Kenya is having a very important election on March 4, 2013. Not only will the outcome of the election determine the course that the country takes in the next four years, it will test if fair, democratic elections, free of tribal antagonism can happen in Kenya. Last time it was a disaster. I do hope that this election is free of corruption and tribal violence.
This is a copy of an article that I wrote for the Kingston Whig Standard when I was in Kenya last month. It was published on Saturday February 23.
Kenya goes to the polls on March 4 and throughout the. country there is an air of anticipation and some angst. After the last general election in December 2007, allegations of rigging and unfairness led to two months of tribal turmoil that left about 1500 dead and many people displaced.
Traditionally, political parties in Kenya have been organized with tribal affiliations. There are over 40 tribes in Kenya, each with their own customs and language. Three of these make up the majority of the population and since the country got independence in the early 1960’s governments have been predominantly formed by these. In a culture where nepotism and rewarding friends is common, this meant that many people were left disadvantaged because they had no effective political representation.
But this is changing. The ruling President, Mwai Kibaki, has had his share of corruption scandals and improper political manipulations but the freedom of speech and right to protest that was introduced when he was elected in 2003 is remarkably different from the preceding regimes of Moi and Kenyatta. Under their rule, dissenting views were not permitted and perpetrators were punished and even tortured.
The resulting opening-up of the press and media and the ability for people to freely challenge or express opposing views has allowed Kenyans to participate more openly in the process. Last week, an historic open debate between the 8 Presidential hopefuls took place. Kenyans throughout the country were glued to their radios or looked to find televisions to witness their leaders actually debate policy rather than just face off like power mongers. This sort of open contest of ideals has never happened here before. It symbolizes progress.
After the last election, some Kenyan leaders were indicted to go to The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity resulting from their alleged inciting of the 2008 post election violence. In a peculiar twist, two of these men, whose followers in 2007-8 were in violent opposition to each other, have united into one party and are seeking the posts of President and Vice President. Although this seems a strange alliance, there are many who support their party because of their tribal allegiances. On the positive side, the uniting of these two opposing groups into one party will likely dramatically dilute the risk of violent post-election conflicts this round. On the down side, if they are elected it may provide some strain on international relations.
Another hopeful sign of democratic progress occurred last month when party nominations were held. Because there is an almost assured win for some parties in different constituencies, and because new alignments of parties and tribes have happened since the last government was formed, the competition to get the nomination certificate was fierce. In some regions, winners were announced that clearly were the result of unfair practices or rigging of the voting process. This led to protests in many areas and although these were sometimes rowdy, they did not lead to violence.
And what is even more encouraging, in many locations, the nominations that were announced with corrupt support were revoked and the candidates preferred by the people through a legitimate voting process were installed. Many established Members of Parliament lost their positions and thereby their power to control.
In one city there was great celebration as the corrupt nominations were overturned and a joyful parade ensued, people singing and waving tree branches in a symbol of peace.
Kenya is a young democracy. Canadian confederation occurred in 1867 and one has only to look at the Robocall scandal in 2011 go know that we still have some problems with our elections. Kenya was granted independence in 1963 and so are 100 years behind us in development of governance. In this technological age we are used to things happening with immediacy. The growth of a democratic society takes time. For years this country was under colonial rule with a control being in the hands of a few. Kenyans learned that power was concentrated at the top and that individuals, particularly Africans, had little opportunity to express their political views or have any influence. So it is no wonder that it is taking time for Kenya to grow into a freely democratic society.
The people who live here are anxious for this change to happen and it may be frustrating to them that it is so slow. But in the ten years that I have been visiting Kenya, there are many improvements and opportunities for citizens to express themselves freely and exercise their franchise to vote. As a result of the new constitution, the judicial system has been revamped and people now have confidence that they can be represented fairly in their courts.
The upcoming elections will be a chance to overcome the turmoil that ensued after the last debacle which may turn out to be a difficult but essential lesson. The consensus now is that with the contentious party nomination process behind them, the introduction of electronic voting for the election (supported in part by Canadian aid), a fair judicial system to prosecute perpetrators of crime and violence, and the realignment of parties and constituencies there will be an openly fair upcoming election. I hope that the country will be able to celebrate progress after March 4.
This article on BBC may expand if you are interested in learning more.