Monday, 2 August 2010

In the waiting room for the Kenyan referendum

I write this entry in the waiting room of the Akamba bus station of Nairobi. The TV behind me blurts an almost constant stream of commentary on either the “Yes” or “No” campaigns for the 4 August referendum. There is tension in the air. Around me are others waiting for the 9:30pm bus leaving Kenya for Tanzania.


An article in today’s Nation, one of Kenya’s most popular newspapers, notes how people in the Rift Valley have sold up their property and moved away. They are nervous that the violence of 2008 is to be repeated in the next two weeks. Back then, over 1,000 people lost their lives as violent protests followed a disputed and almost certainly rigged election. A large proportion of the deaths came as a result of police reprisals at protesters. Extra-judicial killings (the police shooting of criminals) have long been a human rights concern in Kenya.


The TV is buzzing at the various claims of the two opposing sides to the debate. What is at stake? On 4 August, Kenya goes to the polls to decide whether to vote “Yes” or “No” to a constitution.


Churches have formed an alliance with the red “No” campaigners. They are sensitive to the apparent legalisation of abortion and the way marriage has been defined.


Predictions are bad for the country and violence is expected. According to a lady doing research here who flew out yesterday, the entire personnel of USAID, the US agency for overseas development, have been ordered to leave the country. The US embassy requests that no US citizens enter Kenya.


Despite this tectonic gloom, and despite the bus waiting room’s atmosphere of a refugee depot, I would like to suggest that the referendum for a new constitution will not be violent. This may be the wishful thinking of an idealistic student seeking to write a positive commentary on all things African, but I have evidence to support my claim.


The post-election violence of 2008 was not spontaneous. Kenya is a country of layers, and three layers together caused the chaos. The first was the violent network connected to the main opposition, the Orange Democratic Movement, led by Raila Odinga. Political parties in Kenya have been led at the centre by vocal and determined populists. They enjoy a reach to their localities through patrimonial ties mixed with genuine popular support. Specifically, MPs fund groups of youths who support them locally. In various parts of the country the groups are linked with local militia who operate outside the state. Militia groups are particularly prominent in the west of the country. In Nairobi, the Mungiki control zones in the slums where police dare not tread. Each night they extend their reach and then withdraw, battling the police or paying them off in the process.


Militia groups linked to political parties were ordered and paid to take to the streets in violence in response to the perceived rigging of elections. Then came the second layer: those in support of the election results within the incumbent government gave the green light to the most ferocious police reprisals. Evidence of deaths collected by Human Rights Watch shows numerous examples of persons shot from behind, killed as they ran. The third layer of violence came as a result of the opportunist thugs who took advantage of the chaos to steal.


Why will this not be repeated? Back in 2008, violence was in everyone’s interests. The chaos hid the ballot rigging and guaranteed the place at table of the opposition in the talks that followed. What resulted was the largest cabinet Kenya has ever seen as both incumbents and opposition formed a government of national unity.


Two years on, violence is in few groups interests. Polls put the “Yes” vote ahead by a considerable amount, and all the main parties wish to see it passed, at least according to the desires they allow to be publicised. A chaotic response to the results would only help the thugs, and even they are growing too strong for the politicians’ liking. If violence starts, it is likely to start in the Rift Valley, where disputes over land acts like tinder to the smallest spark. But the political will, at least for the moment, is against the fire spreading.