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Kenya should be an anchor of stability and prosperity in east Africa. Its economic and geographic position makes it a natural hub for trade, commerce, communications and diplomacy in the region. It also has an active and energetic civil society and a vibrant, independent media.
These are important indicators of progress, and, in most other places, would act as the critical underpinnings of a peaceful and stable society.
However, Kenya is also rent by gaping economic disparities and deep political divisions - the latter fracturing along distinct tribal and ethnic lines. These divisions often trump the positives, and serve as triggers for sporadic outbreaks of civil unrest and violence.
Kenya has suffered periodic bouts of political conflict since multi-party elections were introduced in 1992. The most recent disturbances were in 2007, when, following disputed election results, the country erupted in a round of political violence which lasted for two months. Nearly 1,500 people were killed, and almost 300,000 displaced. It was one of the darkest periods in the country’s post-colonial history.
With fresh elections tentatively scheduled for March 2013 (they could be held as early as December, this year), the world’s attention will be focused on Kenya.
On the one hand, the many reforms that have been instigated since the violence of 2007/2008 give hope for a peaceful electoral process.
A power-sharing agreement brought to an end the 2007/2008 violence, and afterwards some of the most ambitious and far-reaching political reforms in Kenya’s brief history were introduced. In August 2010, 67% of Kenyans voted at referendum to adopt a new constitution to limit the powers of the president; devolve political and fiscal powers to local authorities; impose checks and balances on the national government; and bring into effect a Bill of Rights guaranteeing a wide range of fundamental freedoms to citizens.
Kenyan civil society has played a critical role in peace-building, with many non-government agencies taking a lead role in encouraging reconciliation. Not least of these is the My Kenya Initiative (Mkenya Daima) which gives a voice to ordinary people, and seeks to develop a sense of commonality and shared citizenship amongst the disparate elements of Kenyan society. Its emphasis is on recognising difference and diversity as a positive.
With the support of international organisations like GOAL, homes have been built for the displaced (GOAL has delivered 10,000 homes thus far), and much work has gone into rebuilding relationships, and reintegrating communities torn apart by ethnic divisions and political manipulation.
As a consequence of the sustained peace-building and reconciliation effort, many Kenyans are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the first peaceful, multi-party elections in the country’s history.
However, no one can afford to be complacent. As well as pre-existing divisions, there is now an added bitterness left by the violence of the previous election. Moreover, old habits can sometimes die hard. In the previous winner-take-all electoral system, Kenyan politicians would readily cultivate and exploit to their own advantage ethnic divisions and economic disparities. Playing on (minimal) differences and historic enmities, they would use groups of poor, disenfranchised and marginalised youth to intimidate and launch attacks on opposing voters. It is by no means certain that they will adopt more far-sighted tactics in the upcoming election. Some seasoned observers are already reporting that electioneering politicians are playing the tribal card.
The upcoming elections will be a defining moment for Kenya. A repeat of 2007/2008 will impact massively on the economy, and scupper prospects for further development. Societal divisions will be reinforced, and an extended period of self-perpetuating conflict will be unleashed.
Alternatively, a peaceful election will help heal wounds, build public self-confidence, and reinforce Kenya’s lead position in east Africa.