2013 elections: Breaking the cycle of political violence in Kenya

On 4th March Kenyans will be going to the polls to vote in national elections. Memories of the post-election violence that gripped the country in 2007-08 are vivid, and many fear similar violence could occur again when the polls close.

But political violence in Kenya is more than just a symptom of elections; it has been a part of the political process for decades. Margarete Knorr, Research Coordinator at Beyond Violence, elaborates on the role of non-violent transformations away from conflict situations ahead of the Kenyan elections next week.

Kenyan peace activist. Source: Beyond Violence

A complex array of causes and actors

Claims of vote rigging and disputes over the results of the 2007 general elections between the ruling Mwai Kibaki and the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, led to an outbreak of politically motivated violence. This fighting left more than 1,500 Kenyans dead and caused the displacement of over 850,000 people. Violence frequently occurred between supporters of each party, or was directed against ethnic groups who are associated with certain party alliances.

Although the world seemed shocked at the levels of post-election violence in what had previously been lauded as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, cycles of political violence aren’t new. They have been a permanent feature of Kenya’s post-colonial politics, with elections often serving as a key trigger for violent outbreaks. Political violence has claimed the lives of 4,433 Kenyans and displaced more than 1.8 million people since 1993.

The political manipulation of ethnic identities, combined with economic drivers of conflict (such inequality, poverty, land rights and unemployment) and historical grievances (the Shifta war, the ten-mile Costal land strip and the exclusion of indigenous locals and communities from consultations in decisions about land) are easily exploited and have been at the root of political violence in Kenya.

Political power has long been monopolised by elites who fail to mobilise supporters outside of their own ethnic groups. Typically, policies regarding the allocation of resources and land have benefited those ethnic groups close to the leadership. This results in deeply entrenched rivalries that can frequently lead to tribal clashes and inter-ethnic violence.

On top of this, there is a vast array of actors loyal to different political groups, including police forces and armed gangs. High youth unemployment rates provide a fertile ground for recruitment into these armed gangs. Justice becomes a national problem when the instigators and perpetrators are rarely punished. A long history of political violence adds further momentum and uncertainty into a volatile political and social environment.

 How much progress has been made?

A new constitution, signed into law in 2010, led to far-reaching political and judicial reforms, as well as legislation to prohibit hate speech. A new electoral body, a voting system that requires broader public support to win the presidency, and the use of new technology aimed at preventing election fraud seek to minimise the risk of reoccurring violence.

However, observers often point out that the reform process remains inadequate. During the election campaigns, Kenya’s politicians have been accused of failing to address the issues at stake, and few tangible efforts have been made to mobilise voters across ethnic lines. In the meantime, worrying reports of increased inter-ethnic violence have been emerging since early 2012. Chaotic party primaries were tainted by violent outbursts and saw an election official die from stab wounds in western Kenya. Over the last week, reports of intimidation further galvanised public opinion. This included death threats against Kenya’s Chief Justice.

Currently, the two most likely candidates for presidency – Raila Odinga, who is running for the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) and Jubilee Alliance candidate Uhuru Kenyatta – come head to head in opinion polls. Emotions run high, and much will depend on whether they and their supporters accept the results. But even if the elections proceed peacefully, tribalism, land disputes, high poverty rates and unemployment will continue to linger. These are contentious issues that can easily be exploited to instigate violence for political ends. Virtual impunity and rampant corruption still remains widely unaddressed.

Statistics in brief: KenyaWorld Bank data:

  • Population (2010): 40.5 Million
  • GDP (2010): $31.41 Billion
  • Infant Mortality Rate (per 1,000 live births; 2010): 55.1
  • Life Expectancy (2009): 55.84 Years
  • Literacy rate (2009): 87%

Unemployment: estimated 40% in 2001 and 2008, likely to be higher (Source: CIA Factbook)

Youth Unemployment: 70% (Source: Kenya Economic Outlook, African Development Bank Group)

Corruption Perception Index

  • Rank: 139/176 countries
  • Score: 27/100 (0 highly corrupt; 100 very clean)
  • (Source: Kenya 2012 profile, Transparency International)

Human Development Index

  • Rank: 143/187
  • Score: 0.509 (0 lowest, 1 highest)
  • (Source: Kenya country profile, UN Human Development Indicators, UNDP)

Global Gender Gap Index 2012

Breaking the cycle: non-violent approaches to conflict transformation

In Kenya and elsewhere, violence is deeply entrenched into the political process. Times of relative peace and quiet alternate with times of increased physical violence. Violence itself is often self-perpetuating and occurs in cycles, with attacks by one side often provoking violent retribution. This is where non-violent approaches to solving these conflicts become important.

From the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s to the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace (a group of women staging non-violent protests that forced warring parties to the negotiation table and ended the civil war in 2003), non-violent approaches to resolving political issues in Africa are nothing new.

A principle as much as it is a practice, non-violence promotes the use of peaceful means, not physical force, to break these cycles of violence and to create political or social change. Some of the benefits in promoting nonviolent strategies are:

  • It offers an alternative to the death, destruction and fear associated with violence. Non-violence also appeals to those who are disillusioned by the use of force.
  • Slowly, non-violent approaches can open up genuine dialogue and cooperation in situations that would otherwise seem intractable.
  • Discussions can focus on key issues at hand, rather than on the results of killings and militarisation, and will therefore be more productive in promoting change and reconciliation.
  • People from all sides can join the movement and engage with issues without fear of retribution.

Once the crucial first step is made, non-violence becomes contagious; putting a rise in pressure on those who promote the use of violence to justify their actions.

While only a year old, Beyond Violence is campaigning for these kinds of non-violent approaches.

A space for activism

A critical mass of Kenyans from all political and ethnic backgrounds want to break the cycles of political violence – and supporting fair, credible and peaceful elections in Kenya are a first step in doing so. Informed and led by local actors in Kenya, the campaign aims to bring people, activists, civil society and politicians together to take a stand against violence. Supported by Beyond Violence volunteers from around the globe, the campaign also provides a space for discussion via its website and social media platforms.

There is also a space for people outside Kenya to get involved. They can offer input from their own experiences with non-violent conflict transformation, raise awareness about the issues at hand, and about the solutions non-violent strategies present. International attention also puts pressure on all parties to end violence. Together they can lend credibility to the call for genuine peace.

One advocate for peace is easily overheard or silenced. When a critical mass of people demand change, those waging war will need to listen. In Kenya, like elsewhere, much will depend on individuals making a conscious choice to oppose political violence.

The upcoming elections will be a test for Kenya and could pave its way to a truly inclusive democracy. If elections proceed peacefully, this will be an important first step in ending political violence in Kenya and strengthen public confidence at home in Kenyan democracy.

You can sign the petition, find out more about our approach to non-violence or join us on Facebook.


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  • For candidate profiles, Q&A and info on the ICC potentially influencing the outcome of the campaign see Kenya’s 2013 elections | BBC News | 22 February 2013