Fire This Time?

Kenya’s Referendum on Public Values

art by imp kerr

Every election is a referendum on a particular historical moment.

For all the time we spend discussing the individuals we choose between, elections are also the moment when a society pauses to check in on their values.

Right now in Kenya, the upcoming election, on August 8th, is a referendum on the relationship between justice and peace. Should we pursue peace regardless of the injustices that may be wrought by looking the other way? Or is the relentless pursuit of justice the only way to secure peace?

It’s not irrational to desire a peaceful election in Kenya. Since the end of the one-party state in the 1990s, each election cycle has been increasingly characterized by localized violence, often implicating the state. In 1992 and 1997 there were forced evictions, euphemistically called “tribal clashes,” that the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of 2010 linked to senior government officials.

The 2002 election passed without much trouble, but in 2007, the violence that had been previously confined to rural areas suddenly became a national problem, affecting the three largest cities. 1500 people were killed in unprovoked attacks by militias against civilians, as well as clashes between the police and militia groups; and between militia affiliated with different ethnic groups. That violence also left hundreds of thousands displaced. Though these cases triggered a prosecution at the International Criminal Court, the hearing was suspended when over 100 witnesses went missing. The 2013 elections ran more smoothly, but were perhaps even more unjust in context, given that none of the issues thrown up by the 2007 election were resolved. Thousands remained displaced, no one was prosecuted for sexual violence inflicted during that period or the latent and structural violence—the uncertainty over what might happen next—that groups impacted by the 2007 violence have endured.

For the upcoming election, the government line has been peace at all costs. In every media outlet, and across social media, slick advertisements relentlessly pound the message home. Sweeping vistas of the glorious Kenyan countryside and talking heads have all but edged out commercial advertising on just about every platform. Social media mavens and public figures have been co-opted into the narrative, and every few days they repeat the official line.

My tribe is peace. Kenya is great. Don’t fuck this up.

But is Kenya already at peace? For others, justice is more important than the illusion of peace. Kenya hasn’t recovered from the 2007 post-election violence. People remain internally displaced in camps. And there have been few prosecutions for the acts of sexual violence that accompanied the election. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court’s prosecution is at a standstill.

With prosecutions stalled at the local, regional and international level, no one, it seems, was responsible for the 1,500 deaths and countless sexual assaults that threatened to unravel Kenya altogether.

What is peace without justice? Political theorist Johan Galtung argued that there is a difference between negative and positive peace, and that difference captures the gap between the “peace at all costs” narrative and the push for a more just electoral process. Negative peace means the absence of open conflict, even in a society struggling with structural inequalities, social injustices, and latent anger. A positive peace would mean something superficially identical, but fundamentally different: not only the absence of open conflict, but the resolution of the underlying conditions that could, can, and will trigger future conflict. Negative peace is easy: just pretend not to notice all the simmering frustration and anger, the unhealed scars, the dead who don’t rest easy.

Positive peace requires work.

The “peace above all else” crowd is pushing for a negative peace. The focus is on silencing political dissent in the pursuit of stability—what gets called “progress.” Their investment is in the Kenyan economy, not the Kenyan people. They don’t want to do the hard work of building justice. Rather than speak to the underlying injustice or to the growing dissatisfaction with the institutions managing the election, the focus is on containment. The constitution recognizes a right to protest, but political protest in the aftermath of the vote has already been banned. There has been a major uptick in militarization; along with government-sponsored “peace prayers,” the police are spending on anti-riot equipment. “Hotspots” for political violence have been identified and criminalized by the police and the military, but with no accompanying public commitment to de-escalation.

Imagine a situation where the Women’s March, the Immigrant March, the March for Science and similar events during the first seven months of the Trump presidency were prohibited because the act of protest itself was interpreted as anti-peace. Imagine if the militarized response that has met the various Black Lives Matter protests in the US was further normalized because the act of protest itself was interpreted as anti-peace.

In Kenya today, every attempt to hold institutions accountable for subtle but cumulatively disturbing developments leads to demands that the accuser “stop trying to discredit” said institution. Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, has responded to criticisms of the militarization of election security with a singular focus on delivering an election by any means necessary. He proudly confirmed that security services will be monitoring social media for “hate speech,” and by some press reports, he has put “hate mongers” at the top of his agenda, above terrorists and organised criminal gangs.

Yet there has been no public commitment to strengthening non-military systems of redress by the Cabinet Secretary, the Independent Election and Boundaries Commission (IEBC—the Commission that runs the election), or the judiciary. Arbitration by the IEBC remains relatively weak, as can be seen by their ineffective response to ongoing challenges like disputed voter lists. The opposition has responded to fears of widespread rigging by urging supporters to “adopt a polling station” and to stand guard over polling stations during the count and announcement of results. Since the IEBC could not offer a legal reason why the opposition’s strategy was forbidden, Matiang’i directed that no voter who was not a registered observer would be allowed within 400 metres of a polling station after they had voted. If the police are used to enforce this directive, as it is safe to presume they will be, confrontation seems inevitable.

To be sure, the opposition is guilty of making inflammatory claims, undermining their credibility and that of more valid concerns about the fairness of the upcoming polls. On July 28th, Opposition leader Raila Odinga alleged that a proposed military deployment to guard the election was part of an elaborate plan by the ruling coalition to steal the election that included cutting off water to key opposition strongholds. The Kenya Defence Forces agreed that they did have a deployment plan but that Raila based his accusation on a document read out of context. But there was no need for him to extrapolate without evidence: in Kenya, a domestic deployment of the military outside a situation of war is itself probably illegal.

These flashpoints originate in the overarching and underlying question that Kenyans are grappling with: What is peace without justice? Kenya has sometimes been called “an island of stability” in a conflict-ridden region, but the pattern in Kenya has always been negative peace; the tensions simmering beneath the current vote go as far back as injustices that were perpetrated during previous regimes, and even to the colonial era. Clashes over land—that led to election violence in Molo, Mpeketoni, Trans Nzoia, and other areas—stem from forced evictions under colonial rule, and from unjust land redistribution that occurred under the Kenyatta and Moi regimes. So much of the hope and anxiety around this election flows from the expectation that a free and fair election might signal a society that is ready to do the work of constructing a positive peace.

Fears of destabilization and violence are valid. Let us not have the fire this time. Demands for justice cannot stem from injustice without undermining themselves. But if the upcoming Kenyan election is a referendum, the question is this: peace now and justice later, or walk the line and try for both? Stifling legitimate dissent with a peace lobotomy will only defer the conflict and make more inevitable the fire next time. The upcoming election will be a referendum on the maturity of democracy in Kenya and our ability to find this balance.