Returning to ballot box: the fear of new violence in Kenya after 2007/08 clashes

Since we arrived here in Kenya, one topic has been staying in the spotlight in every meeting we had with local and international stakeholders: the coming elections of March 2013.

The least we can say is that Kenyans don’t have a nice souvenir from last time. We discovered in our first week in Nairobi a great
photo exhibition called “Kenya burning” going over the violent events which occurred from December 2007 to March 2008. Back then, President Kibaki was re-elected but suspicions about vote fraud and the large success of his opponent Raila Odinga’s party in general election (same ballot as presidential one) provoked violence Kenya had never seen before. Created in 2008, the exhibition toured throughout the country until today to remind Kenyans how far social hatred could go if they don’t pay attention to build and keep peace between communities whatever the political stakes are.

Because more than clashes between genuine adverse political partisans, riots brought ethnic groups face to face, waking up old bones of contention such as land issues. As a result, more than a thousand people died and nearly six hundred thousand individuals left their home to flee the violences, giving birth to IDPs camps especially in the Rift Valley region, in the western part of Kenya, where Eurosha volunteers are today deployed.

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The good old “Divide and rule” method

The Rift Valley, which used to be called “the White Highlands”, is long known for its high degree of ethnic diversity. It has been a key area for British settlers to grow coffee, tee or any other valuable agricultural product to export during colonization times. After the independence, Kenyans politicians who came successively in power proceeded to land allocation generally based on political affiliations (as post-electoral thanks) and/or ethnic identity. That what happened with 2002 elected President Kibaki who gave pieces of land to governmental members coming from the same ethnic group, the Kikuyus. Rift Valley sought-after lands thus became the property of people who were not originally from the area, and most of the time from a different ethnic origin than local communities, deepening frustrations between ethnic groups who had already been manipulated as such by British colonial power – according to the well known “Divide and rule” method.

What to expect in March?

2007 violence was not the first, given that every election since the transition to multipartism in 1992 experienced such socio/political/ethnic clashes, but never so intense. That’s why everyone is today lying in wait for the forthcoming March 2013 ballot. The political campaign has already begun, newspapers publish articles everyday about candidates who can officially stand for election until December, and… Eurosha volunteers are working hard to map violence prone areas in Rift Valley districts!

But let’s end on a positive note. Kenyan actors we met are very aware of the threat of new clashes, but 2007 events left such a trauma within the population, whatever their ethnic side is, so that no one wants to let it happen again. At least it’s the opinion we have been hearing so far by most of the stakeholders. The vote of a new constitution in 2010, modifying among other things administrative zoning and giving more competences to local authorities, also stands for a key element to respond to local needs and avoid new tensions.

Let’s hope for Kenya that such a crisis will not occur again. So far, Kenyan actors including local authorities seem willing to work on preventing or at least being better prepared for potential new sad events, in particular sharing as much information as possible with the humanitarian community; that’s why Eurosha project comes, quoting their own words, “at the very right moment”!

Marine (France)

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