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ANALYSIS: What will decide the Kenyan election?

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga during the 2013 election campaign in Nairobi. REUTERS/THOMAS MUKOYA

 ANALYSIS: What will decide the Kenyan election? | A dose of faith, tribe and hard cash

Nairobi, Kenya JOSEPH WANDERA | After accepting his nomination as the presidential candidate of the main opposition coalition; the National Super Alliance (NASA), Raila Odinga likened himself to Joshua, the biblical figure who led the Jews to the Promised Land.

Odinga was appealing to people disaffected with the performance of the Jubilee government. But he was also appealing to the religious sensibilities of the Kenyan electorate where Christianity has a strong presence.

Religion is omnipresent in Kenya. The line between religion and politics is often thin. This is well illustrated by the fact that gospel music serves as an important vehicle for political mobilisation. Most of the NASA’s campaign rallies feature a rendering of the popular gospel song “Mambo yabadilika” (things are a-changing). Mambo yabadilika.

Odinga, as well as President Uhuru Kenyatta who is seeking re-election under the Jubilee Party in the August 8 polls, have sought to endear themselves to the main religious communities. Kenyatta even had members of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, the National Muslim Leaders Forum and the Jamia Mosque visit State House where they pledged their support for his re-election bid. Religion and politics are entwined, each to some extent complicit in the providential authority of the other.

Odinga and Kenyatta are not alone. In their quest for the votes of the religious constituencies, all political aspirants have sought to present themselves as people of faith.

But other equally important dynamics shape political relationships in Kenya. Religious symbols operate cheek by jowl with what political scientist Jean Francis Bayart has referred to as the “politics of the belly”. A third factor makes for an even headier mix – ethnic affiliations. Combined, these three factors distort democracy, and the way in which elections are run in the country.

Eating campaign money

On a visit to western Kenya during the party primaries, I was struck by how voters actively sought cash handouts from politicians. And there is no shortage of candidates ready to offer money to the electorate as an inducement to vote for them. A young man who gave me a ride on his motor cycle taxi spoke with pride about his busy schedule these days – “eating campaign money” by night and working by day.

Elderly men and women were seated along village lanes looking out for election candidates who might offer them “something small.” They were open to offers from whichever politician turned up. The amounts they got ranged from around 100 shillings ($1) to 1,000 shillings ($10), often not enough even to feed a family for a day. But the money counts for a lot in the context of extreme poverty.

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