Picture: REUTERS/NOOR KHAMIS
Picture: REUTERS/NOOR KHAMIS

Kenya’s consistently strong growth performance puts it squarely among top-priority markets on multinational executives’ sub-Saharan African agendas. At a roundtable event we hosted in Johannesburg earlier this year, the majority of executives we polled thought Kenya offered the largest growth opportunity for their sub-Saharan African businesses in 2017 and would receive their largest new investment in the region in 2017.

Such high expectations mean Tuesday’s election — in which votes are being cast for the presidency, legislature and local county positions — will prove one of the most high-profile polls this year. As vote counting begins, however, businesses and investors are worried about what the coming days and weeks will bring.

Dominating concerns is the possibility that violence akin to the unrest that accompanied the 2007 vote could reoccur, threatening investment and creating widespread business disruptions. Then, about 1,200 people were killed and 500,000 displaced in clashes — largely between members of different ethnic groups — after results from the presidential contest between then-president Mwai Kibaki (who ultimately took the presidency after a power-sharing deal was brokered) and opposition candidate Raila Odinga (who will be standing for a third time on August 8) were disputed amid allegations of vote rigging.

This time round, some localised unrest is inevitable. The opposition has been vocal in its concerns about the electoral commission’s new tallying system, which it says allows for abuse. Suspicions that the authorities have been working to skew the result were further exacerbated by the deportation (on August 5) of consultants working for Odinga and the murder of a senior election commission official the week prior. Despite this, we believe the risk that violence will mushroom, threatening nationwide instability, is low.

There are three main reasons for this. First, the formation of the Jubilee Party in 2013 — the current ruling party — brought together two major ethnic groups (the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, who were on opposing sides during the 2007 violence) into a new alliance, allowing them to coexist relatively harmoniously.

Second, a process of political devolution (begun in 2010) is giving more political power and financial resources to new local county authorities. These are headed by powerful governors, reducing the zero-sum nature of the national-level election as the only path to power and influence. This is because it provides a platform for most ethnic groups to have a stake in the political system by creating opportunities for local leaders to hold office in "their" home region, reducing the risk that some groups feel "frozen out" by losing the national vote, a worry that was a key driver of violence in 2007.

Third, the government has invested heavily in its security apparatus. With about 180,000 well-equipped police and troops already stationed around the country, any signs of unrest in the coming days will be swiftly clamped down on.

As counting begins, polls indicate the presidential contest between incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and Odinga will be closely fought, with a narrow win by Kenyatta the most likely result. Looking forward, this means businesses should expect continuation of the current administration’s policy agenda, which stresses pro-business reforms and high levels of public investment.

There is a chance that Kenyatta might fail to achieve the result needed (over 50%) to avoid a second-round of voting. While his administration can point to a track record of achievements (concerning, for example, infrastructure development and improved public health metrics), continued endemic corruption and a sharp rise in living costs are causing disgruntlement. This could dent his support, reducing it below the 50.5% he achieved in the 2013 election. Even then, a second-round vote is likely to go in his favour.

Helping Kenyatta’s (and running-mate Deputy President William Ruto’s) cause is the opposition National Super Alliance’s (NASA) poor internal coordination and lack of a coherent election strategy. Only six months old, NASA is not an integrated party organization, but rather a loose coalition of opposition parties, each dominated by the interests of their individual leaders, who are pursuing their own objectives, making it difficult to drive a single message or mobilise adequately large blocks of voters.

Critically, it cannot point to a track record of achievements in national government, reducing the likelihood that swing voters will trust it to deliver results in office.

While Kenyatta is likely to return for a second and final term in office, there will likely be turnover in several key governorships. These officials and their teams are influential players when it comes to public sector business opportunities — for example, affecting procurement of certain agricultural inputs and products — making it critical that multinationals and their local partners are poised to reestablish relationships with the new key decision-makers.

The national administration, meanwhile, will likely build on and extend reforms already under way — for example, cracking down on retailers that pay suppliers late, which will benefit multinationals’ local partners.

A notable exception may be the government’s cap on bank lending rates, which has caused severe stress on the banking sector and resulted in private sector credit drying up. The government views the policy as too sensitive to remove before the election, but given its adverse economic consequences, it may do so once back in office. This would likely result in an uptick in B2B demand, as improved credit conditions combined with a rising in post-election business confidence would accelerate investment.

Regarding spending priorities, Kenyatta has committed to continuing the government’s investment-led development plan, with road, rail, housing and electrification projects expected to proceed in 2018, sustaining already buoyant public sector demand in these areas.

His manifesto also details expanded healthcare spending, opening further opportunities to capitalise on procurement spending, which increasingly will be driven by devolved county-level administrations.

• Attwell is senior analyst in sub-Saharan Africa for the Washington DC-based Frontier Strategy Group.

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