On 10 February 2013 I travelled to Nairobi, Kenya with my counterparts, the executive directors of the Nairobi Peace Initiative – Africa, the West African Network of Peace and the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. Our two-day mission was designed to support civil society's call for a violence-free election and post- election environment...
This mission was prompted by the conflict that followed the 2007 elections, which resulted in over 1 000 deaths and marred a country otherwise known for its peace and stability. The violence was ethnically motivated and driven by hate speech from political leaders at all levels of society.
I arrived in Kenya very concerned. On the surface, the six years following the violent events of 2007–2008 seemed to have achieved little towards easing ethnic tensions, and there were whispers of ethno-political mobilisation in the build-up to the 4 March 2013 elections. Further complicating these election dynamics are the pending International Criminal Court cases against two of the politicians vying for the highest offices in the country, as well as the local High Court ruling on the eligibility of such candidates in relation to the Kenyan Constitution's integrity clauses. These matters, among others, created unease and tension throughout Kenyan society. This was evident as we travelled in Nairobi, meeting various organisations and individuals.
When I left Nairobi three days later, I was much more optimistic. Even though the Kenyan nation had endured a traumatic ordeal in the 2007–2008 violence and has yet to transcend the narrow confines of politicised ethnicity, the country is now clearly prepared to avoid the violent route. Several factors explain my optimism. First, our meeting with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission clearly indicated that many efforts had been undertaken successfully to minimise hate speech and ensure politicians act responsibly. Second, in our meeting with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, we met a robustly independent chairperson, who had been appointed together with the other commissioners after a rigorous interview process. We were impressed by their level of preparedness to conduct the forth- coming elections.
Third, the event that gave us the most reason for optimism was the first presidential debate, which our delegation attended. The event was widely covered by several media outlets and was very impressively organised. The debate provided a platform for the eight presidential candidates, including the two main contenders, Raila Odinga (the current prime minister) and Uhuru Kenyatta (the current deputy prime minister). Much of the country's concern centred on the acrimonious relationship between these two main rivals and to a lesser extent, the relationship among all the politicians.
Unquestionably, the debate seized the nation. It had one of the largest television and radio audiences in Kenyan media history. The candidates had a captive audience and, with that, the opportunity for political grandstanding and the pursuit of narrow interests. It was, therefore, very encouraging to see the maturity with which the candidates approached the debate. They conducted themselves with dignity, showed respect to each other, and still conveyed their points robustly. There were also moments of shared humour. All this, including a brief interlude at the end of the debate when the candidates were joined by their families and received affectionate well wishes, helped in creating a positive climate for the elections.
A cynic commented the next day that "the candidates are good actors". This may very well be the case, but it is less important. What is more important is that Kenyans had the opportunity to judge their leaders and their views in public, and to realise that debates, elections and democracy are about different ideas, disagreement, compromise, tolerance and respect – and most of all, about responsible leadership and the pursuit of better ways to manage differences non-violently.
Founder and Executive Director of ACCORD.
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