Recent victories by opposition parties in Zambia, Malawi, Cape Verde, and Ghana are challenging the power of the incumbent thesis in African elections. In Kenya, no sitting president has ever lost an election but a sitting president has seen his preferred candidate lose an election. In 2002, longtime President Daniel Moi saw his chosen successor Uhuru Kenyatta defeated by Mwai Kibaki in what was seen as the freest elections in Kenya’s history. Fast forward, twenty years on, President Uhuru Kenyatta is backing his longtime political nemesis turned ally Raila Odinga against his “estranged” deputy William Ruto.

In March 2018, President Kenyatta and Raila Odinga sealed a political pact in an act referred to as “the handshake.” This move sidelined Deputy President William Ruto and elevated Raila Odinga who became more and more a government insider than an opposition leader and enjoyed the trappings of the state. Since then, Ruto has remained the deputy president in name only, as he is largely sidelined from day-to-day government business. Ruto broke off from the ruling Jubilee Party and formed the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) in January 2021. Uhuru Kenyatta has publicly endorsed Mr. Odinga and heads the Azimio Coalition, the vehicle that Mr. Odinga is using for his fifth attempt at the presidency. Odinga and Ruto are the two leading candidates in this year’s elections. This essay argues that, while ethnic mobilization remains crucial in the Kenyan electoral process, issues such as the economy, integrity, and client-patron relations (clientelism) will shape the outcome of the presidential elections.

The electoral cycle of the 2022 Kenyan elections began immediately after the nullification of the 2017 elections by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Kenya ruled that the electoral body failed to comply with the law and that an electoral outcome is as good as the process. The decision was heralded as a democratic move towards enhancing electoral integrity, not just in Kenya but in Africa as a whole. Kenya has experienced contested elections since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992. The epitome of electoral contestation came in 2007 when violence broke out, claiming the lives of close to 1,300 people. Over the years, the key issue in the electoral process in Kenya centered around the question of ethnicity and ethnic inclusion at the national level. The 2010 constitution brought in devolution as a way to address this problem. By creating a devolved system of governance, the thinking behind the crafters of the constitution was to decentralize government factions and lend some autonomy to the devolved units for better distribution of resources. Despite the nobility of the 2010 constitution, the political players in Kenya have continuously debated the efficacy of ethnic inclusion and national cohesion.

Electoral issues in Kenyan presidential election cycles have been both general and specific to the electoral context. The general electoral context over the years has often been the identity of the candidate and the electorate–seen through the lens of ethnicity. The election of 2007, for example, was framed through the lens of 41 against 1 (a symbolic construction of 41 ethnic communities in Kenya against the dominant Kikuyu). This narrative was used by the opposition outfit led by opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga to mobilize voters against what was perceived as Kikuyu dominance. The 2013 election was also framed along ethnic mobilization under the “tyranny of numbers” concept. The thesis of the tyranny of numbers assumed an ethnic voter lock-in in which the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru (GEMA) communities of central Kenya and the Kalenjin would constitute a dominant electoral majority. The Uhuru-Ruto alliance of 2013 was also primed as a reconciliation move following the 2007 events. Kenyatta and Ruto, who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court, used the case to rally support painting the Hague-based court as a neo-imperial entity. The alliance of Uhuru Kenyatta (a Kikuyu) and William Ruto (a Kalenjin) went on to win the 2013 elections. Of course, there were other factors that shaped and influenced the electoral outcomes but the “tyranny of numbers” pointed to the grave realities of ethnic balkanization in Kenya. The opposition also coalesced around an ethnic bloc under the banner of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), although it also campaigned on the agenda for reforms.

Key issues in the 2022 presidential race

Jaimie Bleck and Nicolas van de Walle argued that the long-standing belief that electoral politics in Africa lack substantive issues away from identity (ethnicity) and venue for violence is an oversimplification of reality. They argue that there is growing discussion around economic policies, constitutionalism and democracy, security, and citizenship.1Bleck, J., & Van de Walle, N. (2018). Electoral Politics in Africa since 1990: Continuity in Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The deputy president has assumed the opposition tag and has constantly chided his own government led by President Uhuru Kenyatta. A key plank in his political messaging has been the hustler versus dynasty narrative. Rallying on the hustler moniker, Ruto cites his humble background, contrasting it to that of Kenyatta and Odinga, whose fathers symbolize a dominant privileged political class. The two are sons of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first president and vice president respectively. The hustler tag seemed to have struck a chord, as it sought to target those perceived to be economically marginalized and mainstream the concerns of the majority poor. He has repeatedly said that this election is about the economy, branding his policy on a bottom-up economy approach. That notwithstanding, the Kenyatta-Odinga association is seen as a clientelist ploy to safeguard the status-quo. Ruto has vowed to dismantle this upon taking office.

The choice of Martha Karua, a woman who has a reformist background, as Odinga’s running mate shifted the political rhetoric. Raila Odinga and Martha Karua’s ticket is seen as a reformist ticket based on their history of fighting against the Moi dictatorship and delivering a new constitution. Ruto and his running mate Rigathi Gachagua have both been charged with multi-million shilling corruption related offenses.

Apart from the hustler narrative, William Ruto has managed to convince a significant section of the people of central Kenya, including the Kikuyu community, to back his presidential bid. While both he and Odinga have picked Kikuyu running mates, Ruto’s appeal in central Kenya has been strengthened by Kenyatta’s perceived failure to uplift the lives of his kinsmen as well as supporting a historic “adversary” of the Kikuyu.

Prior to the announcement of the running mates in May, there was a general apathy among Kenyan voters. Many Kenyans felt that none of the leading candidates represented substantial change. The choice of Martha Karua as Raila Odinga’s running mate ushered in a lot of excitement, especially among women voters.

These issues notwithstanding, the management of the elections by the electoral body remains crucial. Similar to the 2013 and 2017 elections, the judiciary will once again be at the center of this year’s elections. These issues will determine whether the opposition as “incumbent” in Raila Odinga or the “incumbent” in opposition will win the August 9th elections.


  • 1
    Bleck, J., & Van de Walle, N. (2018). Electoral Politics in Africa since 1990: Continuity in Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.