Kenya’s high stakes elections risks a repeat of 2007/2008 bloodshed

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In 2007, Sheila* was a teenager but was old enough to know that something in Kenya’s political psyche was amiss. That year counts as the worst year in her life, she lost both her parents to Kenya’s election violence, which took place in late 2007 and early 2008.

“My parents were hacked to death because they belong to the Luo tribe. It shocked me to see people who had lived as neighbors ganging up against each other and killing themselves because of ethnic differences. I never forgot how my brother and I had to run holding hands, not letting go. We ran day and night hiding in maize plantations. We cried together thinking of our parents. We went for days without food or water. The more we ran, the more we came across dead bodies lying in the thicket. My brother would shout at me not to look. We were running for our lives.”

Sheila’s story, a harrowing tale of terror, human depravity, and resilience, is not unique. Kenya’s election violence, the bulk of which took place over a period two months after the announcement of contentious presidential election results on December 30, 2007.

During the violence, it was estimated that close to 1300 people were killed and about 600,000 people displaced from their homes. Missing from these statistics are details about the use of sexual violence and forced circumcision as a weapon of war as well as the chilling methods of killing deployed, including the massacre of 35 individuals inside a burning church.

Kenya’s election violence was a perfect storm of high stakes electioneering tied to decades of unaddressed historical injustices. That year, incumbent Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga were locked in a fight to the death over the presidency.

Although close allies in 2002, Odinga had supported Kibaki in a historical election that lead to the ouster of the KANU party from power, the two had fallen out over pre-election promises. After a close and highly fraudulent election, Kibaki was announced winner with a margin of just over 230,000 votes to Odinga. The rest is history.

“I remember passing out and the next thing I remember was waking up in Nairobi with my brother next to me, holding my hand, telling me we were safe and in good hands. This is an experience that I wouldn’t wish any human being to endure. We lost everything we had. It hit me so hard that people killed each other because of greedy leaders, people lost all their property and land. Children like me lost the best things on earth, our parents. As time went by, I grew up with a lot of questions on my mind. I had no answers, no one wanted to talk about it.”

In a political settlement reached between Kibaki and Odinga and their respective camps, the election violence ended on February 28, 2008 with the announcement of a power sharing government. More significantly, ICC prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo instituted proceedings that saw the indictment of six persons for crimes against humanity.

In 2010, Kenya adopted a new constitution that sought to address past historical injustices, protect human rights, and share power in a way that minimizes harmful political competitiveness. In 2013, Kenya witnessed peaceful elections and a smooth transition of power. Although the results were contested, the opposition (led by Odinga) accepted the final outcome of a Supreme Court decision in favour of Uhuru Kenyatta.

However, ten years after a spate of violence that defined Kenya’s decade, could the 2017 elections be a rerun of 2007?

In 2007, the ruling Jubilee coalition that took power in 2013 faces an uphill battle for re-election in 2017. With massive corruption scandals involving key government figures, a lagging economy, widening wealth gap, and large social discontent, Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration has struggled to articulate its achievements.

On the other hand, the opposition is disorganised and in bad shape to compete effectively with the ruling coalition. For Raila Odinga, who has previously run for president 4 times, 2017 offers the last realistic hope of securing power, while for Kenyatta, a second term provides a chance to burnish his legacy and credentials after a first term preoccupied with consolidating power and evading prosecution by the ICC.

This year’s election presents two candidates who have everything to lose.

Perhaps the most harmful factor is Kenya’s resort to ethnic-based politics. Few steps have been taken since 2008 to extricate the question of effective political competitiveness from harmful ethnic chauvinism. The main contenders in the 2017 election will rely primarily, almost exclusively, on the ethnic alliances made at the elite level with the expectation that the electorate will follow suit.

”Kenyans did not start killing themselves, but by the words of the leaders. These are the same leaders that run away to other countries leaving us killing and hacking each other with no mercy. Every time I hear that Kenya is going into an election season, I feel sick to my stomach. All the bad memories come back to me, I have sleepless nights, I hear my mom cry for help as they hack her to death. I hear my dad cry with pain. I see our house burn down and people run. I smell death and blood.”

For Sheila, the same high stakes in 2007 are more apparent in 2017:

“This next election has the same feeling as 2007. From what I see and hear it is time to hide till the president is sworn in, if we will have one. Leaders who don’t mind their language put my heart in fear of death. I know for a fact that an ‘African’ leader has to win re-election by any means. Many people are talking of moving to their tribal homes, but what about us? We don’t have tribal homes; it was all burnt down. Our land was grabbed, where would we go? We face death once more!”

The interviewee’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

The views expressed in this post are of the author’s and in no way reflect those of The Election Network.

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