The Kenyan Elections: Peace Happened

Kenya still can't close the lid on its presidential election: challenger Raila Odinga petitioned the Supreme Court Saturday to invalidate the tally that showed him losing to Uhuru Kenyatta by some 800,000 votes.
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NAIROBI -- Kenya still can't close the lid on its presidential election: challenger Raila Odinga petitioned the Supreme Court Saturday to invalidate the tally that showed him losing to Uhuru Kenyatta by some 800,000 votes. Now it's a waiting game, since the Court has until March 30 to reach its verdict.

Kenyans have done plenty of waiting already -- with remarkable patience, contrary to widespread fears. On election day itself, a whopping 86 percent of registered voters sweated quietly in line for up to nine hours to choose from crowded slates for president, members of parliament, governors, and local officials. Those 12 million Kenyans went on waiting after they got home, for five tense days while the electoral commission struggled to count their votes despite computer crashes and other delays. It was a frightening déjà vu, since dubious election results were the trigger for two months of vicious inter-ethnic violence in 2007. Every time the chair of the electoral commission went on TV this time, Kenya held its breath. Would the lights and TV broadcasting go off suddenly, as they did five years ago? Would East Africa's largest economy and longtime bulwark of stability descend into mass violence again?

No. Kenyans made a remarkable collective effort to prevent clashes in the wake of the close, hotly-contested vote, and it worked. Television announcers resisted juicy rumors and called for patience. Kenya's newspaper of record, the Daily Nation, published a banner headline "Never Again" over an editorial with a sharp, eloquent warning: "if we bungle today's election or go back to killing each other, not only will the world give up on us as a civilised nation but Kenyans too could lose faith in their own country."

The message not only got across, it went viral for those few critical days, on and offline. Citizens painted peace messages on the roads, hugged across party lines, relieved the tension with jokes and cartoons on Facebook, and tweeted rebukes to other tweeps who seemed to be stirring up trouble. It is an example worth studying, for the U.S. government's new Atrocity Prevention Board, and for anyone interested in its purpose. Attempting to learn how to prevent mass violence, we generally study violence itself. We may learn at least as much from the opposite: cases where there was a clear risk of mass violence -- but it didn't happen.

The Kenyan election was neither flawless nor free of violence. During the previous night, four police officers and several bystanders were killed by a local separatist group called the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), trying unsuccessfully to deter voters. As for the outcome, president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta is a defendant at the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused of crimes against humanity. Like his running mate William Ruto, Kenyatta has been indicted by the ICC for allegedly ordering killings during the mayhem of 2007-8.

Millions of Kenyans voted for him anyway. The well-spoken, immensely wealthy son of Kenya's first president Jomo Kenyatta, he convinced many Kenyans that the ICC is neocolonialist and anti-African -- and that he's innocent, of course. (He nonetheless promised to go to the Hague to answer the ICC charges, even if elected.) Perhaps most important, Kenyatta is a leader of the largest and most powerful of Kenya's 42 tribes, the Kikuyu. Kikuyus voted overwhelming for Kenyatta and against the other front-runner, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe who, they feared, might aggressively redistribute resources including land.

During the campaign, both candidates played the tribal card, reminding their supporters to fear a victory by the other. It isn't hard to provoke fear in Kenya, where the unemployment rate is 40 percent and most of the half million people who fled their homes to escape attacks by their neighbors in 2007-8 still have not been able to return. And fear is volatile.

So why did Kenyans stay calm while they waited for the electoral commission to work on bugs in its software, until it gave up and sent helicopters to collect polling officials and paper tallying forms from around the country? First, there was hardly a Kenyan institution that didn't relentlessly beg them to, for weeks before the election. Soccer stars recorded television spots in which they reminded young men of the personal costs of violence, even for those who don't suffer it directly: "you can't hang out and relax with your friends, without peace." One of Kenya's paint manufacturers ran ads calling for brightly colored "peace, love, unity." Graffiti artists used lots of paint to spray peace murals on public walls in Nairobi. Religious leaders appealed for peace and prayer, on huge billboards and on the radio. Kenyan journalists conducted no exit polls, chose not to air Odinga's first post-election news conference live (in case he made inflammatory remarks), repeatedly urged the public to remain calm and patient, and showed so much of their own patience with the hapless electoral commission that they have since been criticized for being too gentle. They did err on the soft side, but it's not surprising in view of the criticism the Kenyan media took for fanning the flames of violence with their reporting in 2007-8. This time, many journalists felt a sense of personal responsibility for a peaceful election.

Even the feared paramilitary troops of the General Service Unit, famous not so long ago for beating up students demonstrating in favor of (yes) elections during the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, got into the act -- literally. They recorded a music video in which they sway fetchingly in their combat fatigues and red berets, singing "let hatred not finish us... we forgive and love each other."

Innumerable NGOs also spent millions of dollars, euros, and British pounds, donated by foreign governments and foundations anxious for continued stability in Kenya, on conflict resolution workshops, more television ads and programs, even a system to send pro-peace SMS messages to people in "hotspots" where violence was most likely. The "peace industry" as Kenyan commentator Murithi Mutiga aptly nicknamed it, included dozens of NGO projects including (full disclosure) some on which I worked. None of it would have succeeded had Kenyans themselves not taken up the cause, however.

Those efforts provided peace temporarily in Kenya: the election still divided the country along tribal lines, and even seemed to deepen those divisions. In the days since the electoral commission chairman -- that inadvertent master of suspense -- finally declared Kenyatta president, the peaceful tweets of the election week have been displaced by angry, bitter messages, especially against Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribe. The relatively peaceful election bought some time and space for Kenyatta to keep his promise to be president for all Kenyans, not just his supporters or his tribe. Keeping peace against big odds -- even for a critical few days -- is an example worth studying in order to repeat it elsewhere.

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