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No limits: Campaign spending spikes ahead of Kenyan elections

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Nairobi, Kenya – On August 9, Kenyans head to the polls to vote in a highly contested race to decide the country’s fifth president.

The incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, who is nearing the end of his second five-year term, is constitutionally barred from seeking another term. Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, are the main contenders to succeed him.

In Kenya’s personality-driven politics, ideologies do not hold as much sway as ethnicity and money, which comes in handy for robust campaigning.

The 2022 elections are unlikely to be a departure from that.

Ahead of the August polls, there has been a display of opulence by the politicians and their backers, leading to questions from members of the public on the sources of these funds.

For instance, there has been a spike in the number of helicopters owned or leased by politicians during election cycles, according to the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA).

In March, former KCAA director-general Gilbert Kibe said that by the end of 2020, there were 67 registered helicopters, most of which were owned by politicians. Data from the South African Revenue Service also revealed that Kenya imported 325 helicopters for lease from South Africa in 2020 alone.

Local paper Business Daily also reports that cash in circulation outside the banking system was at a four-month high as of April, according to data from the Central Bank of Kenya. The amount increased by 3.69 billion Kenyan shillings to KES 252 billion ($2.14bn) from a month earlier.

“Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that as we edge close to the elections there is increased money supply in the economy,” the Parliamentary Budget Office warned in June. “The Central Bank of Kenya should therefore enhance its surveillance mechanism to ensure monetary stability with the view to containing possible inflationary pressure resulting from enhanced campaign spending.”

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Last August, Kenyan politicians rejected a proposal by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) seeking to cap presidential campaign spending at KES 4.4 billion ($40m) and political party budgets at KES 17.7 billion.

The Election Campaign Financing Act, which also sought to ban contributions by foreign governments, was passed in 2013 with a rider that it would take effect in 2017.

That year, the IEBC proposed it would implement the electoral reforms legislation but MPs claimed it was not feasible.

The electoral commissions tabled revised regulations again last August but the politicians shot it down on the basis that they were gazetted without parliament’s approval and past a statutory deadline of at least 12 months before the elections.

Currently, a presidential candidate is allowed to spend up to a maximum of KES 5.2 billion ($44.3m), while governors, senators and female representatives get a limit of KES 433 million ($3.69m). By comparison, the monthly minimum wage in Kenya is KES 15,201 ($131).

If the laws had been adopted, political parties and candidates would have been allowed to raise their own campaign funds and regulate their expenditure during the campaign period, which officially commenced on May 29 and will end two days before the election.

Political candidates would also be exempted from giving up surplus campaign funds to their respective political parties within three months after the date of an election.

“The law cannot be implemented in its current form,” Opondo Kaluma, vice-chair of the constitutional implementation oversight committee, said while rejecting the bill. “It’s just impossible for the IEBC with its skeleton staffing to monitor compliance with the law across the country.

“It is also unreasonable to expect a candidate for a political seat to hand over his personal money to a committee of people to run for him as if it is public funds,” he added.

‘No big issue’

Veteran politician Odinga is contesting under the banner of the Azimio la Umoja [Pledge of Unity] coalition, in what is his fifth attempt at the presidency. He is being backed by Kenyatta, who defeated him in the 2013 and 2017 elections but has described his former foe as a “peacemaker who means well for Kenya”.

The move has strained the president’s relationship with his deputy, prompting a public fallout between them that is becoming more pronounced as the polls draw near.

Ruto, on the other hand, is contesting the presidency for the first time, riding under a popular “hustler” narrative of liberating ordinary Kenyans from the yoke of the few, wealthy “dynasties”; Odinga is the son of the country’s first Vice President Oginga Odinga who deputised to the elder Jomo Kenyatta, its first president.

Unlike Azimio la Umoja, a registered coalition party, Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza is a loose alliance of 12 parties.

Political ideology has taken a back seat as both sides do their best – financially and otherwise – to gain an upper hand in what is being described as one of the continent’s most consequential polls.

“It [the spending] happens because there’s no big issue informing our campaigns,” Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner and political analyst, John Githongo told Al Jazeera. “In the past we were fighting for multiparty, fighting for a new constitution, fighting for pollution.”

“But this time we don’t, so it seems to be a competition to spend, and take the country’s integrity with it’, said Githongo, who runs Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi, a non-profit advocating for improved governance. “Our last election cost a billion dollars; per voter, [it] is amongst the most expensive in the world. We seem to be headed, unfortunately, in the same direction in the middle of an economic crisis.”

The parliamentary decision to not enforce a cap on campaign spending was “yet another blow to chapter six of the constitution on integrity”, he said.

The influential National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK), opposed the proposal to expunge a provision for the auditor general to be able to audit accounts of any political party or candidate upon the IEBC’s request.

“It is prudent that the Primary Act [current electoral act] is not watered down to ensure transparency and protection of the democratic dispensation of the country,” said NCCK General Secretary Chris Kinyanjui.

Commercialisation of politics

Human rights activists have also raised concerns about the current trend of commercialisation of politics, arguing that it is locking many Kenyans – especially women and youth – who genuinely want to serve their country, out of public service.

The playing field is no longer level for candidates, they say.

“A public office should have public scrutiny,” Nairobi-based activist Boniface Mwangi, who unsuccessfully ran to represent one of Nairobi County’s 17 constituencies in parliament in 2017, told Al Jazeera.

He raised support for his campaign through crowdfunding by various means, including raising funds through concerts by top artists and is now encouraging other politicians to be just as open with campaign financing as he was.

“The moment [the source of funding] becomes secret, that means there’s going to be illegality,” he said. “There’s going to be established behaviour, there’s going to be criminal behaviour.”

With additional reporting by Immaculate Akello

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