– by Agnes Abuom
© Walter Astrada/epa/picture-alliance/dpa
January 2008: praying in a riot-damaged church in Nairobi, Kenya
The overall goal of the KNDR was to achieve sustainable peace, stability and justice in Kenya and to safeguard the rule of law and respect for human rights. Flawed elections were the immediate cause of the violence that started in December 2007, but the underlying reasons were long term political, social and economic issues, including
– constitutional and institutional reforms,
– land reform,
– youth unemployment and
– regional imbalances.
Because of such daunting challenges, the healing process has not been easy. The task is enormous and cannot be left in the exclusive domain of statutory bodies, especially now that the country is preparing for the next general elections in March next year. Indeed, political temperatures are rising fast. Politicians are trying to take advantage of ethnic and social divides for campaign purposes. Such activities have shifted focus from implementing reforms, so the window for positive change is closing.
When this essay was finalised in August, it was not clear that Parliament would actually pass at least 10 laws needed to fully implement the new constitution. This constitution was accepted in a national referendum two years ago and is designed to prevent political turmoil in the future. The new laws would matter because they are meant to address historical injustices. For instance, they serve the goal of political devolution, divesting resources from the centre to the periphery. Regional disparities were an important reason for the troubles almost five years ago.
In 2008, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) was established. Its task is to promote better inter-tribal and inter-racial relations and facilitate equal opportunity. CSOs and FBOs have been backing up its work. They have similarly supported the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission that was also set up in 2008 as part of the KNDR (see box below).
However, many deep ethnic divisions that emerged during the 2007 election campaigns have not fully healed. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are still in the camps and their resettlement has been a hot political potato. Corruption and tribalism are still rife in the public service. The implementation of the new constitution is slow. Some wonder whether the ruling class is really committed to implementing the new order.
In this context, the religious community, faith-based institutions (FBOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) in general come to the fore. Christianity and Islam are the two major religions which cut across ethnic divides.
Of course, the experience of election violence has seriously affected the church itself. In some cases, for instance, it became the target of violence. Kenyans will forever remember that people burned to death in the town of Eldoret because a church, into which victims of violence had fled, Kammas was set ablaze.
On the other hand, religious communities must face the fact that, in spite of their message of peace and tolerance, the riots resulted in more deeply entrenched divisions within their own congregations. To recover the loss and heal the rifts among the congregation, FBOs such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya (ELCK) started peace meetings. They saw the need to create forums to discuss why the image of the church was so damaged. Clergy and other community leaders have been equipped with skills to address popular concerns.
Responding to strife
When the violence broke out, FBOs immediately assumed a positive role. They organised three committees to tackle the challenges and play a moderating role. The first engaged in debate with the major political parties to stop the violence, the second offered spiritual support and counselling to people affected, and the third provided humanitarian relief. Ever since, civil society has stayed engaged in peace building efforts. The new constitution includes the principle of public participation in governance: the public must be involved in issues such as budgeting and appointment of public officers. There is scope for taking state agencies to court if they neglect the public interest (public interest litigation).
The public as such, however, cannot act. To wield influence, people must organise. Accordingly, FBOs and other CSOs are the main agents of public participation. They use town hall meetings, rallies and pickets to inform people about important issues that affect the nation. Such exchange has contributed to healing among the communities affected by the violence, but a lot remains to be done.
All in all, civil society activism has been remarkable. CSOs have put pressure on the government to implement necessary reforms. They have lobbied for the enactment of the laws needed to implement the constitution. They have held the government to account for delays.
Fighting hate speech
Indeed, CSOs are credited for opening up of the political space needed for the country to enjoy freedom. Hate speech is understood to be a possible catalyst for violence. Ahead of the referendum on the constitution, several members of parliament were arraigned in court and charged with hate speech. The message of hate speech being unacceptable became very clear even though there were no convictions.
Ever since, CSOs have been alerting the NCIC (National Cohesion and Integration Commission)whenever they feel politicians become guilty of hate speech. To curb the culture of impunity, moreover, faith communities and civil society at large are reporting to media and creating awareness on the need to enforce chapter six of the constitution which deals with integrity of leaders.
While calling for tolerance across the country, FBOs have also insisted that mechanisms be put in place to ensure that the forthcoming elections will be free, fair and credible. The riots of 2007/08 came as a shock. This time, Kenyans know the risks.
Unfortunately, voting patterns in Kenya reflect tribal affiliations. Ahead of the voting in March, people are beginning to coalesce around the main leaders of their ethnic groups. These leaders will be tempted to spread fears, myths and rumours against targeted communities and opponents.
The church and CSOs are doing their best to pacify the polity. They are raising awareness for the need to base election campaigns – and national debate in general – on issues instead of ethnic cleavages. The new electoral commission, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), seeks to conduct free and fair elections. However, the task has become much more complex than in the past. Earlier, citizens picked candidates for three different levels of government. Henceforth, there will be six levels.
At the same time, the capacity of the IEBC to conduct elections of such magnitude remains untested. Religious leaders and CSOs have been conducting voter education and holding peace dialogues to create the environment for free, fair and credible elections.
NGOs such as the Centre for Multiparty Democracy Kenya (CMD) are partnering with others because they want to ensure that the youth – who constitute the bulk of voters – participate fully in the forthcoming elections.
Dubbed the “Youth Participation in Politics”, the debates, to be held in all of Kenya’s 47 counties, will “open up safe spaces for their involvement and meaningful participation in political parties and processes with the aim of changing inequalities rife in the political sector”. These debates will also embody the ideals of reasoned argument, tolerance for different points of view and rigorous self-examination for aspirants.
The NCIC has identified four possible triggers of violence:
– the TJRC process,
– Kenyan party leaders’ trials before the International Criminal Court (ICC),
– the devolution of government powers to the counties and
– the crisis of the internally displaced persons (IDPs).
With the support of various civil society groups, the NCIC wants to ensure that the TJRC process and resettlement of IDPs does not open up old wounds and possibly trigger violence. On the ICC process, the religious leaders and FBOs continue monitoring the environment to ensure that peace is maintained and cases of hate speech are handled immediately. The NCIC can rely on the support of the CSOs for ensuring that devolved government powers will not legitimise new form of exclusion and result in new conflicts.
Kenya can become a peaceful democracy. The new constitution is a good starting point, and the people have certainly learned some lessons. The momentum for reform must not be lost, however, and civil society activism will contribute to making sure it is not.