United States).

This rapid growth has seen Kenya become a regional economic powerhouse. But it has not brought with it improvements to the lives and livelihoods of many ordinary Kenyans; nearly half of the population is estimated to be living under the national poverty line, and more than 22% of young people were unemployed in 2016. Employment growth has largely been in the informal sector, which is mostly considered unproductive and poorly paid, and is unable to meet the needs of the population.

Added to this, the agricultural sector still employs an estimated 61% of the total labour force, the majority of whom are primarily smallholders engaged in subsistence agriculture. But, despite its huge share of jobs, the sector’s overall contribution to GDP is set to decline, contracting in 2017 due to drought. For many Kenyans, economic growth is not creating economic security. This may influence people’s attitude to the election result.

Devolution has transformed governance

Kenya’s 2010 Constitution set out a devolution process that has transformed governance in the country, in large part as a response to the 2007 post-election crisis. This week’s polls mark the second elections for Kenya’s 47 county governments and unlike in previous elections, the results at county level will now shift the balance of power regardless of Kenyatta’s victory.

Devolution has seen the transfer of financial resources to local level. While public–private spending on infrastructure is estimated at 21.5% of GDP – in line with averages for sub-Saharan Africa – spending in areas of Kenya that have previously been marginalised has increased greatly through county governments. But such huge investments in infrastructure need to help, rather than hinder, access to markets. At the local level smallholder farmers and pastoralists remain largely disconnected – and so still feel disenfranchised.

Looking ahead

The Jubilee party have pledged to advance the devolution programme and deliver a more inclusive economy through investment across sectors. Less has been promised with respect to climate action. But unless development is truly fair and resilient to climate change we are likely to see a repeat of this week’s tensions in the future.

There are viable options for increasing resilience. These include: investment in value addition; diversification into services, like livestock production, that support important livelihoods; and preservation of informal mechanisms where these strengthen the capacity to adapt under a changing climate. In the last week of uncertainty, Kenyans will be hoping for a swift end to unrest and that Kenyatta keeps his promises. If underlying causes of instability are not addressed they may be back here again in 2022.