Kenya has a history of election-related violence

As Kenya gears up for its general election in August, the safety of politicians is coming under scrutiny. But Kenyan analysts are optimistic that there will be no repeat of the violence that defined the 2007 elections.

The run-up to Kenyan elections, such as the August 9, 2022, general election, carries a certain sense of foreboding for aspiring politicians and their staff. Winning an election may be the goal, but facing threats, kidnappings, assault, and even death is not out of the question.

Recently, Kisii politician Thomas Okari was found dead with stab wounds at his home in Kisii County near Lake Victoria. Across the country, in Mombasa, United Democratic Alliance member and local politician Ali Mwatsahu survived an attack when unknown gunmen sprayed his vehicle with bullets. Mwatsahu is running for member of parliament of Mvita, a hotly contested seat in the coastal city.

But it’s not just local politicians targeted. In 2017, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission ICT manager Chris Msando was tortured and strangled. His remains were found in the Maguga forest in Kiambu County.

According to political scientist Brian Wanyama Singoro of Kibabii University, even presidential candidates are not out of the woods, referring to a recent incident where rowdy youths stoned the helicopter of opposition leader Raila Odinga.

“The security agencies and the government came in very strongly,” Wanyama told DW.

“They arrested the culprits. The following day, [Deputy President] William Ruto apologized on behalf of his people [supporters] because this incident took place in his political stronghold. If this incident had been ignored, I’m very sure it would elicit a lot of revenge from Raila Odinga’s followers.”

President Uhuru Kenyatta will be succeeded by either William Ruto (L) or Raila Odinga (R)

Big shots battle for the top job

The 2022 elections see two Kenyan stalwarts go toe-to-toe for the country’s top office. Deputy President William Ruto faces opposition leader Raila Odinga. But, in a twist of loyalties, outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta ditched his deputy and has thrown his weight behind the opposition leader Odinga to succeed him. This election would mark the fifth time Raila Odinga has been vying for the presidency.

Kenya’s multiparty electionshave historically not always gone smoothly. The 2007-2008 general election between incumbent Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga descended into chaos, ushering in one of the darkest chapters of the country’s political history since independence in 1963. The post-election violence claimed the lives of more than 1,300 people and displaced up to 600,000.

The trauma of 2007 lives on

Joyce Chepkemoi, 39, barely survived the 2007 elections after she and her husband were brutally attacked and mutilated by a mob carrying machetes. Her husband was killed. Chepkemoi recalled that she was so severely injured that she was left for dead, regaining consciousness in a morgue:

“I won’t vote again in the Kenya elections. I am against tribalism, elections, violence and protests. I urge especially the youth not to be violent in the elections like what we went through in 2007. Whoever is in power, let them rule, let us just have peace with our children,” she told DW.

Ten years later, the 2017 election witnessed a lesser degree of violence.

Gladys Muchiri, 29, who runs her own small business, experienced the 2017 elections in Kisumu county. She believes politicians tend to exploit ethnic divisions: “We all know elections in Kenya are tribe-oriented,” she said, adding that leaders abuse Kenya’s diverse ethnicity by “using the divide and rule technique.”

However, Kenyan political pundit and cartoonist Patrick Gathara argues that because this year will see a new leader in power, he’s optimistic there will be less violence.

No incumbent, no problem

“I don’t expect anything along the scales of 2007/2008,” Gathara told DW, adding, “the state is the number one perpetrator of violence when it comes to elections. It is not just politicians sort of going out and inciting people.”

He said the police killed the vast majority of people in 2007. “And once the state doesn’t have as much of a stake, there is much less incentive for people to shoot people.”

Kenyan security forces are blamed for the majority of violence during election time

Human Rights Watch also singled out Kenyan policeas acting with impunity. The rights organization sees this as a cause for concern in the East African state, noting that security forces’ multiple cases of abuse, including killings, go unpunished.

Ironically, this dynamic might help decrease election violence perpetrated by security forces, according to Gathara.

“When there is no incumbent, the state is trying to hedge their bets because they’re not sure who’s going to come in next. It might be Odinga, it might be Ruto. They don’t want to be on the wrong side of that historical divide.”

Improved judicial independence

Wanyama also points to the state of Kenya’s courts as a reason for optimism.

 “We have also seen the independence of the Supreme Court,” he told DW, citing the court’s opposition to President Kenyatta’s Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which was seen as a blow to the ruling elite. He argued that no group would sway the court, which has boosted ordinary Kenyans’ confidence.

“Our hope is that the court will do a good job, unlike in 2007 and those other years where the courts were easily manipulated by government. It looks like now things have changed and everybody has to play ball.”

Observers say Kenya’s judicial independence has improved

Wary of political “theater”

Gathara is still wary of taking accusations of political targeting at face value. While acknowledging the dangers for local politicians and the deadly precedents for politically motivated violence around elections.

“Many times, claims are made for the purpose of garnering the attention and sensationalizing differences and issues,” he says. However, Gathara added that the problem is bigger, in terms of occurrence and seriousness, at a local political level than at the national level.

Wanyama also points out that acts of violence targeting politicians have the opposite effect and “galvanizes” support for the opponent.

“Unfortunately, some of our politicians have perfected the art of using force to their advantage. It does not create unity; it just helps creating divisions that are not healthy to any of our citizens.”

Still, Nairobi residents like 35-year-old Jay Maina, who lives in an informal settlement, are already wary of the upcoming months. Many Kenyans leave the urban areas around election times. With a sense of worry, he told DW: “There is some tension, there is some panic before the elections. There might be some intimidation, so people have tried to go back to their ancestral land.”

Andrew Wasike in Nairobi contributed to this article.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

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