On Saturday, the Kenyan Supreme Court officially declared Uhuru Kenyatta the country’s next president, upholding the preliminary results of the March 4 election. Kenyatta’s challenger, Raila Odinga, had contested the poll numbers, claiming that rigging had contributed to an outcome in which Kenyatta avoided a run-off by just 8,000 votes. But the Supreme Court asserted that the election was free and fair, and that Kenyatta had been elected in a "free, fair, transparent, and credible" manner.
What happened next was truly historic, especially for an emerging African democracy. Odinga spoke shortly after the ruling, and, while noting his disappointment, ultimately urged Kenyans to abide by the ruling, noting that, "Although we may not agree with some of the findings, our belief in constitutionalism remains supreme." He congratulated Kenyattta, and pledged to continue his fight to improve Kenya. But the election was over.
Odinga’s words were truly monumental. Only five years earlier, over 1,200 Kenyans died in post-election violence after disputes over widespread ballot rigging. In that 2007 election, it was widely assumed that incumbent President Mwai Kibaki stole the election from Odinga. After tribal warfare teetered on becoming a much larger conflict, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered a peace agreement, which included Odinga becoming Kibaki’s Prime Minister. To an extent, violence had been legitimized in Kenya’s democracy.
Extensive concerns abounded during this election, with outside observers fearful that a bungled election could lead to more violence, and the destruction of democracy in one of the most promising states in Africa. These concerns only increased over the last month, with the result remaining undecided, hanging in the balance of the courts.
But Kenya showed the real strength of its democracy. Free and fair elections are one component of a functional democracy, but a credible and independent judiciary is just as important. Many have noted that one of the most important moments in the United States’ recent democratic history was the fact that Al Gore accepted the 2000 Supreme Court ruling halting a recount in Florida. In retrospect, Gore had a good shot of winning a recount. But he respected the law of the land, and the strength of our democracy was stronger for it.
This same thing just happened in Kenya. Odinga is probably furious, convinced that he has been robbed of the presidency again. But he put the future of his country’s democracy above his own individual ambitions. Kenya will be stronger for it.
And while this happens, the western media has largely failed. Instead of praising Kenya for a landmark election, which may set the country up for unparalleled growth on the continent, they have focused on the potential violence, only reaffirming traditional notions of primitive African-ness.
The March 30 New York Times article describing the decision contained a picture of Kenyan military troops running down the street, with the description, "Security forces chased people in Nairobi who had responded to Saturday’s court announcement with fury, damaging shop signs." An Associated Press article on the same day was entitled "Uneasy calm in Kenya after court ruling on vote." Apparently, the AP could not have marked the historic decision by noting the incredibly powerful notion of Kenyans respecting the judiciary, despite a contested election. Instead, that calm had to be "uneasy."
To be fair, Kenya is not out of the weeds. There have been isolated cases of uprisings and violence since the decision, but it is nothing compared to 2007, and Odinga’s powerful statement seems to have appeased his constituency. Additionally, Kenyatta is under investigation by the International Criminal Court, and will have to commute back and forth between the Hague as he starts his presidency. The western world must figure out how to engage with a potentially indicted war criminal.
But overall, the Kenyan election was a huge success. Approximately 86% of the electorate participated (comparing to approximately 60% in the latest American election). Despite an incredibly close result, a strong judiciary carried the country through the tumult. And the country seems poised to spring forward, as a rare African success story. If only the Western media could realize that.