Kenya Votes While Calm Reigns

In the spring of 2008, I met with a group of Kenyan human rights activists to discuss what they saw as the most pressing issues in East Africa. At one point, the conversation turned to the post-election violence their country witnessed just a few months before. “I know,” one of them said, shaking her head. “It’s really bad. It hasn’t been this bad since the last time it happened.”


It is often said that the 2007-2008 post-election violence took many people by surprise but if that’s true, they weren’t paying attention. In the background of this week’s presidential election is not just the 2007-2008 post-election violence but the fact that every presidential election since 1992 – the first multiparty elections the country held – involved political violence. Thus while some in Kenya may mock the concerns international media published leading up to the election, the concerns are not without basis. What Kenya is facing is not just the overcoming of embedded political corruption, but the need to change a political and social culture that places ethnic identity at the forefront of national politics.

And so far, Kenya is succeeding. While the March 4 election was not without incident, the violence witnessed on election day was limited to separatists who rejected the entire notion of the election rather than divisions between different ethnic groups and political camps as previously seen. Things may change – at the time of this writing, only about half of the votes are counted and the results are far from definitive, especially given the problematic issue of spoiled ballots – but it appears that Kenya has managed to break from its past. Here is a small look at what happened from 2007 to today.

International Pressure

There are numerous ways the international community engaged Kenya over this issue in the last four years but the most obvious involvement comes from the ICC. Unlike previous elections, the 2007-2008 violence led to a power-sharing agreement brokered by Kofi Annan that notably allowed for a referral of the issue to the ICC if the Kenyan parliament failed to establish a national tribunal to handle post-election violence cases by a set deadline. Despite concerted efforts to establish such a tribunal, in the end parliament voted against the tribunal leading to a referral, investigation and four confirmed ICC indictments against Kenyan political figures for the violence.

The issue of the ICC and Kenya is an interesting one given the nature of the referral and the fact that two of the accused, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, represent the presidential ticket for the National Alliance party. But despite complaints by those accused, opinion polls show that Kenyans are generally favorable towards the ICC as they don’t fully trust their own government to pursue justice.

Currently, Kenyatta and Ruto are leading in the polls. If Kenyatta does win the presidency, there will clearly be some awkward days ahead as he becomes the second sitting head of state behind Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir with an active ICC indictment. But for now the ICC indictments have ensured that the post-election violence issue stayed at the relative forefront of international affairs rather than buried in favor of more immediate concerns like Kenya’s cooperation in fighting Islamist militants in Somalia. That focus means that international pressure for reforms has not lessened even with the passage of time and placed greater urgency on both the government and the people to find proper solutions to avoid a repeat of 2007.

Government support of reforms

Real change requires commitment from within. As noted above, there have been fits and starts in the reform agenda but overall the government and all the related parties supported reforms as part of theKenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation process established in 2008. Parliament passed several legislative pieces as part of this framework including the creation of a National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a review of the 1969 constitution and a successful referendum on a new constitution in 2010 that established an independent electoral commission. Public statement against violent episodes in the Tana Valley and potential hate speech helped dissuade tensions in the buildup to the elections while forging a new political outlook. Although numerous reforms are still needed on issues such as police accountability, land reform and poverty reduction, the progress Kenya has made in just four years is encouraging.

“People Power”

Yet the biggest reason why violence did not reoccurred is because of ordinary Kenyans. From theatre groups to youth outreach programs, Kenyans embraced opportunities to advance dialogue and encourage peaceful elections. Ushahidi, the crisis mapping platform created in the wake of the 2007 post-election violence is now an internationally known non-profit with extensive experience in crisis mapping; to prepare for elections this year they launched Umati to track potentially dangerous hate speech in the lead up to the polls and Uchaguzi to track potential violence and corruption through citizen reports. The combination of grassroots organizing with local technology made it harder for violence and corruption to go unnoticed. It also gave ordinary people a direct role in preventing future violence and the ability to shape the final outcome.

These are just some examples of the local initiatives spearheaded by Kenyans to encourage democratic progress. However what they highlight is that while media reports going into the elections carried the narrative of possible catastrophe, they also carried the narrative of a people determined to learn from the past and avoid the same mistakes again. At this point, it looks like the will and efforts of the people won.

What can we learn and where do we go from here?

First, the success of this election belongs to Kenyans. In the last four years, the government, local and international NGOs as well as ordinary individuals have worked to acknowledge the pain of the past while also giving citizens an understanding of their role in changing the outcome. From the grassroots to the upper workings of government agencies, Kenyans worked hard at building connection, understanding and transparency to avoid the mistakes of previous elections. There are still areas where improvements can be made, but the last four years marks a huge step in the right direction.

Second, process matters. The passage of a new constitution with stronger election requirements and the creation of an independent election commission immensely helped transparency. Numerous Kenyan media websites are carrying running tallies of the votes based on information released by the electoral commission, informing people in realtime of the vote count. Doing so aids in transparency and gives people more confidence in the result. This is a dramatic difference from previous election processes in Kenya which lacked transparency and election processes in some other African countries also facing elections this year like Zimbabwe. So far, Kenyans online have expressed far more optimism and confidence in their election than anyone I’ve heard from Zimbabwe. There are many reasons for this but a big one is that process does in fact matter.

Third, it must be remembered that the election itself is just one step in an ongoing democratic process for better governance and accountability. The election has not been without difficulties, including hundreds of thousands of spoiled ballots that are not counted towards any candidate. This presents the first wrinkle in an otherwise positive election and could cost Kenyatta an outright victory by forcing a run-off. Further investigations need to be done to understand why there are such a large number of spoiled ballots in order to avoid it in the future. Whether they are the result of corruption or innocent mistakes by voters and officials, the result means that hundreds of thousands of Kenyans are being disenfranchised. That does not bode well for Kenya or its democratic credentials.

There are also signs that Kenyans are still voting largely along ethnic and regional lines. This is somewhat to be expected; people typically vote for who they feel will best represent them and someone from the same region or tribe will often feel more representative. But this voting pattern makes for big winners and big losers among the population, one major factor leading to previous election violence. This election’s trend of building cross-tribal political coalitions helped Kenyatta and Ruto but also holds the potential for a “tyranny of the majority” mindset by the subsequent government where losing tribes are further marginalized by the government. If that indeed comes to pass, it will undermine the general credibility of democracy in Kenya. Thus the election is just step one; engaging the population across ethnic and regional lines is still necessary both in the actual government and hopefully to be better addressed in future elections.

In the meantime, the international community needs to provide its support to the outcome and ongoing election process. This is especially important if this week’s election results in a run-off. As Kenyans prove their detractors wrong, the very least the international community can do is support those efforts and give credit where it is rightfully due.

Originally published by Foreign Policy Association