Kenya’s president-elect William Ruto evoked England’s most famous playwright to describe his opponent’s challenge to last month’s election result, declaring it a Shakespearean “tragicomedy”. The country’s Supreme Court has until Monday to decide if, as Ruto said, the petition by veteran politician Raila Odinga was “much ado about nothing”, or whether a rerun of the August 9 vote is required.
The decision will reverberate beyond the outcome of the challenge, with the seven-judge court’s hard-won reputation for independence also on the line. Analysts believe that, with people watching the process closely, any mishap in the judicial decision could spur anger in east Africa’s most advanced economy, which has a history of post-election violence.
“Elections have often caused human rights abuses, loss of lives, and serious injury,” said Davis Malombe, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, which is part of a group of civil society organisations that also want to nullify the result. He urged the court to “remain an impartial arbiter”, adding that the “peace of the nation” rested on its verdict.
Odinga and his running mate, former magistrate Martha Karua, claim “substantial and significant” irregularities “affected the result” that made Ruto the winner by a whisker. They want the court to order a “nullification of the declaration of results”.
Authorities would have 60 days to hold a fresh election if the court rules in favour of Odinga, who has already challenged presidential results three times during his longstanding political career and called the results of the latest poll a “travesty”.
The Supreme Court burnished a reputation for judicial independence in recent precedents. In 2017 it became the first African court to scrap the victory of a sitting president when its judges nullified the result of a presidential election fought by Odinga and outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta, who at the time was seeking a second term.
Kenyatta called the judges “crooks” and one of their bodyguards was shot. He secured victory in the rerun after Odinga boycotted it. The judges’ decision to invalidate Kenya’s election result five years ago was mainly due to the electoral commission’s opacity upon scrutiny, explained Waikwa Wanyoike, a Kenyan constitutional lawyer.
Nanjala Nyabola, a Nairobi-based political analyst, said with that decision, as an institution, the court “established itself as independent and credible, standing up to the executive”.
Kenya’s highest court faced renewed pressure after Kenyatta in 2018 threw his weight behind Odinga, an erstwhile enemy who ran against him in previous elections that sparked ethnic-fuelled violence.
The “handshake”, as their pact came to be known, led Kenyatta and Odinga the following year to propose constitutional changes widely perceived as a veiled attempt to consolidate political dynasties to exclude Ruto. Yet, in another display of judicial independence, analysts said, the Supreme Court in March rejected the constitutional amendments.
Murithi Mutiga, Africa programme director at Crisis Group in Nairobi, said the Kenyan judiciary was one of the most independent on the continent. However, it had come under “enormous pressure from the executive” in recent years, he said.