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Kenyan elections: avoiding election replay

Wed, 13 Feb 2013 10:39 GMT
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In the run up to the March 2013 elections Esther Njugana and Victoria Brereton discuss the progress made by the Kenyan authorities and challenges which remain to ensure the elections proceed peacefully.

The violence that marred Kenya’s December 2007 disputed presidential poll has loomed large over preparations for upcoming national elections, scheduled to take place on 4 March. In many ways, the context for this year’s vote is different. Statements by Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the new police leadership and the country’s vibrant civil society demonstrate a clear desire to avoid of a repeat of unrest seen during 2007–2008, which left 1,300 dead, 600,000 displaced and underscored deep divides over land, ethnicity and access to political power. Important reforms to reassert basic rights, strengthen democratic institutions and restructure the security services have taken place that mitigate against a recurrence of past political violence. But the run up to the polls has also included worrying signs of a resurgence in electoral tensions. The question remains: how well is Kenya prepared to prevent and manage a resumption of political violence? Getting it right has implications for political stability and the safety and security of communities both in Kenya and the wider Horn of Africa region.

Reforms instituted in Kenya since 2008 have been impressive and done much to create an environment for improved public confidence in the country’s democratic system. Promulgated in 2010, Kenya’s new constitution articulates the country’s first comprehensive bill of rights, clarifies the powers of various state branches and significantly increases democratic checks and balances. Legislation has since been enacted to implement its provisions. The Elections Act, Political Parties Act and creation of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) have provided a clear legal framework for dealing with electoral malpractice and resolving electoral disputes. A new devolved system of governance aims to reduce marginalisation and enhance access to decision-making and services at the county level, though concerns remain that increased political competition in localities could also drive a rise in localised violence.

Steps to reform the security services have been similarly wide-ranging. A comprehensive police reform package was launched in the wake of the 2007–08 violence to respond to long-standing weaknesses within the security services. Laws approved over the past six months create a unified National Police Service, Independent Police Oversight Authority and National Police Service Commission, which together should operate to enhance professionalism, accountability and overall service delivery to the public. Implementing reforms – and ensuring their roll out across the entire police service – will pose a significant challenge for the new leadership in coming months. Ahead of the elections, it is imperative that the police service and international partners collaborate to ensure that officers on the ground are ready and able to respond effectively to any deterioration in security.  

Kenya’s justice system has also been given a significant boost by new constitutional protections. Reforms taken forward by the judiciary and the newly appointed Chief Justice demonstrate firm commitment to hold Kenya’s political leadership to account. The new assertiveness within Kenya’s judiciary should act as a deterrent to electoral violence and promises more effective and impartial adjudication of disputes.

Saferworld has been working with the police, IEBC, civil society and communities in Kenya to ensure that institutional and legislative progress translates into reduced risks of violence at upcoming polls and after. In collaboration with a civil society coalition Usalama, Saferworld has been supporting the police to establish a new code of conduct and ensure adequate training for officers on restrictions on the use of force, non-violent tactics and other standards. We have also been engaging with the media to enhance conflict sensitive reporting and with political parties to ensure campaigns encourage peaceful coexistence among supporters. As elections approach, we will continue to urge security institutions, political leaders and international actors to track and rapidly respond to negative conflict dynamics, through speedy resolution of election disputes, effective and responsible policing and preventive early diplomacy.

Despite progress, there are serious concerns that political tensions could rise in the election period and that localised violence will increase. Insecurity has erupted in several locations over the past year, testing the capacity of the police to respond quickly and effectively to emergent tensions. In March, electoral institutions will be managing what are arguably the most complex elections since the advent of multi-party politics in Kenya, comprising presidential polls and five other separate elected posts. This poses massive logistical challenges for the IEBC, which will be coordinating votes in 33,000 polling stations nationwide.

While the window of opportunity is closing, there are still important steps that Kenya’s democratic and security institutions and international partners can take to reduce risks of violence resuming in the election period. The following recommendations should be prioritised to maximise chances of peaceful 2013 polls:

  • Political parties and candidates should refrain from inflammatory statements and incitement, actively promote peaceful relations between communities, and focus campaigning on policy messages and issues. Electoral disputes should be channelled to appropriate institutions.
  • The National Steering Committee on Peace Building and Conflict Management (NSC) should intensify coordination efforts, specifically to facilitate cross-agency planning and information-sharing amongst peace and security actors to promote early warning and rapid responses to conflict dynamics.
  • The peacebuilding community, under the NSC leadership, should engage political candidates and communities in innovative peace initiatives in high-risk areas.
  • The National Police Service and IEBC must capitalise on existing public goodwill by enhancing cooperation with civil society and international partners and developing coherent joint election security plans.
  • The media should seek to ensure reporting is conflict sensitive and that their actions do not generate anxiety and tensions among communities in the run up, during and after elections.
  • The international community and development partners should work through and seek to reinforce the existing national and local peace infrastructure. Their role in supporting the IEBC and providing coordinated elections monitoring will also be critical to promoting transparency and public confidence in the results.

Esther Njuguna as Saferworld's Kenya Election Security Project Officer, Victoria Brereton is Conflict and Security Adviser in the policy team.

This comment piece and more information about Saferworld's work in Kenya is available at

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