Pre-election violence in Kenya: here we go again?

The pre-election killings in Kenya in 2013 were “only” 500 or so as reported at the time.  The various branches of the Kenya Police Service were more restrained than they seem to be this cycle.  In the pre-election period the IEBC was well respected and trusted, having not experienced overlapping scandals and problems that materialized later and remain outstanding.

I think it is well worth remembering that in the especially violent and destabilizing election campaign of 2007, it was the deployment of the Administrative Police (the “AP”) to the western provinces on behalf of the Kibaki re-election effort just before the vote that first openly “militarized” the campaign.  I should have been more alarmed by the “physical” rather than simply electoral implications of that move at the time.

It seems to me that the open use of armed force for political advantage by an incumbent puts the opposition in an unavoidable “fight or flight” bind to the great risk of public safety and stability, affecting the majority who are ardently supportive of neither “side” in the actual campaign.

As Americans we naturally prefer to see Africans choose the “flight” option rather than the “fight” option in most cases.  There are a variety of reasons for this, some that are morally well grounded and some that are morally questionable.  Some of it is compassion; some of it is geopolitical self interest; part of it may be unique to more individualized interests and relationships.  In European countries especially, for instance Ukraine, and in other parts of the world, we often weigh these choices differently.  

In Kenya, it would be most convenient for us, of course, if the opposition stood down, kept quiet, and trusted their government and the donors to handle election administration like in 2007 and 2013.  We know that we cannot ask that explicitly and we see that the IEBC has lost wide confidence from the public but we seem to be unwilling to directly engage in support of reform now.

I would not want to see any of my Kenyan friends or acquaintences sacrifice bodily harm for any of the Kenyan politicians I knew personally from the 2007 campaign.  In 2007 I thought that Kalonzo, Kibaki and Odinga were all three reasonably plausible and well experienced, well known choices; the election itself ought not to have been seen as particularly high risk or high reward, one way or the other, for the vast majority of Kenyans.

However, as I am deeply grateful that my ancestors made the sacrifices required for me to inherit the benefits of a democratic system here in the United States, I would be embarrased to suggest–and am always disappointed to see my government imply–that Kenyans should simply knuckle under and accept that they do not have the freedom-in-fact that their constitution says on paper, under the law, that they have achieved. 

The opposition has generated an opening for reform through the aggressive and disturbing police brutality meted out against them by the government.  There needs to be a pivot, however, to a more nuanced approach if meaningful reform is to be achieved that advances the causes of both non-violent politics and freedom.

The opposition pols seem to focus on the personalities and roles of the IEBC commissioners.  Obviously someone like Hassan who has relished an extraneous public profile as the nemesis of one potential candidate has gone beyond the point of being a trusted neutral in the future, but the delay in the election date that seems to be in the offing from yet another round of procurement “issues” can cycle tainted individuals out of office.  Reform and systemic trust is a much deeper problem than that however–and it is too important to all Kenyans and the country as a whole to be left to the competing camps of pols.

Kenyan democrats should call out the donors.  If we say we are serious about supporting dialogue why not ask us to show a bit of leadership to go with our cash underwriting?

As for me, I am waiting on the first documents from months ago from a FOIA to USAID to understand more about our spending on the IEBC procurements last time.  No sign yet that our advocacy of “open government” is penetrating our approach to democracy assistance in Kenya, but I certainly think transparency would be hugely helpful in supporting real problem solving and rebuilding trust.

2 thoughts on “Pre-election violence in Kenya: here we go again?

  1. Dear Ken, We did bumped into each other when you were at IRI and have corresponded perhaps once or twice since. I follow your blog very keenly and would like to request your permission to republish it on a site run by Journalists for Justice, a project of the Kenya Section of the International Commission of Jurists for which I am responsible. JFJustice has recently entered an MoU with Radio Netherlands Worldservice to take over the running of TheHagueTrialsKenya (, an online platform that has been monitoring the Kenya cases at the ICC. With the collapse of the last crimes against humanity charges against William Ruto and Joshua arap Sang, we are thinking of using the site more as an early warning tool in the forthcoming elections, looking at the likely areas of dispute and so on. You have been a consistent and reflective and insightful commentator on Kenya (and sometimes Africa) elections for the past many years, with unique approaches using the FOI requests to obtain data that would otherwise not be in the public domain. The proposal I wish to make is to run the commentary you write, with full acknowledgment and linkage to the Africommons blog. Already, TheHagueTrialsKenya re-runs (or simultaneously runs) postings on the Open Society Justice Initiative Kindly let me know how this sits with you Bets regards


    • Dear Kwamchetsi,

      It would be a privilege to contribute to the important work of Journalists for Justice and I am pleased to have you republish any of my posts.

      I have been a big fan of your writing over the years so your kind words for the blog are especially appreciated. I continue to be inspired by the talent, spirit and dedication of you and many of your colleagues in Kenyan journalism and civil society that I have been fortunate enough to connect with from my time in Kenya and since. Will hope to get to meet you again in person before too much more time goes by.

      With best wishes,


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