How to have quieter, safer elections in Kenya?

One of the other writing suggestions I have had recently was the topic of how to move Kenya in the direction of countries where elections are routine, quiet and uneventful–part of the ordinary course of affairs as opposed to occasions for violence and even deaths and displacement.

Lots of things to point to here:

1. Be careful what you wish for and appreciate what you have. There is good in the fact that Kenyans care about elections and are engaged and motivated politically. I could give you some opposite examples of apathy and distraction in the United States during the housing and internet bubbles. Part of the reasons elections are quieter in South Africa, for instance, is probably the dominance and unique status of the ANC.

2. In Kenya, job opportunities and economic activity for younger people outside Nairobi would help a great deal with reducing the “drama” associated with campaigns and elections–as of course would economic development improving circumstances in the Nairobi “slums”. This would greatly inconvenience the current political class by raising the cost of raising gangs, for instance, as well as more generally raising the cost of menial labor in Nairobi, so there will continue to be entrenched resistance.

3. Violence in the elections in Kenya is mostly, at root, a product of bad acts by bad politicians. They do what they do because it works and serves their interests. Overwhelmingly, Kenyan citizens want criminal prosecution of key political actors in the 2007-2008 post election violence. To date, however, impunity reigns. Citizen activism and engagement will be crucial to winning this fight. I recommend that Kenyans do their best to “name and shame” those from the West that continue to vacillate and demonstrate hypocrisy in making sure that violence doesn’t pay. Why would Americans, for instance, be in bed with Moi in particular? Or Ruto or Uhuru while they are identified as key suspects? Especially my fellow Christians and those saying they want to help Kenyans build democracy?

4. Suppression of civil liberties as well as outright use of force to retain power by the incumbent administration was very much a key cause of much of the violence following the 2007 election. Kenyans were not allowed to protest peacefully as the election appeared to be stolen. Kenyans were generally not allowed to protest peacefully before the election. Kenyans peacefully and spontaneously celebrating the “peace deal” settlement of February 28, 2008 were tear gassed. If you are not a Kenyan, ask yourself what you would do if this were your country?

5. It does seem to me that legal reform is key to stopping a climate of violence surrounding the elections. There are several things in the proposed new Constitution that I think can help, in particular changing from the “first past the post” presidential election which has resulted in candidates winning with a plurality of the vote but minority support nationally, to a runoff system that will call on a successful campaign to build majority support. The dynamics of presidential campaigns under a runoff system would, I think, be substantially different, and I think, better. Getting some grip on overwhelming presidential power and making general progress toward the rule of “law” rather than of “men” is the way to elections in which the stakes are not so high, or seem so high, that people get killed.

6. And of course, the biggest reason that elections have exaggerated stakes in Kenya is corruption. Elections are not just about control of government, but also control of the business/parastatal complexes and networks developed from control of government. A key government official early on in my time in Kenya told me that 2007 was not the year for a new generation of leadership to come into power because there was too much corruption in the past that would be at risk of exposure and that the people involved were not ready to step aside for that reason.

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