In his bi-monthly column, our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman argues that we may know far less about the 2013 elections than we think we know. He explores how this might change the way we perceive the fairness of the poll, the key issues in the election, and Kenyan politics more broadly.
Former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld is less famous for positions he has held than for three short lines he uttered at a press briefing on Iraq in February 2002: ‘There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.’ Rumsfeld was ridiculed in some quarters for what many saw as an unnecessarily convoluted statement, but he made an important point: sometimes we know far less than we think we do. A conference in Nairobi on 3-4th June revealed that the recent elections were one such event. The academic meeting, organised by the universities of Durham, Oxford, and Warwick in collaboration with the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, revealed that although we can answer many questions about the elections, we lack the information to answer many more.
Indeed, given how important posts such as governor and senator are, it seems implausible that hundreds of thousands of Kenyans would have bothered to go to the polls and queued up for hours in the sun only to leave before recording their preferences. Therefore, unless the official results can be reconciled in a way that explains such inconsistencies, their release will call into question the conduct of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and the Supreme Court, whose validation of the outcome effectively brought the elections to a close.
What we don’t know is even more important than you might think, because it has serious implications for what we think we do know. Most obviously, if one million more votes were cast in the presidential election than the others, this would suggest that there were not just minor problems with the election results as the Supreme Court concluded, but that the breakdown of the process was far more widespread than many currently realise. Less obviously, the announcement of the full results may also change the way that we think about Kenyan politics. As things stand, many commentators and some of the academics who presented at the conference have interpreted the high turnout and bloc voting in Central Province, Nyanza, and Rift Valley in favour of coalitions led by figures from those regions as evidence that ethnic voting patterns were particularly strong in 2013. In turn, this has led a number of academic and media commentators to conclude that the controversial issues that enabled Jubilee leaders to rally their own communities to their cause – most notably the ICC cases and some of the statements made by the international community – were key to Mr Kenyatta’s victory. But if the additional one million presidential votes were cast in these strongholds, it may be that less Kenyans actually turned out to vote in these areas, and that those who turned out voted ‘less ethnically’, than we think. If this turns out to be the case, it would follow that the role of the ICC and the international community may not have been as important as many have argued.
What about Rumsfeld’s final category – what we don’t know we don’t know? As the philosophers among you will already have realised, we can’t say anything much on this point. Rumsfeld’s point was precisely that many of the most important things we don’t know cannot be anticipated, because they will be so new and unexpected that they will take us by surprise. For example, it is possible that new information about the elections will emerge that will change the way we think about Kenyan politics in new and important ways that none of us could have predicted. This may provide further evidence of President Kenyatta’s popularity, helping to legitimise the results and the political system. Or it may enable us to see what went wrong, and how key democratic institutions can be reformed and supported to strengthen their performance next time round. Either way, it is important to keep an open mind as we await the final results from the IEBC, and to remember that we may know less than we think we do about the 2013 Kenyan elections.
This column originally appeared in the Daily Nation on 7th June 2013.