NAIROBI — In the first decision of its kind for Kenya — or all of Africa for that matter — Kenya’s Supreme Court on Friday annulled the president’s Aug. 8 reelection victory citing irregularities and ordered a new vote within 60 days.
The reversal of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 54 percent win stunned East Africa’s economic powerhouse and a pillar of stability in the fragile region. It also showcased a independent judiciary willing to stand up to a powerful executive branch.
The 4-2 court ruling came in response to a petition filed by challenger Raila Odinga, 72, who alleged widespread fraud in the election, including the hacking of the electoral commission’s computer system.
Following the judgment, the court broke into cheers and songs with Odinga raising his fists in the air in celebration.
“This is indeed a very historic day for the people of Kenya and by extension to the people of the continent of Africa,” he said outside the courthouse. “For the first time in the history of African democratization, a ruling has been made by a court, nullifying irregular election of a president.”
He added that the members of the election commission overseeing the vote should be prosecuted for criminal acts — the same people that will likely be conducting the new election.
For his part, Kenyatta pledged to respect the court’s decision and head to the new polls with the same agenda he said won it for him the first time.
“The court has made its decision. We respect it. We don’t agree with it,” he said, calling for peace. “That is the nature of democracy.”
Promising to issue full details of the ruling later, Chief Justice David Maraga described the results of the election as “invalid, null and void.”
“Taking the totality of the entire evidence, we are satisfied that the elections were not conducted in the accordance to the dictates of the Constitution,” he said.
The ambassadors of the United States and European nations in Nairobi issued a joint statement where they described Kenya’s democracy as an example to Africa and the world.
“The court’s independent review has demonstrated Kenya’s resilient democracy and commitment to the rule of law,” they said.
In many parts of the country, Odinga’s supporters were celebrating. In Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum, where six had died in clashes following the election, residents poured out of their homes and danced holding Odinga posters.
In coastal Mombasa, people rode motorcycles through the city, cheering.
According to Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, the decision is unprecedented for the whole continent and will set an important precedent.
“It’s not very often you find a decision of such import going against an incumbent — it was really thoroughly unexpected,” he said. “I think this is an incredibly important moment for democracy for Africa.”
Mutiga noted that the judiciary had not always been so independent in Kenya, but following a new constitution in 2010, they were insulated from pressure tactics from the executive branch.
In fact after the court ruled against him in 2013 Odinga had dismissed it as inept and even just last month as he appealed, he said he had little faith in it.
The decision, however, does not quell fears of the violence that has dogged Kenya’s elections. At least 24 people, including a six-month-old baby died in clashes after the results were announced earlier in August.
Some schools asked parents to pick up their children early after the decision was announced Friday.
The country’s business community, which backed Kenyatta’s pro-business image, were also shocked, with trading briefly halted on the stock exchange after shares plummeted. The currency dropped as well.
The mood in his strongholds was solemn, pointing up the deep divide in the country in the wake of the election.
Odinga, by contrast, appealed to the country’s less fortunate, promising greater social justice and to combat the endemic corruption in society.
Kenya’s election commission had admitted that there had been a hacking attempt on its computer system but maintained it was unsuccessful. International observers had said there were no signs of interference with the vote.
Paul Muite, the commission’s lawyer, argued during the hearing that the integrity of the vote had been protected “as far as was humanly possible.”
Odinga’s lawyer, however, had alleged that some 5 million votes were marred by discrepancies and the forms used to record results lacked key security features such as watermarks and the necessary stamps and signatures.
Kenya, while vastly more stable than war-torn neighbors Somalia and South Sudan, remains riven by tribal rivalries that come to a head in every election cycle, largely between Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe and Odinga’s fellow Luos.
After Odinga lost in 2007, the country was engulfed by a wave of ethnic violence that killed 1,400 people.
Schemm reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.