Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Upcoming elections: praying for peace

Bear with me people, this post is going to have nothing to do with my adorable children, development work, or cross-cultural parenting (you're welcome?).  But it has everything to do with the topic on everyone's minds, in every conversation, and on every page of every newspaper here in Kenya:  the upcoming presidential election.

Given the flawed elections and the post-election violence in 2007, everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what the fall-out will be from this round, who will be declared a winner and how the nation will react.

Here's an oversimplified primer of the political dynamic here:

OK, Kenya is most certainly not Rwanda with 2 ethnic groups historically pitted against one another.  And historically (with one very notable exception) Kenya has managed transfers of power relatively peacefully, and remained a beacon of stability and prosperity in an often chaotic neighborhood.

Still, politics are overwhelmingly tribal with allegiances along ethnic lines and the resulting spoils of victory dolled out mainly to co-ethnics.  (And the spoils are big!  In a country where the per capita income is $1,700/ year, Kenyan MPs are some of the highest paid in the world, making more than US Senators. And that's their official take home. Getting your hands on the levers of power is lucrative in a number of other ways, says the litany of financial scandals in Kenya's recent history. Digression over.)

There are 42 different ethnic groups, none with more than 22% of the population, so politics is a complicated jockeying for alliances and coalitions.  The Kikuyu and Kalenjin have managed to hold on to power since independence, but in 2007, a political rival - Raila Odinga - a Luo from Western Kenya (home to such notable people as Barack Obama's ancestors and this blogger) threatened to take that power in a popular vote. In fact, he looked to be winning, until it was unexpectedly announced that the incumbent Kibaki, had won the vote. Suspicions of foul play were confirmed by international observers who noted that the elections were marred by irregularities.

Tensions, actively stoked by the politicians, flared, resulting in over 1,000 deaths, mainly from inter-ethnic violence.  The world looked on horrified, as people were burned in churches and hundreds of thousands fled their homes for safer areas, astonished that this could happen in a country synonymous in many minds with luxury safaris, champion runners and fine coffee.  Kofi Anon intervened and a power-sharing agreement was ultimately reached, making Raila the Prime Minister and Kibaki the President.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), created to hold instigators of mass atrocities accountable, subsequently indicted 4 Kenyans as responsible for inciting violence.

Two of four are running on a ticket together in this election.  And they (Uhuru and Ruto) are polling neck and neck with Raila (the current PM) to be the next President.

Are you still here?  I know that's a lot of history for people who might just want to know if Emmet has started walking and Caleb has done something funny, but it's actually still pretty incomplete.  

Moving on...

When we decided to move to Kenya, nearly 3 years ago, the prospect of violence in this upcoming election loomed large in our minds -- especially since we'd be living in Kisumu, a primarily Luo city which was a hotbed of violence the last time around. The election is now only days away.

Because the race is so close and there's a lot of distrust in the electoral system, there's no doubt there will be some kind of public outcry, no matter the winner.  But there will also likely be a run-off in a months time as no one candidate is polling above 50%.  But the question on everyone's minds is: Will it (this election or the run-off) be violent?

There are a few things working in our favor:

(1) The ICC.  The fiasco of the last election resulted in indictments to the ICC.  The message: People are looking.  Behave yourself. You will be accountable. The idea is that this could change the political calculations of those who might otherwise benefit politically from encouraging conflict.

(2) Many people simply don't want violence.  Since we arrived in Kenya, people have repeatedly told us that they don't believe there will be violence. "No one wants what happened last time."  "We don't have the stomach for it."  In the last several weeks there have been dozens of peace rallies and politicians have reached out to one another to make public statements calling for peace.

(3) There are mechanisms in place to anticipate and stem violence. In the wake of the last elections, structures were put  in place to prevent this from happening again.  The Election Commission was de-politicized and a commission was established to curb hate speech.  This time the government will be on high-alert anticipating violence, not caught off guard.  Police are already deployed.

(4) New structures mean more local accountability.  The new constitution has devolved a lot of authority to local levels creating a number of new local political positions, such as Governors to oversee new counties.  In theory this will create more transparency and accountability overall for what is done with public money. It could also help diffuse people's emotional reactions to the national election if their attention is divided.

Then again, there are some things working against us....

(1) The ICC.  The ICC indictment raised the stakes for the accused presidential contenders, Uhuru and Ruto.  If they win they will have more power to evade the ICC (though they have promised to comply with the trail).  You could also argue that the political costs of an ICC indictment are actually not that apparent, given the process for indicting those involved in violence was 5 years long and they are able to stay front runners in an election, which brings me to my second point...

(2) Some people DO want violence.  Because there's such a huge premium on a victory, it could be in some people's favor to incite violence, just as much as it was last time.  In fact, recently pamphlets were found instructing people to "kick out" Kikuyu in Luo areas, and also to rid Kikuyu areas of Luos.

(3) New structures mean more battles, spoils, and stakes.  The new political positions created might just give people more to fight over, more to feel aggrieved about. One of the more hotly contested races is for a newly created position as a local MP, and the aspirant lives right down the road from us. He's widely supported by the people, but his opponent is backed by the local party.  there have already been rumors that our neighbor has been intimidated and threatened, and his supporters will likely be suspicious and even angry at a loss.

Oh who knows???  Predictions of violence differ depending on who you ask and when you ask them.

But we are all praying for peace at the same time as we are stocking up on provisions in case there's insecurity.  Some expats we know are leaving town and many locals are also returning to their home village areas to wait out any possible violence.  We are collectively holding our breath.

I want to assure those of you concerned (hi mom!) that we won't take any unnecessary risks.  We are fortunate enough to live in a secure part of town, which was untouched even in the last election violence and have contingency plans in place if need be.

My hope overall is for peace for all of Kenya and a just transition to a responsive and accountable government.


  1. We had friends in Nairobi during the last election and we followed along closely - I'm with you in hoping for peace this time around. I love your note to your mom - mine would be freaking out if I were you. Take care. I look forward to reading your take on things after the elections.

    1. Thanks Jody! I just read a Carter Center report today which was pretty optimistic, so that's good! Also, it's likely that it will go to a run-off in a months time, so we can kick our anxiety down the road a bit...

  2. No one is praying for peace more than Dad and me. Be safe and be prudent.