It took barely an hour for Nairobi’s Kasarani Stadium to fill to capacity.
In a nation that weathered post-election violence several times since independence, why was there such a palpable sense of peace and national unity, despite the fault lines sown by another combative electoral campaign?
And what does this have to do with America, and other democracies around the globe? Well, everything really.
I was recently in Kenya and spoke to a host of people about the election.
First a little history. After declaring independence from Great Britain in 1963, Kenya elected the first of what’s now five presidents. Jomo Kenyatta, sentenced to seven years of hard labor for an anti-colonial rebellion he openly condemned, became the first indigenous champion to lead his nation.
Years later, election-related violence marred the re-election of Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki. Despite election day exit polls suggesting he’d lose big, Kibaki somehow found enough votes to claim victory before swearing himself back into office an hour after he was declared the winner.
In its wake, more than a thousand Kenyans were killed, and 600,000 rendered homeless, before a pluri-national effort by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Anan negotiated a coalition government to knit the shattered pieces of democracy back together.
Ten years later, more violence erupted after the 2017 re-election of Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, including the death of a nine-year old girl caught in crossfire between police and protestors.
Fast forward to last month, when Deputy President William Ruto bested Kenyatta-backed Raila Odingo by little more than a point amid allegations of fraud, bribery and intimidation. Kenya’s Supreme Court, after three exhaustive days of testimony, confirmed the result while admonishing both sides to do better next time around.
That’s because Kenyans had moved past the proverbial “choke point.” They’d had enough of the violence and divisiveness. They wanted something better, clearer, more unifying.
They got just that by instituting a more transparent, more accessible electoral system, where results were immediately shared directly with the public online, unfiltered by politicians who in the past had manhandled democracy by manipulating the truth.
Kenyans chose a system built upon the pillar of trust.
By contrast, Americans have yet to choose. Instead, we tolerate elections that have devolved to candidates and their followers believing that winning justifies an assault on democracy itself, a system based on the tendrils of trust that when frayed weakens the state of the union.
Public Opinion Strategies’ recent poll regarding the polarization of America is chock full of warning signs. Three major takeaways:
- A majority say government is corrupt, rigged against “people like them”
- A plurality fear Civil War is “likely” in the coming decade
Kenyans addressed their threat by improving their system of elections. America must do the same before fear becomes too deeply rooted in reality.
Make elections more open and transparent. Standardize election systems to protect voter intent. Apply the best of technology to the best of purposes. Secure ballot integrity by requiring voter ID. Impose sentences on anyone who knowingly perpetuates fraud and illegality. Above all, when an election proves stubbornly close, don’t demonize challenges but rapidly investigate them.
Americans have already reached their own “choke point” and have a decision to make: Breathe again, trust again — or further rappel down the slippery slope of civic discord and dissolution.
Before a human sea of supporters, President Ruto proclaimed the people of Kenya were the true winners of the recent election. “We have done well. We have blazed the trail in an increasingly challenging environment where democracy is consistently on trial.” Ruto spoke to the connection of community and the communion of shared needs like jobs and the affordability of food.
Today American democracy — and the freedom it conveys — is on trial and will require the same kind of courage it took to overcome depression and disease, conflict and war; the kind that bred heroes.
Kenyans survived a sometimes-stormy past to win an opportunity for a brighter future. Americans owe them a debt of gratitude. They reminded us that winning is not only about points on election scorecards but preserving the principle, civility, and unity that assures winning actually means something.