You can vote in Kenya at 18, but the first time I voted I was 21. It was Kenya’s 2007 Presidential election. Five years prior, in 2002 Kenyans voted in what was described as “the most free and fair elections in the country’s history.” The ruling party, which had been in power for four decades – since independence from British colonialism – was democratically voted out and the long-serving president agreed to step down. An opposition party winning an election and the incumbent president agreeing to vacate power was not our normal. It hadn’t happened before in Kenya and was a rare event in Africa at that point.
I was too young to vote in that 2002 election, but the results made me think that change was possible, that voting was not just symbolic, that a government could be responsive to the convictions of its people. It was a confirmation from society, I thought, that our choices actually do matter and the way the world is now is not how it must be tomorrow.
In 2007, the Kenyan government was led by President Mwai Kibaki, who was enthusiastically elected by the people in 2002. But he, and the government he led, became caught up in scandal after scandal, tainting the popular mandate that Kenyans had bestowed upon his administration.
Voting in Kenya is never a quick, painless thing that can be done on your way to work. We’re mentally prepared to give it time, we wake up early and stand in a queue for many hours. Thankfully, voting day is a public holiday here.
In 2007 the election day itself went off uneventfully, and within a few hours of the polls closing, results started trickling in that the challenger, Raila Odinga, was in the lead against Kibaki. But over the next four days, election officials accepted irregular return forms from various constituencies, signed off on unverified or obviously doctored vote counts, and blocked independent monitoring, eventually delivering a razor-thin victory to incumbent Kibaki.
The election fraud was so systemic that the chairman of the electoral commission later admitted that he didn’t know who really won. Within hours of Kibaki being hurriedly sworn in for a second term, reports of violence started coming in. The country faced its most serious political unrest since independence.
Deus Ex Machina
Tharaka Nithi is a small county in Kenya about the size of a small state in the U.S. In 2007, a constituency in Tharaka Nithi delivered an improbable vote count that ostensibly pushed Kibaki into the lead and gave him the margin he needed to win reelection. An election official reportedly kept the official printed results from Nithi to himself, literally “close to his chest,” during those tense hours, and “for the rest of the night, carried it with him everywhere he went.” Turnout in Nithi was announced at a suspiciously high 80 percent, and nearly all the votes went to Kibaki.
With that, the term Tharaka Nithi entered Kenyan parlance in infamy, meaning: last-minute, nefarious deus ex machina that subverts a democratic process in favor of the incumbent. What happened in Kenya in 2007 was a brazen, reactionary strategy, employed in desperation when those in power found themselves against the ropes.
Maybe my voice didn’t matter, I remember thinking, even when I woke up early to vote and stood in a queue all day, never mind the heat and dust of December.
America’s Tharaka Nithi
This year, I fear we’ll be seeing another Tharaka Nithi when the U.S. votes for a new president. The signs are all there. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, historic numbers of U.S. voters are casting their ballot by mail. In June 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump appointed his ally Louis DeJoy, as head of the U.S. Postal Service, who proceeded to take about 500 mail-sorting machines out of service. As a result, mail is being delayed or is going missing in many states.
President Trump has openly admitted to crippling the U.S. Postal Service so that mail-in votes don’t come in on time. Flashback to Kenya in 2007, the electoral commission, the body overseeing the election, was appointed by the President, and in the months leading up to the election he packed the 22-person body with 17 new commissioners, all of whom were considered allies. None of whom had ever run an election.
Does any of this sound familiar?
In the U.S. this year, the possibility of armed militia groups showing up at polling sites on election day is no longer mere speculation. The President essentially issued a call to action to such groups mobilizing them to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” while the FBI arrested a number of militia members who face charges of conspiring to kidnap the Michigan governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
President Donald Trump has now appointed three of the nine judges that make up the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, describing them as “my judges” and arguably reordering the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers to benefit himself. In 2007 Kenya, the opposition knew it would have been foolish to take their objections to the courts in the wake of a disputed election – the judiciary was captured.
In Kenya’s 2007 election, armed groups had been mobilizing prior to voting day as well and were activated in the wake of the disputed election. Within hours of Kibaki’s swearing in, homes were burning, people were displaced, and loved ones killed. This was not a spontaneous reaction to a stolen election – the violence “emerged as a result of incitement before the election and coordination and organization, at least at the local level,” a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch stated.
When I lived in the Boston area, I was struck by the bewilderment white Americans showed at the results of the 2016 election. It was less than a year after the election and they seemed not just despondent but shell-shocked. Most had not yet processed the fact that Donald Trump was actually president, that this was actually happening. “This is not my America, this is not the America I know,” I would often hear. And the outrage of my white American friends would quickly dissipate into either sorrow or confusion.
My Black friends, however, were altogether different in their disposition. Rather than wandering around like the walking wounded, they were much more emotionally focused in their response to a Trump presidency. Not that they were any less angry, but they were more precise in their critique, less surprised, and more discerning at the forces that had led the U.S. to this point. This was an incarnation of the America that they knew too well.
Those of us acquainted with older sorrows – with legacies of colonialism, slavery, persecution, authoritarianism, land grabs, and lynchings – know better than to claim innocence and surprise. As I wrote in another op-ed, “Dishonest self-interest, a disregard for the masses, and violence directed at subordinates – whether physical, political, economic or cultural – have always underwritten Western modernity.” Seen through this lens, a Trump presidency fits quite neatly.
James Baldwin’s words summarize it more succinctly: “it is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”
I suspect that an American Tharaka Nithi is in the works. It could be a state like Pennsylvania, which is looking by far the likeliest state to provide either President Trump or Joe Biden with the decisive vote in the Electoral College with a 31 percent chance of the state tipping the election either way. Reliably voting for the Democrat in the prior six presidential elections, Pennsylvania went Republican in 2016, and the model by FiveThirtyEight gives Trump an 84 percent chance of winning the presidency if he carries the state (and Biden a 96 percent chance of winning if Pennsylvania goes blue).
Of course Florida could also be America’s Tharaka Nithi. It is hard to know. But if a shady, underhanded, anti-democratic deus ex machina is revealed in the U.S. election, I can only share what happened in my country thirteen years ago.
To quote the Human Rights Watch report again: “The scale and speed of the violence that engulfed Kenya following the controversial presidential election of December 27, 2007 shocked both Kenyans and the world at large. Two months of bloodshed left over 1,000 dead and up to 500,000 internally displaced persons in a country viewed as a bastion of economic and political stability in a volatile region.”
The U.S. has been a bastion of economic and political stability for many of its citizenry. But that can change. I’ve seen things change.