Kenya’s supreme court has stood tall instead of ducking. It gives us hope

Kenya’s supreme court has stood tall instead of ducking. It gives us hope

The decision to call new elections is a win for democracy in a country dominated by flawed processes – and shows politics can be conducted in a better way

President Kenyatta forcefully defended the now nullified win, calling the judges at the supreme court ‘thugs’ for ‘subverting’ the will of the millions of Kenyans.’ Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

(The Guardian) –Three weeks ago Kenya’s polls body the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission declared Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of the country’s fiercely contested nationwide elections. Kenyatta’s re-election as president was however contested by opposition leader Raila Odinga, with the results challenged in the country’s highest court.

On Friday Kenya’s supreme court annulled the vote, and called for new elections; these will take place on 17 October.

Just hours after the ruling, Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto forcefully defended their now nullified win, calling the judges at the supreme court “thugs” for “subverting” the will of the millions of Kenyans who lined up on 8 August to vote (though the president had earlier said he would respect the decision).

His tirade against the judiciary speaks volumes about Kenya’s political class, which has over the years insisted on backing processes only when they think the end result will favour them, vowing to “fix” the judiciary if re-elected.

As he addressed the nation, a visibly irritated Kenyatta was the image of a president scorned and ruffled. He appeared to be in the throes of the African Big Man Syndrome – something that he, in his formative political years, managed to successfully avoid.

Such a reaction might have been shocking to the millions who watched him. But in reality it was nothing new. Five years ago Kenyatta’s rival Odinga faced a similar fate: having lost the 2013 elections to Kenyatta, he also challenged the results in the supreme court. On that occasion the judiciary ruled in favour of Kenyatta, and in his own fit of rage Odinga called the judges thieves for failing to nullify the election.

For impartial observers though, the latest ruling represents much more than a one-up for Odinga against Kenyatta. It was more than the victory songs and dances by the opposition – and more than the stubborn chest-thumping and “We can beat you again” by Kenyatta stalwarts too

The court decision is a win for democracy in a country dominated by flawed political processes – a litany of convenient mishaps, technological and logistical letdowns and this year, the murder of an electoral official. Kenya’s electoral problems started happening before the emergence of Kenyatta and Odinga, but its future integrity lies in their hands.

The two men, raised within the country’s political elite and having spent more of their lives in friendship than enmity, have an obligation to the country. They need to show that there is a place in this politics-crazed country for contradictory arguments. And most importantly that these arguments must be respected.

In the short term, Odinga’s jubilation over the call for a new vote might not change much. Other electoral seats have already been decided with Kenyatta’s party enjoying a near absolute majority in both the senate and in parliament. Any discussions within both houses to move the country forward cannot happen without the support of Kenyatta’s men. Once again, Kenyatta will have the weight of numbers that he used to drive his agenda in his first term of office. And Odinga will have to work his socks off to eject an incumbent, with scores to settle.

However, Kenyans remain hopeful that the ruling will come to represent the dawn of a brave new judiciary that will not be afraid to stand for truth in the face of an intimidating executive. Too often in Kenya, as is in many other African countries, the line between the two is a distant blur, with the judiciary widely used to rubber-stamp the whims of the executive.

It is refreshing that Kenya’s supreme court, buoyed up by the constitution and a clear conscience, stood tall at a time when ducking seemed likely. Kenyans will soon go to the polls again, more confident that the whole election and the tallying of results will be conducted in a much better way. And if anything does not add up, the courts, not the politicians fighting for their relevance, will have to step in.