Kenya’s polls heat drives jitters up the Northern Corridor

By BRIAN NGUGI

Top US spy agencies have expressed concerns over the political uncertainty around the August 9 General Election in Kenya, warning that any disruptions in East Africa’s largest economy will not be healthy for regional stability.

Kenya, which is a strategic ally of the US in the Horn of Africa, faces another test of stability in a hotly contested presidential election at a time it has emerged as a player in brokering peace in conflicts in Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Deputy President William Ruto and ODM party leader Raila Odinga are the leading hopefuls to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta, who will leave office at the end of constitutional two terms.

Mr Kenyatta has embarked on an aggressive campaign for the veteran opposition leader Odinga against his renegade deputy, who has been campaigning for close to five years to succeed his boss.

Now, a new report by the heads of US intelligence agencies — who include Avril Haines (director of national intelligence), CIA chief William Burns, General Paul Nakasone (head of the National Security Agency) and FBI director Christopher Wray — says the US is concerned that Kenya’s pivotal role as a regional peace broker could be compromised by domestic distractions related to this year’s election.

The annual report titled Worldwide Threat Assessment represents a consensus among the 17 intelligence agencies of major threats confronting the US, and is used by law and policy makers for critical decisions and crafting budgets.

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“East Africa probably will see new bouts of conflict in the coming year as the region becomes increasingly strained by the civil war in Ethiopia, power struggles within the transitional government in Sudan, continued instability in Somalia, and a potentially contentious election in Kenya,” it says.

The declassified 31-page document came as the Ugandan Cabinet and legislators voiced concerns about the rising political temperatures in Kenya, which have driven up the cost of living along the Northern Corridor due to hesitancy by importers and transporters to use the route.

The Uganda leaders called on their government to put in place a robust contingency plan for factors that could drive up commodity prices, key of these being the Kenyan elections.

The Rwanda-Uganda border post at Kyanika. Rwanda recently reopened its borders with Uganda, whose closure had cut reliance on the Northern Corridor for imports. Uganda is also looking to the Central Corridor from the port of Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | FILE | NMG

Kenya is the main route for imports into Uganda, with oil from international sources delivered to Eldoret, where other Northern Corridor countries Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda and eastern DR Congo pick it for transportation to their markets.

Diverting imports

Analysts say Uganda has not learnt from the 2007 polls, when post-election violence in Kenya led to blockage of fuel imports and rail-bound cargo from Mombasa after the railway track was uprooted.

“Uganda should facilitate imports and exports through the Central Corridor and deploy more water vessels to connect to the Central Corridor,” said Jane Nalunga, executive director of the Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (Seatini) Uganda, that works to promote pro development trade and fiscal policies in Uganda and the region.

She said the Uganda government should have already started expanding the capacity of its reserve fuel storage to buttress the country from supply shocks.

And, taking cue, last week port and rail service providers in Tanzania and Uganda signed a freight forwarding agreement with Roofings Group of Uganda to increase the volume of cargo through the Dar es Salaam port.

The deal involved the Tanzania Ports Authority, the Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC) and the Uganda Railways Corporation, under the Central Corridor Transit Transport Facilitation Agency (CCTTFA).

About two percent of Uganda’s cargo passes through the Dar port, according to TRC Director General Masanja Kadogosa, who said the new deal would see a 30 percent increase in shipping business with Uganda.

Uganda Railways Corporation Chief Operating Officer Okachi Abubakar said 70 carriages had been flagged off from Uganda to Dar, and two ships would facilitate transportation of the cargo through Lake Victoria.

These new developments come as Uganda continues to express dissatisfaction with the non-tariff barriers Nairobi has erected in bilateral trade.

Last week, the Ugandan private sector asked Kenya to resolve the outstanding trade disputes involving poultry products, milk and sugar.

The US report and the unease in Uganda about the disruption by the Kenyan election might dampen the optimism on the Northern Corridor after Rwanda reopened the land borders with Uganda and Burundi, promising traders better returns and facilitating travel.

DP Ruto protests

This came as DP Ruto toured the US, where he appealed to the international community to help stop attempts to influence the outcome of the August presidential election.

Speaking at the Karson Institute for Race, Peace and Social Justice in Loyola University in Maryland, the DP said government agencies were trying to manipulate people’s decisions.

He said there were concerns that a clique of individuals was trying to blackmail, intimidate and use the criminal justice system to influence votes.

“As a leader, I have taken the position to speak against any attempts to try and straitjacket people into predetermined outcomes. We would have expected to do this without the baggage of blackmail and intimidation that is going on but, unfortunately, that is where we are,” said Dr Ruto.

While there has not been major election-related violence in the current campaigns, the ghosts of the 2007/8 violence continue to haunt importers and transporters on the Northern Corridor.

In 2018, a Kenyan court ordered the government to pay 16 Ugandan and Rwandan companies $63 million as compensation for trucks and goods lost during the post-election chaos.

Experts agree on why the US is rattled.

“Kenya’s August elections will be among the most consequential political events in Africa in 2022. In a turbulent region, Kenya’s stability, economic muscle and diplomatic leadership are more essential than ever before,” argues Michelle D. Gavin, a former US ambassador to Botswana.

“An electoral process that takes a wrong turn could threaten the country’s capacity to continue playing a pivotal regional role going forward.”

According to Otieno Joel, a researcher at policy thinktank Horn Institute, there is a perceived shift in political narratives from what has been predominantly an ethnicity-based politics to one that seeks to exploit socioeconomic grievances.

“While this potential shift in the narrative may break the chain of highly ethnicised politics, it portends to heighten class struggle between the majority poor and the minority rich that in the long run may prove even more divisive and significantly destabilising,” he writes.

Kenya’s, stability and role as a Western ally in a region roiled by conflict have made it a favoured East African headquarters for international firms.

The emerging political narrative centres on hustlers versus dynasties, introduced by Deputy President William Ruto and is now codified under the so-called bottom-up economic model.

“As we look ahead to 2022, it’s critical that all parties – the government, opposition parties, civil society – work together to ensure safe and stable elections that reflect the will of the Kenyan people,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his first official visit to Africa in Kenya last year.

Some fear the recent power struggle over the proposed constitutional amendments has ominous parallels with events prior to the 2007 polls, which set the stage for an unprecedented election violence.

The 2007 election followed a divisive constitutional referendum in 2005, which played out as a contest between incumbent Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Mr Odinga.

This is not the first time the US has raised such concerns over the upcoming Kenyan polls. with an appeal for the preservation of democracy and inclusion in politically and ethnically fractured societies.

His message was delivered amid worsening crises in neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan.

“Even vibrant democracies like Kenya are experiencing these pressures, especially around election time,” Mr Blinken said, alluding to the election set for August 2022.

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