The prospects of a trouble-free election in Kenya look increasingly uncertain. Kenyans go to the polls on 4 March for the first time since widespread post-election violence killed more than 1,000 people and brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2007-8. While President Kibaki has affirmed that this time the country is on track for fair and peaceful elections, indications from the ground suggest otherwise. The international community must be ready to respond to what may be a very chaotic and destabilising election period. The harsh reality is that Kenya is a more violent place than it was before the 2007 election. There has been a significant rise in group violence over the last year. For example, clashes in Tana River Delta during the second half of 2012 left more than 140 dead, while street protests in Mombasa in August 2012 killed four. While these incidents may be sparked by local grievances, there is evidence that local politicians are stoking the violence. Moreover, violent disturbances are already affecting the election process. The local party primaries in January were almost derailed in some areas by organised violence, including large-scale street fighting.
The political stakes are also higher this time around. Leading presidential contender Uhuru Kenyatta, and his running mate, William Ruto, have both been charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in relation to the 2007-8 violence. While they have promised to cooperate with the ICC, in reality their election to office may be their only hope to gain de facto immunity from prosecution. Add to this heady mix the prevalence of ethnic-based – and in some cases hate-based – election campaigning and the risks of tensions spilling over into violence are all too clear.
On the other hand, there has been substantial institutional reform since 2007 and Kenya’s institutions may now be better placed to prevent and respond to violent disturbances. In 2010, a new constitution was passed that aims to strengthen democracy, including through the decentralisation of governance, curbs on executive power and new voting rules. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IBEC) has been established to oversee elections and enjoys significant public trust. In addition, a respected new Chief Justice has been appointed, as has an experienced Inspector General of Police. These appointments could help strengthen the judiciary to stand up to electoral fraud and improve the police response to any election violence.
However, while these institutional changes are undoubtely important, other crucial reforms to address broader socio-economic grievances have been blocked by Kenyan leaders. High levels of regional inequality and exclusion are underlying drivers of Kenya’s violence, as are competition over land and resource access. The recent discovery of oil may well heighten such inequalities, given the likelihood that Kenya’s elite will benefit most from oil revenues. In addition, unemployment hovers around 40% and there is widespread labour discontent. The lack of justice for victims of the 2007 violence – many of whom are still displaced – is also a major source of tension.
Full Article: Kenya’s elections: a make or break moment? | openDemocracy.