Civil society and labor activists are using a range of techniques and strategies to prevent a repeat of the ethnic violence that devastated Kenya following the 2007 election, including an engaging movie:
Mercy Wanjiru, who was born in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum, stars in Ni Sisi (It Is Us), a film (above) produced by the Kenyan NGO Safe (Sponsored Arts For Education), which uses street theatre and film to promote social change. The film is based on a street theatre production that Safe actors, including Wanjiru, have been performing across the country for around two years, hoping to prevent a repeat of the violence that tore through Kenya after the 2007 election.
“Every five years or so, this stable and typically peaceful country, an oasis of development in a very poor and turbulent region, suffers a frightening transformation in which age-old grievances get stirred up, ethnically based militias are mobilized and neighbors start killing neighbors,” the New York Times reports:
The reason is elections, and another huge one — one of the most important in this country’s history and definitely the most complicated — is barreling this way. In less than two weeks, Kenyans will line up by the millions to pick their leaders for the first time since a disastrous vote in 2007, which set off clashes that killed more than 1,000 people. The country has spent years agonizing over the wounds and has taken some steps to repair itself, most notably passing a new constitution. But justice has been elusive, politics remain ethnically tinged and leaders charged with crimes against humanity have a real chance of winning.
“The rest of Africa wants to know whether it’s possible to learn from past elections and ensure violence doesn’t flare again,” said Phil Clark, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “With five years’ warning, is it possible to address the causes of conflict and transfer power peacefully?”
Spurred on by Kenyan intellectuals and Western allies, Kenya has overhauled its judiciary, election commission and the nature of power itself. Dozens of new positions, like governorships and Senate seats, have been created to ensure that resources flow down more equitably to the grass roots, an attempt to weaken the winner-take-all system that lavished rewards and opportunities on some ethnic groups while relegating others to the sidelines. Most analysts here feel this election will be turbulent, though some argue it will not be as bad as last time.
“Things are different,” said Maina Kiai, a prominent Kenyan human rights advocate.
For instance, he noted, it was the Kikuyu and Kalenjin who fought one another in the Rift Valley in 2007 and 2008, but now many members of those two groups are on the same side because their leaders have formed a political alliance.
“There may be new arenas of violence,” Mr. Kiai said. “But I don’t think the extent of violence will be the same.”
Other observers are not so sanguine.
“After the 2007 election Kikuyu and Kalenjin militias were given machetes, spears and cash payments, trucked to where they could do most damage and let loose on rival ethnic communities,” writes Michela Wrong, author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower:
Many analysts believe that the official estimate of more than 1,000 deaths is a laughable underestimation. Now, thanks to an alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto, who both face trial before the International Criminal Court for allegedly organizing the violence, attackers and victims are being asked to become buddies. Anything to keep Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a Luo who almost certainly should have won the 2007 election, from becoming president.
Kenya has a tradition of strained tribal coalitions, but few have been more grotesque, or demanded more torturous mental acrobatics of scarred constituencies, than this.
Odinga, who has pulled together his own alliance, is also hoping for some serious short-term memory loss from his supporters. They will need to forget that he was lucky — enemies say miraculously so — to escape an I.C.C. indictment for what Luo lieutenants perpetrated in Kenya’s warring slums in 2007 and 2008.
“Any breakdown of the electoral process and political order in Kenya would … have major economic consequences in the region and jeopardize other US objectives,” according to Joel Barkan, a Kenya expert, author of a recent report for the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Two major US foreign policy goals in the region – preventing Somalia from becoming a safe haven for terrorists and nurturing peace between Sudan and South Sudan – could be compromised,” writes Barkan, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy:
Five of the eight presidential hopefuls addressed labor movement leaders in the largest gathering of candidates organized by civil society during the election cycle (see below):
The Labor Forum, organized by the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU-Kenya), the national trade union center, and the Solidarity Center AFL-CIO East Africa Office [a core institute of the NED], was held in Nairobi on February 20. The Forum organizers note that an educated voter is less likely to cast votes along ethnic lines, which has been past practice in many parts of Kenya.
But some observers believe the labor movement’s message of non-sectarian solidarity will be eclipsed by the toxic overtures of populist politicians.
“Yes, Kenya is East Africa’s most vibrant economy, a strategic gateway to the mineral resources of the Great Lakes region and — potentially — the oil riches of South Sudan,” notes Wrong:
It has an aspirational middle class, a ballooning pool of potential workers and a relentless entrepreneurial spirit. But a generation of cynical, short-termist politicians has turned ethnicity into a poisonous national obsession, Nairobi’s slums are the most squalid in Africa, and the vision required to defuse the frustrations of the young population trapped in them is noticeable by its absence.