Why Kenya’s presidential election on August 8 matters

Av Hamza Mohamed | Al Jazeera

The young democracy and regional economic powerhouse plays a key role in regional security and political order.

Kenyans will be heading to the polls on August 8 for elections that have been closely followed not just in the Horn of Africa country but across the world.

Election posters have replaced consumer goods ads on street billboards as politicians step up their campaigns to win over the 19 million registered voters.

It is the sixth presidential election since the country of more than 45 million people embraced a multiparty democratic system in 1992.

So why do the elections in Kenya matter not just to Kenyans but to the rest of the African continent and the world?

Economic hub

Nairobi is East Africa’s economic hub, and the country is the second-largest economy in the region, according to figures from the World Bank and the International Monitory Fund (IMF).

Until late 2014, when its larger neighbour, Ethiopia, overtook it, Kenya had the biggest economy – at more than $60bn – of the East Africa region.

«Kenya was quick to welcome foreign investors, more than its neighbours. Kenya, for a long time, had the fastest developing economy in the region,» Samuel Nyademo, an economist at Nairobi University, told Al Jazeera.

«Foreign investors put a lot of money, for example, in the aviation, banking, tourism and the telecommunications sectors. These sectors generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for the government and employ thousands of Kenyans. Anything other than smooth elections will be a disaster,» Nyademo explained.

Nairobi is also home to the region’s most developed stock market and, according to Nyademo, the rhetoric on the campaign trails can affect share prices.

The port in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa serves neighbouring landlocked countries like South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If elections disrupt this transport corridor, as happened after the 2007 election, when there was widespread violence, the price of everyday goods, such as rice and cooking oil, could rise significantly.

«South Sudan is at the mercy of the elections in Kenya. It will pay the heaviest price in terms of imports and its banking sector if the elections are not trouble-free,» Nyademo said.


The election is also being closely watched in The Hague, the city in the Netherlands where the International Criminal Court (ICC) is based, and in capitals across the European continent.

Both Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan president, and his deputy William Ruto spent time in The Hague defending themselves against allegations they incited ethnic violence following the 2007 election. The ICC has since dropped the charges.

The two men have previously campaigned for the country to withdraw from the court. But their rival, Raila Odinga, opposed this. The issue divided the country and was a major theme in the last election.

Professor Karuti Kanyinga, a political scientist based in Nairobi, told Al Jazeera that «both camps are staying away from the issue of the ICC in public for now. It polarised the country and had [a] negative effect abroad as well».

Kanyinga added: «No one saw it coming what happened in 2007. Everyone thought Kenya was a very stable country and did not expect the country to burn like it did.»

Humanitarian agencies

Kenya is home to several UN and humanitarian agencies that oversee relief efforts in the region. Most of the aid agencies operating in South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are based out of the Kenyan capital.

The 2007 post-election violence hampered relief efforts in neighbouring warzones.

The country is also home to the world’s largest refugee camp.

The vast Dadaab refugee camp in the country’s northeastern part is home to more than half a million refugees, mostly from neighbouring Somalia. 

Kakuma, another refugee camp in the northwestern part of the country, houses more than 160,000 refugees, mostly from war-torn South Sudan, according to the UN.

Humanitarian assistance, such as food and medicine, for the refugees is coordinated from Nairobi and any post-election violence will affect the refugees who have escaped violence in their home countries.

Troops abroad

Since 2011, Kenya has sent more than 3,600 soldiers into Somalia to fight the armed group al-Shabab as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission in the country.

It has suffered military losses in the neighbouring country, and the opposition has vowed to pull the troops out if they win the elections. This could have regional repercussions and leave the already stretched and underfunded African Union mission hamstrung.

«A win for the opposition means, potentially, the Kenyan troops will be withdrawn from Somalia, that’s what they’ve promised. If the current administration wins, the troops will stay in Somalia, that’s their promise,» Abdullahi Boru, a security expert based Nairobi, told Al Jazeera.

«But withdrawal won’t be that straight forward because the troops are serving under AMISOM,» Boru added.

President Kenyatta has said the troops will remain in Somalia until peace and stability are restored there.

As campaigning draws to a close and voters get ready to cast their vote, observers say all eyes will be on the outcome.

«The election result matters greatly to Kenyans,» said Ndemo, the economist. «But also for the region and the wider world. What happens here will be felt in other places.»