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Kenya’s Elections: a Chance to Overcome Political Violence?


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Photo taken by Ian Schuller (December 27, 2008)

Kenya’s Presidential elections in March have already attracted significant amounts of international coverage. This is a stark contrast to 2007, when post-election violence that left more than 1500 Kenyans dead and caused the displacement of over 850,000, seemed to take the international media by surprise.

Although Kenya has long been Africa’s poster child for development and stability, electoral violence has been a feature of the country’s political life since the advent of multi-party politics. The violence and displacement of 2007/08, however, was followed by prolonged negotiations over a power sharing agreement and the formation of a coalition government that finally seemed to set in motion a long-awaited process of reforms to break cycles of political violence.

2010 saw a new constitution, passed by the majority of the electorate. Provisions included a new administrative structure, a nominally independent judiciary, as well as provisions that aimed to limit the power of the executive. It also stipulated the creation of 47 new counties and a devolution of government, primarily aimed at facilitating and increasing democratic participation at community level. Communities, including those in marginal and historically neglected regions, were to be given greater influence over budget matters, and to be involved in consultations on national policies and development plans. Civic education programmes, the right to demand and receive information and the right to petition the courts was to further increase democratic participation at every level. Police and land reforms, as well as the formation of a new electoral commission, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) further seek to address root causes of political violence. What let everyone breathe a sigh of relief, however, weren’t the principles of the new constitution, but the fact that the referendum was carried out peacefully. It seemed as if electoral violence might indeed be a thing of the past.

Instigators or perpetrators of political violence have largely enjoyed impunity, which further contributed to cycles of violence. When Parliament continuously failed to address this issue, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began investigations into allegations that post-election violence amounted to crimes against humanity. In 2011, six prominent figures were indicted - with charges that included murder, forcible transfer of populations, persecution and rape confirmed in January 2012.

Progress has been stalling, serious police reforms have been widely absent from the political agenda, and questions over the allocation of land and natural resources remain unresolved. Poverty, stark inequality, high unemployment and rampant corruption also remain. The IEBC has registered a mere 65% of the electorate. Chaotic party primaries were marred by violent outbursts and saw an election official die from stab wounds in western Kenya. Additionally, 2012 saw a notable increase in tribal clashes and inter-ethnic violence, often linked to disputes over resources and cattle rustling, as well as a number of terrorism attacks mainly attributed to Somalia-based al-Shabaab.

The ICC intervention, at first welcomed, increasingly attracts skepticism. Ruto and Kenyatta, two inductees, are seeking political office whilst their trial is scheduled a mere month after the first round of elections. It is therefore expected that the formation of a government will be delayed by court hearings, which could lead to violent protests. Moreover, in December, the two long-standing political enemies have formed a surprising alliance. Many observers argue that doing so shows they believe it may help them win the election, which would allow them to enjoy a certain degree of presidential immunity and could complicate or postpone the trial at the Hague, affecting the efficiency and credibility of the ICC. On the other hand, with regards to their upcoming trial, both candidates might have a high stake in preventing the reoccurrence of post-election violence, and politically motivated violence could be minimized by this alliance. What role the trials will play in the elections and subsequent formation of a government, or whether they will indeed run as scheduled, is anyone’s guess.

Not surprisingly, the national media are awash with gossip and fear mongering, whilst international outlets cynically predict chaotic outcomes of the election. Although rhetoric of peace has been a prominent feature of political campaigns, many politicians seem more interested in the spoils of political power than the welfare of their electorate. But the stakes are high, and many Kenyans remember the slogan “Never Again”, a slogan that marked people’s relief when the violence of 2007/08 seemed to end with a power sharing agreement. They are anticipating the elections with both anxiety and optimism. Grassroot organisations, political activists, NGOs and ordinary Kenyans are working hard to guarantee free elections and prevent a reoccurrence of political violence.

Beyond Violence believes the elections in March could pave Kenya’s way to a truly inclusive democracy. Kenyans need to be able to cast their votes without fear of intimidation or retribution for their choices. The IEBC needs to be able to work unhindered and results must be announced without delay. Political leaders, their supporters and the media must refrain from supporting, inciting or engaging in hate speech and the incitement of politically or ethnically motivated violence. We believe that a critical mass of Kenyans from all political and ethnic backgrounds want to break the cycles of political violence, and the international community supports them in their endeavour. We seek to bring together these people to collectively call for peaceful, fair and credible elections in Kenya in March 2013. Click here to sign our petition.

If you are interested to learn more about the root causes of political violence in Kenya, key actors and issues, click here to find our conflict profile.

Also check our Twitter and Facebook for regular updates on our campaign and the elections.

Written by Margarete Knorr and published on 04-February-2013




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