By Sekou Toure Otondi, University of Nairobi*
In the last few weeks Kenya has seen an increase in intra-party political violence following the start of its political party primaries that began on April 13th and are scheduled to run for two weeks.
The primaries are “mini-polls” held by political parties to choose which candidates will vie for seats in the general election that will be held on August 8th.
The focus has been on the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) which was the first party to begin the nomination process. The ODM was formed in 2007 and is one of Kenya’s main political parties.
Since the start of the ODM primaries chaos has continued to mar the process. The worst cases of political violence were witnessed in Migori in south-western Kenya and Ruaraka in Nairobi. In both cases violence between rival camps led to injuries.
The Busia County primaries, which were the first to take place, also ended in chaos. Busia is a county in western Kenya on the border with Uganda.
The primaries are ongoing and continue to be characterised by palpable tension.
A storm has also been gathering within the ruling Jubilee Party, which began its nominations on Friday last week. Its preparations have also been characterised by internal party tensions.
Recently in Kirinyaga County in central Kenya supporters of two contenders for the gubernatorial seat clashed violently at a prayer rally. That must have been a foretaste of things to come because the first day of the Jubilee primaries was so disorganised that the party announced a nationwide postponement of the nomination exercise.
Kenya’s elections laws require all political parties to undertake internal party primary elections. But it’s a requirement they’d rather not fulfil.
The truth is that Kenya’s political parties coalesce around individuals and ethnic communities rather than ideology. This has made the running of party primaries an arduous task as dejected aspirants often troop to rival political formations after losing in a primary.
This means that parties have to contend with the nightmare of shifting alliances close to the general election.
Rivalry behind the chaos
Party-primary violence has been intense in regions where the main political parties command a strong following. Aspirants who are nominated in their party strongholds have a much better chance of winning. This means that the battle for the nominations is fierce and aspirants often resort to violence against their opponents.
Despite having disciplinary mechanisms the main political parties have failed to rein in those instigating chaos. They usually impose fines on offenders instead of taking more more drastic measures such as a suspension or expulsion.
The fact that most politicians can easily raise the fines has bred a culture of impunity. This has resulted in perennial acts of violence during election cycles.
If the violence isn’t contained it could be a harbinger of things to come when Kenyans go to the polls in August. And while the recent conflict has been a wake up call, it has not come as a surprise given Kenya’s history of election violence.
Since the return of multiparty politics, the country has repeatedly witnessed ethnic tension and violence around election time. Only the 2013 polls stand out as being relatively peaceful.
The violence during and around election time is an indicator of underlying socioeconomic and political issues such as land injustices, marginalisation and disenfranchisement.
These issues were set out in the 2013 Truth Justice and Reconciliation Report, which was written in response to the post-election violence of 2007-2008. Its recommendations have never been implemented.
The 2007-2008 trajectory of ethnic animosity – which led to 1,133 deaths and 600 000 people rendered homeless – underscores the use of disputed elections to bring underlying issues to the fore.
Although the next election in 2013 was relatively peaceful ethnic tensions have continued to build up across the country. The theatre for this vicious ethnic driven political intolerance has mostly been on social media platforms which are dominated by young Kenyans.
The flame that has been fanned on social media since the 2013 polls is growing into a fire as politicians hit the campaign trail. While leaders engage in polarising rhetoric, it’s the youth who become either perpetrators or victims of the political violence.
There are more young people in Kenya than any other demographic cohort. They are also the most disenfranchised which makes them vulnerable to being recruited as perpetrators of violence. Widespread unemployment of 22% is also a contributory factor to young people joining campaign teams as vigilantes, militias or agents.
The making of a peaceful election
The National Democratic Institute has also warned about the likelihood of violence before, during, or after the elections. The institute is an international nongovernmental organisation whose primary task is to advance democratic principles and good governance. In Kenya it’s work has mainly involved strengthening electoral and political processes.
The institute has also given a raft of recommendations on how to avoid election-related violence.
But in the end only Kenyans can put a stop to ethno-political violence.
In the medium to longer term one way they could do this would be by implementing the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission Report.
Another would be to build programmatic political parties that are rooted in ideology rather than ethnicity.
In the short term the institutions mandated to ensure peaceful electioneering must actively discourage violence. For example the National Cohesion and Integration Commission must fulfil its mandate. The commission is a statutory body established against the backdrop of a reconciliation pact agreed after the 2007-2008 post-election violence. It’s aim is to support sustainable peaceful coexistence among Kenyans.
In addition, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has a crucial role in mitigating political violence by conducting free and fair elections. The commission is legally mandated to conduct primary elections for political parties.
But some stakeholders have opposed its involvement in party affairs citing the principle of neutrality. In my opinion, the commission should play an advisory and logistical role to ensure free, fair, and peaceful primary elections in the run-up to the general election in August.