Why Kenyans Must Learn How To Talk About Elections And Violence

Why Kenyans Must Learn How To Talk About Elections And Violence

Last week, I wrote about our propensity as Kenyans to bury our heads in the sand when confronted with ugly realities. Many have thus continued to either defend or condemn David Ndii for his prediction that Kenya would burn if President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected in a sham election but there has, sadly, been relatively little discussion of how the “burning” can be avoided.

If we were to lift up our heads, we would see that the situation may be dire, but, regardless of the election, violence, though entirely predictable, is nonetheless not inevitable. We still have choices we can make.

Part of the dilemma is that we seem to have painted ourselves into a lexical corner. Today, the public discourse appears to conflate calls for non-violence with acquiescing to electoral disenfranchisement by the Uhuru regime on the one hand; and to see demands for a free and fair election as coded calls for Raila Odinga be installed as President, on the other. Simply put, we do not know how to talk about credible elections and non-violence.

For much of our independent history, we were described as “an island of peace in the sea of chaos” and that “peace” was undergirded by our silence over the ruling elites malfeasance including the manipulation of elections and especially, presidential elections. In 2008, the rallying call, as the country burned, was “no peace without justice”. By 2013, the pendulum had swung back to “peace”as we were asked to “accept and move on” and not ask too many difficult questions about the obvious failures that permeated the entire electoral system.

The pendulum is once again in motion. This was evident in the online reaction to the sentiments of yet another public figure, this time from the Jubilee neck of the woods. The melodramatics of her video and tenuous grasp of South African history aside, Julie Gichuru had made some valid points on Twitter about the merits of committing to non-violence and got pummeled for it. Partly, I suppose, this was a reaction to her as opposed to her message. She, after all, was one of the stalwarts of the 2013 “accept and move on” brigade and perhaps this was seen as a continuation of that campaign.

Yet, as she correctly says in one tweet, “This is not Justice v Peace. Seek justice through non violent means.” And in another, “It is key to reject the normalisation of violence to achieve ends. NonViolentAction is harder but protects the most vulnerable. It is just.”

And, it seems, it is not only Kenyans who are struggling with this. A report in the Daily Nation quotes former US Ambassador to Kenya, saying that though the Donald Trump administration wants to help prevent a repeat of the 2007-2008 election violence, it is not clear if they are “willing to do that at the expense of sanctifying what could be a seriously fraudulent election.”

However, it is possible to stop the pendulum, to preach non-violence while at the same time refusing to legitimize an illegitimate election. Despite the abandon with which some talk of the country burning, I doubt many Kenyans on either side of the political divide who lived through the violence of 2008, are anxious for a repeat. Even those, like me, who believed (and still believe) that Mwai Kibaki stole the election, did not consider that a justification for the violence that followed. In fact, up till the unfortunate politicizing of the cases at the International Criminal Court, there was massive support among ordinary Kenyans on the need to bring those responsible to book.

Ironically, we all seemingly want to avoid a 2008-style conflagration but appear to think we do that by avoiding a discussion about it. Yet it is crucial that we engage in a serious discussion about how we respond to the actions of the political class and of the government they control, especially in the case of a disputed poll. I propose three NOs: NO acceptance, NO violence, NO forgetting.

First, I am encouraged that many are explicitly rejecting the “accept and move on” message that permeated the 2013 election, which encouraged people to silence their doubts about the election for the sake of “peace”. A non-credible poll is what threatens the peace, not the querying of it. So there must be no acceptance of a fraudulent election. The insistence must be on the IEBC delivering the free, fair and credible election it is required to by the constitution. Kenyans must not be scared off making such demands by the fearmongering of those who assert that the August 8 date is set in stone. The country still has the options it did in the last election (remember, the election was held in March, not August) and better to delay the election if necessary, than to conduct a sham one on time.

Secondly, in the not unlikely case of a disputed poll, there must also be also commitment, by those who feel aggrieved, to exclusively non-violent means of resistance and to avoiding a repeat of the scenes of 2008. Concurrently, the government must also undertake to respect the rights of all Kenyans to peacefully express any dissatisfaction they may have with the conduct of the election, as it is required to do by the constitution. We must not forget that the government has historically demonstrated little tolerance for peaceful citizen action. There must be no blanket bans on public demonstrations or their violent disruption as has happened after nearly every election. There must be no resort to tear gas, water cannon, truncheons and bullets to meet peaceful protests.

Finally, there must be commitment to exorcise the ghosts of the past. Regardless of the outcome of the election and whether that outcome is disputed, there is to be no return to business-as-usual. Kenyans must collectively demand that the TJRC report is implemented and that we finally have the long overdue and uncomfortable conversations with the past that we have been avoiding for the last half century.

Patrick Gathara
Patrick Gathara
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