Crisis Group On the Long Road to Kenya’s August Elections

Dear friends of Crisis Group,

On 8 August 2017, Kenyans will vote in eagerly anticipated local and presidential elections. The country’s strategic role as East Africa’s transport and commercial hub, the fact that it is one of the continent’s major democracies, and a history of election-related violence explain why these polls are so important and why they will be closely watched. As in past electoral cycles, the 2017 election is hard to call, the campaign has been vigorously fought and there is concern that voting could be marred by violence.

Since the start of the year, Crisis Group has been following the political campaigns and monitoring preparations for next Tuesday’s poll. Our publications provide an overview of key issues surrounding the vote. We have prepared a full reading list, and outline some of our key publications below.

Today, Murithi Mutiga answers crucial questions about Kenya’s readiness for the ballot, what is at stake for each of the major players and the likelihood of a repeat of the weeks of bloodletting that followed the 2007 election.

In May, Crisis Group issued a report on the volatile Rift Valley region, which witnessed some of the worst violence in 2007. We made the point that the task of reconciliation is not yet complete and that authorities and donors should continue investing in grassroots-based reconciliation efforts rather than relying on a transactional electoral pact between leaders of the main ethnic groups (the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin) to maintain peace in the region.

Our March commentary highlighted that the electoral commission’s preparations were well behind schedule and that time was running out for it to be in a position to deliver a credible election.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution introduced a new system of devolved government to spread power and resources to localities and dilute the president’s powers in order to change the election’s winner-take-all nature that – by raising stakes to existential levels – helped fan past conflicts. But there is a flip side. For devolution reduced the stakes of the presidential election, it simultaneously raised those for the now-powerful position of governors who head the 47 newly created counties. These have been fraught and marked by violence. Crisis Group field research highlights key counties where the threat of ethnic conflict is highest. In July, Abdullahi Abdille examined the northern Kenya counties of Marsabit and Isiolo which have witnessed serious violence in the past decade. Murithi Mutiga travelled to the counties of Laikipia and Narok where political incitement, land hunger and historical grievances drive cycles of violence.

Throughout its reporting, Crisis Group consistently has called on:

  • Kenya’s key external partners to lean on the main presidential candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, to sign a public peace pledge committing them to renounce violence, adhere to the electoral code of conduct, accept the will of the people as expressed in a fair and credible poll and exclusively challenge results through the court system;
  • Observer missions to send teams to Kenyatta’s and Odinga’s strongholds, to act as a safeguard against ballot-box stuffing and vote tampering;
  • Donors to support the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a peacebuilding institution, to improve its capacity to gather evidence for prosecution of actors engaging in hate speech in order to deter politicians from acting irresponsibly in future elections;
  • Donors to encourage improvements of the electoral commission’s communication in order to better inform voters at every stage of the electoral process and avoid tensions that accompanied the tallying process in the past;
  • Kenyan authorities to show restraint in policing potential street protests in the wake of the vote in order to prevent a repeat of the 2007/2008 violence where many died at the hands of the police.

At a time when democratic governance is receding in parts of Africa, Kenya’s elections are of enormous importance. A smooth process will consolidate democratic gains in the country and serve as a symbol for the rest of the continent; a contested outcome and violence will represent a significant setback for both.

Dr. Comfort Ero, Director, Africa Program, International Crisis Group.

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