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By Lawrence W. Mwagwabi, Kenya Governance and Human Rights Programme Officer, 28 February 2013
On March 4th, Kenyans will go to the polls for the first time since over 1,300 people were killed in violence that followed the 2007 Presidential election.
The brutal violence that followed the 2007 election rocked Kenya to its foundations. Over 600,000 people were displaced as ethnic clashes erupted throughout the country. Historically the most stable country in east Africa, the violence was a brutal reminder that ethnic tensions persist over land, high inequality, investment and jobs.
Five years on, the country nervously wonders: will the 2013 elections put the memories of violence to rest, or simply repeat them?
To date, there have been no convictions of significant figures responsible for the violence. The coalition government established to restore peace promised to establish a Special Tribunal to try high level perpetrators, but this has not been realized. In The Hague, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is preparing to hear cases against six individuals, including two of the current Presidential candidates.
The looming presence of the ICC trials has undoubtedly cast a shadow over the upcoming polls. Questions over how the international community would react if Kenya elects leaders who are being tried at the ICC have featured prominently in the campaign. The tone seems to vary from a defiant one, emphasizing that Kenya should not be influenced by donor money, to a more nuanced view of what would happen if the international community reacted negatively. Parallels have been drawn to Sudan’s Bashir and the sanctions placed on Sudan by the international community.
Attempts have been made, with varying success, to avoid the mistakes of the 2007 campaign, when inter-ethnic tensions were stoked in advance of voting. Several representatives of the government, including the Inspector General of the police, have asked candidates to refrain from campaigning on land issues, as this remains a hugely divisive issue. There are still enduring and unresolved community grievances over land ownership and distribution in different parts of Kenya. There is also continued challenge of internal displacement, with the government perceived as having failed to resettle all internally displaced people (IDPs).
Employment has been a central issue that all eight Presidential candidates have focused on. Campaigning has remained mostly positive. However, negative campaigning has been observed, particularly between the two main coalition blocks. The Jubilee Coalition has stated that the CORD alliance members are old and represent the past, with CORD on their part claiming that the leaders of the Jubilee Coalition are unfit to lead the country.
There has also been an issue of candidates getting involved with ‘voter buying’ in exchange for their support. Several parties have called on voters not to “sell” their vote in this way. Reports and coverage have focused mostly on the national elections, with some limited coverage on specific gubernatorial, MP and regional seats.
There has been much focus on the issue of ‘hate speech’, with several radio stations having been closed down after being accused of stoking ethnic tensions. These closures have been met with claims that the government is attempting to muzzle the media.
The government has instituted measures to tackle hate speech by introducing short messaging services (SMS) for people willing to report hate speech. In addition, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) has distributed 1,200 voice recorders to police officers across the country to monitor hate speech during political rallies. The commission also stated at least 2,000 police officers of various ranks have been trained on how to monitor hate speech.
It is hoped that the new electronic voting system could defuse tensions, as results are expected within hours of voting closing. However, it is clear from the opinion polls conducted by various pollsters that this will be a ‘dead heat’ contest. It is likely to result in a runoff and it is anticipated that the election will be quite long, drawn out process as the issue of the legal process to solve contested results. Judges who will preside over election petitions after elections will have powers to declare a winner after a recount of ballot papers in court. This follows an amendment of judicial rules that will allow magistrates to preside over petitions to ensure faster and fair determination of disputes.
The shadow of the 2007 election looms large over this year’s process. Unresolved tensions, along with the impending ICC case, continue to shape the political landscape. Observations from Trócaire’s partners indicate a sense of unease, with widespread rumours and speculation within communities about ethnic tensions.
The International Crisis Group has accused politicians of deepening ethnic tensions and warns that most issues that triggered the 2008 post-election violence remain unresolved. According to the group, competition for land and resources and youth unemployment remains “hot political issues” and could be used by politicians to shore up ethnic support and possible violence.
On Monday Kenyans will go to the polls hoping that their votes can help improve political stability, and condemn the shocking scenes of 2007 to the past.