Pressure points: threat of unrest looms as Kenya’s elections approach | Global development

As Kenya’s presidential elections draw closer, the country’s vulnerability to violence is back in evidence.

Kenyan politicians are infamous for inflaming underlying ethnic tensions, by touching on national pressure points, such as historical grievances over land. And this year’s vote comes at a time when the rising cost of living has left many households struggling.

The country has a difficult history with disputed elections. A contested 2007 poll resulted in more than 1,000 deaths. The potential for violence during August’s elections stands at about 53%, according to a report by Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), due to pre-existing conflicts, possible triggers and weak electoral management institutions.

Experts say political unrest escalates into violence when citizens don’t trust the bodies handling the elections. The NCIC report showed that 26% of Kenyans trust the electoral commission and 23% trust the judiciary. The commission is already facing challenges in court over its bid to use an electronic voter identification system this year, with no physical register as back-up, despite having faced technological failures at the last two elections.

Kenya’s judiciary regained some trust in 2017 after the supreme court annulled the results which saw incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, declared winner, due to widespread discrepancies. In a historic ruling, the court called for another election. However, Kenyatta’s opponent, Raila Odinga, challenged the electoral body’s ability to conduct fair elections, withdrew from the race and called on supporters to boycott the poll. Kenyatta duly became president as violence was met with police crackdowns in western Kenya and in Nairobi – where Odinga was favourite.

Politicians are exploiting high youth unemployment, with some paying youth groups to cause violence and intimidate opponents, according to the NCIC report. Human rights organisation Haki Africa says it has seen an increase in attacks by armed groups in Mombasa in April and May. Mombasa and Nairobi, Kenya’s largest cities, were categorised as highly vulnerable to violence by NCIC.

A 28-year-old political campaigner from Kamukunji, one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, spoke on condition of anonymity. He says politicians often pay groups of young people to intimidate their opponents and block them from campaigning in certain areas. He says that he doesn’t get paid for violence but has worked closely with people who do.

“You’re paid after the work, and per turnout,” he says, explaining that the politicians usually have a single trusted contact, who receives an electronic payment and then pays everyone else in cash. “The going rate varies. If you’re working with someone who’s politically connected, you get around 1,000 Kenyan shillings (£7) per turnout, but if you’re not, you’ll get only around 400KSh.”

They are not paid for direct violence usually, but he says, “When the politician is heckled but doesn’t leave, some supporters will start to use violence.”

He supports the ‘elections bila noma’ campaign – a movement for peaceful elections. “When a politician wins, that’s his win. He doesn’t have to deal with any of the fallout,” he says. “Those who fought for them, who mainly just wanted to make quick money, have to live with the same communities they violently broke up during elections.”

Happy Olal, a social justice activist, says politicians encourage violence by portraying their win as inevitable. “The feeling that their candidate can’t lose causes tensions to blow up,” he says.

Areas such as Kamukunji are highly policed during elections. Olal says this makes outbreaks of violence become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “When you send trucks of police to these areas just a day or two before the polls, you’re essentially telling them – we’re here for you. What do you expect?”

Political analyst Joy Masinde thinks few want trouble: “The 2007 violence was a stain on the public conscience. It took us so long to recover from it that not many voters would be easily instigated into violence, even if you paid them,” she says.

Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto at a rally in Nairobi on 4 June 2022. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Still, divisive politics continue to play out, particularly online. A report by the Mozilla Foundation showed that political content containing hate speech, incitement and misinformation is spreading on TikTok, despite being in violation of it’s policies. Videos with hashtags such as #siasa or #siasazakenya (Swahili for politics and Kenyan politics) have more than 20m views. “Kenyans are uploading and consuming tons of political content on the platform. Some people might actually be watching news on it,” says Odanga Madung, the report’s author.

Madung says the threat is that “anything can go viral. You don’t even need to build an audience for that to happen.” A number of the political videos received outsized viewership, suggesting they may have been boosted by TikTok’s algorithm.

However, Masinde says: “The largest mass of voters are still offline. There isn’t enough of a critical mass on the app to cause any kind of movement,” she says. “A number of those who use it are either too young or politically indifferent.”

Madung agrees, saying that the biggest danger of disinformation is that it could erode Kenyans’ trust in the political class and breed disillusion, putting people off voting. “Disinformation is the low-hanging fruit. It’s easier to get voters disillusioned than to get them to go out on the streets.”

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