Run-Up to Kenya’s Election 2017

Elections are contentious in Kenya. For me, this assertion is personal. In December 2008, a few weeks before a presidential election, I abrubtly left (read: fled) my research camp after a scary evening listening to gunfire. The shooting was part of national pre-election jockeying for influence. At the local level, some people were emboldened to illegally mess around with guns because, rumor had it, the ruling party had ordered national police to lay off law enforcement for fear of antagonizing potential supporters.

This small misadventure demonstrates the difference between abstract language (“contentious elections”) and the visceral fear it can represent. More significantly, it also portended a violent election. Kenya’s December 2008 presidential election was followed by 1,000-plus deaths and a more or less permanent ethnic “unmixing” of the country. In the wake of the deaths, approximately 600,000 Kenyans moved to areas where their own ethnic group is the majority. When ethnic identity becomes salient–in this case, via the murder of folks simply for being the “wrong” ethnicity–people feel they have to be with “their own kind” to be safe.

Now, nine years later, Kenya is again headed into a presidential election. Three days ago Chris Msando, a senior election official, was found tortured and murdered. This article notes that “the nationwide vote is one week away, and the organization of the elections has been a source of tension during the past year. Msando was to oversee the use of biometric voter technology.”

A related set of events has been happening over the last year as well. The run-up to an election is a time that politicians and citizens make “moves” to grab new benefits, in hopes that newly-elected leaders will allow them to keep what they grabbed.

This article uses the area where I did my dissertation research, Laikipia, to illustrate a larger point about conflict associated with land pressure: climate change, soil degradation, and rising wealth are shrinking the amount of usable land in Africa. But the number of people who need it is rising fast. I’ve met some of the pastoralist (herding) families and white landowners mentioned in the article. (N.B. In general I think Jeffrey Gettleman’s articles are unreliable, but this one is reasonable.) The article gives a sense of the “stew” of difficult and inter-related problems in the area and other parts of the continent. Among them: the legacies of colonialism, bad policy, land degradation, greed, and on and on (e.g. weak property rights, climate-change-exacerbated drought, population growth, collective action problems, election-year politics).

It’s heartbreaking and infuriating—and it goes without saying that vulnerable people like children and poor families suffer the most


I am one happy project manager! Last week my small organization, US Common Sense, launched our public finance sustainability website, GovRank*. We’ve been sweating it out for months and now we’re live.

Screengrab of the GovRank landing page

Here’s hoping the site will foster good research, debate about our methods, and more public awareness of the state of local finance.

Here’s our description of GovRank:

We want all citizens, journalists, and public officials to have greater access to information about their governments’ finances. Recognizing the challenges of data availability, comparability, and transparency, US Common Sense compiled data for over 13,000 local governments and all 50 states dating back to 2008-09… We collected more than 97,000 financial reports and nearly 70,000 budgets; extracted “top line” financial figures; and ranked local and state governments’ relative performance.

Several friends have remarked that the site’s data gives ammunition to folks who want to cut public employee pensions and benefits. My response is that it can equally well be used to argue for responsible funding of such benefits. As a humanist, I have to believe making information available makes the world better.

*US Common Sense has closed and GovRank is no longer available online (Oct.2020).