Electoral debts: party weakness and some enduring dynamics in Kenyan politics

Justin Willis and Gabrielle Lynch

There is in the Kenya National Archives a file of correspondence to and from the office of Jomo Kenyatta, the president, concerning the Kenya African National Union (KANU). With material from late 1964 to 1966, the file makes curious reading. This was a party that had won the pre-independence elections, and which had just become the de facto single political party after members of the opposition crossed the floor to join the government. Yet the file is full of complaints. KANU lacked the money to offer pay rises to its staff – or even to pay their wages at all; it could not pay the rent on party branch offices, or its car-hire bills.

Most of all, KANU lacked the resources to pay the debts contracted in the 1963 elections. Some of these were straightforwardly financial: for vehicles, equipment, accommodation and food for the campaign teams. The bus owners of Othaya, for example, from Kenyatta’s Central Province sought repayment of money that they claimed was owed to them for bussing farm workers – evicted by white farmers before the elections – back to the Rift Valley and Western Highlands so that they could vote. The Embu Farmers Cooperative Society similarly demanded reimbursement for accommodation and fuel supplied during the campaign.

Other unhappy correspondents complained rather of a failure to reward their loyalty. The young men who danced at campaign rallies had assumed that independence would bring them government employment; the KANU Nairobi Band Club wanted to cash in a promise made to ‘do something for us’. Local KANU branch officials in Uasin Gishu in the Rift Valley had expected that they and their youth wingers would get government jobs; KANU stalwarts in Muhoroni, in western Kenya, had expected appointment as government chiefs.


President Jomo Kenyatta in 1966.*

The party had neither the money nor the power to settle these debts. In the run-up to independence funds flowed to support KANU from multiple sources, mostly external; but much of this had been controlled by individuals. Once the election was over, KANU’s leaders moved into government positions, and focussed their energies on these; the party’s central and local apparatus, rendered irrelevant by its own success, instantly began to atrophy. And so the party’s disappointed creditors, moral and financial, began addressing their complaints directly to the president. Yet most of their complaints went unanswered, and only those who had some personal link to power – like the bus owners – were promised that their claims would be met.

The complaints of these aggrieved political creditors point to two interwoven features of Kenyan political life at the time. They show the weakness of party organization: the disappointed creditors thought they were building up credit with a party, but in the end it was only individual ties that ensured the repayment of debt. And they show that for many, elections were a moment in which relationships of patronage were created, reasserted or renegotiated around the possibility of privileged access to state resources.

Much has changed in Kenya since the mid-1960s. But both of those features remain. Kenya’s new constitution, which came into force in 2010, is surrounded by a legislative architecture intended to make parties more robust, and more enduring. But as the chaotic party primaries in early 2017 revealed, no party was able to produce the register of members that is legally required. The Jubilee Party – created from the earlier Jubilee coalition – may be a little more organized than the various opposition parties that formed the National Super Alliance. But in the 2017 elections, candidates from all parties, hoping to be members of the National Assembly, county governors, or members of county assemblies, mostly had to find for themselves the money, and the local campaign teams that they needed.

After the elections, debts fall due. The distribution of jobs and contracts is shaped by those campaign debts; which helps explain why both central and devolved governments in Kenya have a poor record for accountability and financial management, and why this is unlikely to improve. Electoral debts also shape the possibilities of political action. When the Supreme Court annulled the August 2017 presidential election and ordered a fresh poll on 1 September, the principal opposition candidate withdrew from the contest. That withdrawal was explained as a result of mistrust: the electoral commission had failed to guarantee electoral integrity. But there was an unstated background truth: the opposition had found it difficult to return to the campaign trail, for its candidates at every level had used up a lot of credit, and acquired a lot of debt.

The enduring weakness of party and the consequences of electoral debts – both patterns that were emerging in the mid-1960s – are thus still evident today. To point out this historical continuity is not to argue inevitability. Those patterns have been maintained because of decisions taken by politicians and by voters, and there are other ways of doing politics. Yet that file in the Kenya National Archives is revealing; it shows an early moment in a process which over time has increasingly shaped the sense of political possibility, so that weak parties, and the contracting and discharging of electoral debts, both seem entirely normal. Andit raises a question: how can that sense of possibility be changed?




*Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F021894-0006 / Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA.

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