Kenyan opposition strongholds erupted in jubilant celebrations Friday after the nullified the result of last month’s presidential election, won by incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta.
Chief Justice David Maraga said the Aug. 8 election was not conducted in accordance with the constitution. Four of the six justices found that irregularities had tainted the integrity of the vote and supported opposition leader Raila Odinga’s petition for nullification. The court ordered a new vote be held within 60 days.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission declared Kenyatta the winner last month by a margin of more than 1.4 million votes, in a country of about 19 million eligible voters.
Friday’s ruling reverberated across Africa, demonstrating the independence of the judiciary in the East African nation.
Odinga, who has claimed irregularities in three successive elections, called the decision a historic day for Kenya and Africa.
"For the first time in the history of African democratization, a ruling has been made by a court nullifying irregular election of a president. This is a precedent-setting ruling," Odinga said.
He also called for the prosecution of electoral officials, whom he did not trust to conduct a new election.
“It’s hard to overstate what a historic moment this is. It’s exceedingly rare in Africa that you have a court going against the incumbent and making a decision that’s very far-reaching and very, very unexpected” said Murithi Mutiga, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“It’s a coming-of-age moment for Kenyan democracy because the court has shown you can go to court against a powerful incumbent and expect justice,” he said, adding that the ruling sends a powerful message to Africans that election disputes can be resolved peacefully.
Kenyan authorities had been prepared for opposition protests Friday in the capital, Nairobi. Instead, traffic came to a halt as crowds of opposition supporters danced, cheered, sang and ululated.
Motorcycle taxis known as boda bodas circled the city streets, their drivers racing one another and hooting in Odinga’s support.
One of them, Ken Sande, 22, called the ruling fair. “I expected such a ruling given the irregularities cited by the opposition,” he said.
Muthoni Kirumba, 26, a fashion designer, said that she had expected Odinga’s petition to be rejected, but that the court had made the right decision.
“I think it’s a good step in the right direction, because the country was divided. You can feel the mood has changed,” she said.
Human rights groups such as the Center for Human Rights and Policy Studies said the ruling was an important signal to other African nations.
Kenyatta said he respected the ruling, while disagreeing with it. He called for peace and called on Kenyans to reach out to their neighbors regardless of political affiliation or tribe.
”Your neighbor is still your neighbor regardless of what has happened,” Kenyatta said. “My primary message today to every single Kenyan is peace. I personally disagree with the ruling that has been made today, but I respect it as much as I disagree with it.
“We are ready to go back again to the people with the same agenda, no change, that we delivered to the people,” he said.
Ahmednasir Abdullahi, a lawyer for Kenyatta, called the ruling a “very political decision.” He later attacked the Supreme Court on Twitter, calling it a Third World court and describing its decision as a judicial coup d’etat.
The ruling caps weeks of turmoil. Just days before the Aug. 8 vote, key election official Chris Msando was killed. Also, foreign advisors hired to help Odinga’s party ensure a fair and transparent count were arrested and deported.
After the vote, at least 24 Odinga supporters were shot dead, according to Kenyan human rights groups, when police used live ammunition to quell unrest in opposition strongholds.
Odinga said after the election that the electoral commission computer servers had been hacked. The commission initially denied any hacking attempt, but later conceded there had been an effort, which it said had failed.
Friday’s ruling is the first time a Kenyan court has nullified an election result. Mutiga, the analyst, said the Supreme Court justices had shown “extraordinary courage and they should be applauded.” But in a country where election contests often spill from heated rhetoric into violence, he said Kenya was facing a crucial moment.
“What follows now is as important. Will the campaigns be peaceful? Will the political players show restraint? That remains to be seen. But today, this is a moment for celebration,” he said.
Odinga took unsuccessful court action after 2013 elections that he said were rigged. He also disputed the 2007 election result, which led to ethnic battles across the country that left about 1,500 people dead and have haunted the country since.
Many Kenyan voters cast their ballots along ethnic lines, supporting those who they believe will help their own group. Kenyatta’s Cabinet and top civil service positions have been filled mainly with members of his Kikuyu group and the Kalenjin group of his deputy president, William Ruto.
Members of Odinga’s Luo group and other ethnic groups feel excluded from power. Those resentments have lingered since Kenyan independence in 1964, when Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, became the nation’s first president.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Godec issued a joint statement with envoys and officials of Europe, Canada and Australia describing the court decision as “an important moment for Kenya.”
“The Court’s independent review has demonstrated Kenya’s resilient democracy and commitment to the rule of law. Kenya’s electoral institutions now must begin preparing for a new presidential poll later this year and we urge everyone to work to make it free, fair, credible, and peaceful,” the statement said.
Odinga argued in his court petition that there were anomalies in the count affecting more than 5 million votes. His argument hinged on two sets of electoral forms on which votes were tallied. Some forms lacked serial numbers or watermarks or were not signed by election agents or lacked the electoral commission stamp.
Electoral commission Chairman Wafula Chebukati called on prosecutors to urgently pursue any election officials who breached the election law. He promised there would be some staff dismissals.
“To protect the sovereign will of the Kenyan people, the commission intends to make internal changes to our personnel and processes as we prepare for the fresh presidential elections in 60 days,” he said.
In neighboring Uganda, Kizza Besigye, a presidential candidate who was put under house arrest last year after he disputed February election results giving victory to President Yoweri Museveni, said it was a momentous decision for Africa.
Times staff writer Dixon reported from Johannesburg, South Africa, and special correspondent Kyama from Nairobi.
10:25 a.m.: This article was updated with reaction from residents in Nairobi.
8:35 a.m.: This article was updated with comments by the electoral commission chairman and others.
3:50 a.m.: Updated with background, quote from Odinga.
This article was originally published at 2:45 a.m.
An earlier version of this article stated that Ahmednasir Abdullahi is a backer of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. He is a lawyer for Kenyatta.