A May 21 panel at USIP assessed the reasons for a largely peaceful election this year in Kenya, where more than 1,000 people had been killed in post-election violence in 2007-08.

Panel at USIP:  USIP Meeting Examines Kenya’s Peaceful Elections

The mostly peaceful Kenyan elections this year—a welcome contrast to the communal bloodletting that followed the 2007 contest—reflects structural reforms in Kenya’s political system, a new electoral alliance between former political foes and internationally supported work to prevent the return of mass violence, according to a panel of specialists who gathered at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on May 21.

“It’s almost a miracle that Kenya has undergone in the last five years,” said John Langlois, the Kenya country representative for the Office of Transition Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

More than 1,000 Kenyans died in the 2007-08 violence following a disputed election that international observers said had been manipulated by vote-rigging and other tactics. The subsequent violence in the Rift Valley, Nairobi and some other parts of the country devolved into widespread communal attacks, including between members of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups. Starting with a peace agreement in February 2008 and followed by a voter-approved constitution that led to improved electoral and judicial institutions, Langlois said, “real change in Kenya” significantly increased the confidence of Kenyans in how their country is governed and in the ability of their institutions to conduct elections and handle ensuing disputes.

In this year’s election, a winning coalition known as the “Jubilee Alliance” was forged between once bitter rivals—the new President Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Vice President William Ruto, a Kalenjin. The political pact muted the earlier communal split that arose after the 2007-08 election. Both Kenyatta and Ruto have been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity connected to the 2007-08 post-election violence. They deny the ICC charges and say they will cooperate with the ICC process.

The structural changes Langlois and others pointed to include a strengthened Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission and Supreme Court, along with other judicial and police reforms and a restructured Parliament. Kenyans also elected assemblies in 47 newly formed counties, with their own officials and budgets. This “devolution” may also have contributed to the relatively peaceful election process.

Kenyatta narrowly defeated Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement coalition; Odinga, a Luo, was also the runner-up in the disputed 2007 contest. This time, Odinga pursued a legal challenge to the election, but the result was upheld by the Supreme Court. He accepted the ruling and urged national unity, a call that likely prevented some localized violence from escalating. 

Another official at USAID/Kenya, Conflict Management Specialist Sam Kona, called the generally peaceful acceptance of the election results “the culmination of a national process of self-reflection that began in 2008,” which he said resulted in a “national process of building institutions.” Kona called public trust in the revamped Electoral Commission and judiciary at the time of the election “very high.” He said the presence of a political coalition bringing together former foes also served to reduce the risk of a repetition of the 2007-08 violence.

Kona also pointed to the conduct of cross-communal dialogues about longstanding grievances by Kenyan civil society organizations and religious groups as contributing to a peaceful process. He cited the use of “early-warning systems” designed to alert Kenyan authorities and independent groups of signs that election-related violence was being contemplated or planned, as well as “peace-messaging” campaigns to counter unfounded fears and rumors, along with hate speech.

A further deterrent to violence was the widespread expectation—fueled by the ICC indictments—that both Kenyans and international groups were monitoring the Kenyan scene for inflammatory speech and its sources. “It was very difficult to openly incite,” said Kona.

Rachel Brown, founder and CEO of Sisi ni Amani Kenya, a nongovernmental group, described her group’s use of mobile phones and other means of communication to increase civic engagement and prevent violence. Sisi ni Amani conducted focus groups with young Kenyan men who had joined in the 2007-08 violence, which informed tailored peace messages and voting information, such as identification requirements at the polls, for this election.

Brown described Kenya’s “grass roots being more connected to national institutions” in this year’s elections, adding, “People really did choose not to fight….The memory of ’07-’08 was a really powerful thing that deterred individuals.”

Jacqueline Wilson, a senior program officer at USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding who has conducted anti-violence training workshops in Kenya, said that peaceful responses were encouraged by Kenyans’ belief in their new constitution and the “complete transformation of their government.”

Kenyans, she said, understood that the election was being closely watched. She cited local peace actors who responded proactively to early-warning, early-response systems that picked up signs of hate speech and the stockpiling of weapons in some locales. Such efforts, supported by international NGOs and some governments, encouraged peaceful reactions to the election, Wilson said. “People felt they were being watched and [faced] the possibility of accountability,” she said.

Wilson, a specialist in conflict resolution, helped conduct electoral violence-prevention training workshops in January and February in the capital Nairobi and in Nakuru in the Rift Valley.

USIP has been active in Kenya in other ways as well. It has issued grants to support peacebuilding activities on such issues as religious tolerance, the conduct of elections, post-election and gender-based violence, inflammatory speech and interethnic youth leadership training. The recipients include FLT Films, Map Kibera Trust, McGill University, World Policy Institute and the Center for Creative Leadership. Separately, USIP’s Center for Science, Technology and Peacebuilding partnered with George Mason University and Mercy Corps to test methods to evaluate peacebuilding efforts designed to reduce youth participation in political and election violence.

USIP’s Academy has also offered courses on preventing electoral violence in Africa, most recently in December 2012. Participants came from U.S. government agencies, civil society groups, international organizations, police and military establishments and the governments of several African countries. Kenya’s 2013 elections were used as the capstone exercise for applying violence-prevention analysis to an actual election experience.

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