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Threat of unrest main concern for science as Kenya votes

Peaceful elections in Kenya this week will matter more to research in the country than who ends up the winner, scientists have said.

On 8 August, Kenya’s 19 million voters headed to the polls in what is expected to be a tight race between incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party and Raila Odinga from the National Super Alliance.

Neither candidate has made much mention of science and technology in the run-up to the elections. This is unsurprising—science is rarely a crowd-pleaser, in Kenya or elsewhere.

But tensions have been building in recent weeks, with some fearing a repeat of the clashes that killed over a thousand and displaced hundreds of thousands in the wake of the 2007 polls when Odinga narrowly lost to then president, Mwai Kibaki.

This has already affected science in the country. Many Kenyan institutions have scaled down operations and avoided scheduling conferences or workshops this month—partly to let staff travel to vote in their home provinces, but also as a precaution in case of unrest.

In the short term the way the election, and its outcome, plays out will be more influential over science than who wins it says Kevin Marsh, a malaria scientist who has worked in Kenya for over 20 years and advises the Nairobi-based African Academy of Sciences.

But the individual who emerges as the winner will nevertheless have an important task ahead. The country is one of Africa’s leading scientific nations, but its research and development spend remains a fraction of the 2 per cent of GDP target set by its government in 2012. 

It might surprise Kenyan academics that both the main contesting parties mention science and technology in their election manifestoes, published two months ago.

Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party says it will “establish formal linkages between the private sector, academia and government to solve real life issues including by linking research and analysis to important national issues”.

It also says it will create a “centre of excellence in the automotive sector” and rescue the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology at Konza Technopolis from its current moribund state.

Meanwhile, Odinga’s National Super Alliance promises to increase research funding for universities. It wants to grow funding for higher education infrastructure, for example by partnering with industry or by selling education bonds.

However, neither party gives Sekou Toure Otondi, a political science PhD student at the University of Nairobi, confidence that they are that serious about reforming science funding.

“Both of them provide a general mention for research funding in sub-sections on higher education but do not give research the meaning it deserves as an engine for Kenya’s economic growth and development”, he says.

The Jubilee Party government managed to get the country’s long-awaited National Research Fund off the ground late last year. This suggests there has been a “reasonably good atmosphere for implementation” under Jubilee one anonymous science policy commentator said—even though the fund was delayed by many years.

This is not good enough for Otondi. He believes Kenyatta’s government performed dismally by failing to give adequate funding for research. He thinks Odinga deserves a chance—but adds, somewhat cynically, that election promises are rarely fulfilled once political parties get hold of the levers of state power.