Conflict Mediation and Mitigation Activities Promote Peaceful Participation During 2017 Elections in Kenya
by Rene Travis*
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has worked with local partner Act Change Transform (Act!) under the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Kenya Electoral Assistance Program (KEAP) to implement a series of large-scale locally-contextualized conflict mitigation activities. Given the historic annulment of the August 2017 presidential election results by the Supreme Court of Kenya, the boycott of the October 2017 rerun presidential election by opposition leader Raila Odinga and continued ethnic and political tensions throughout the extended election period, sustained local dialogue reinforced by peace messaging has been critical for encouraging peaceful participation in electoral processes.
Through the use of conflict management panels (CMP), KEAP partner Act! has leveraged grassroots networks to ensure multi-stakeholder engagement in electoral peace efforts. In Kenya, KEAP supported CMPs’ function as community mediation platforms which promote dialogue and consensus-building to mitigate escalation of electoral conflicts. The program supports respected local leaders who make up the CMPs to mediate political related conflicts at the community level with strategies informed by local contexts. Act! includes a broad range of community participants in mediation activities including women, youth, persons with disabilities, representatives of security services, local elders, religious leaders, county government actors and community peace actors, among others. This engagement ensures that many voices in a community contribute to peace processes and conflict prevention efforts.
KEAP partner Act! complemented peace messages disseminated through the CMP community dialogue sessions with regional radio talk shows programs. Through KEAP, Act! reaches a wide Kenyan audience including rural communities with limited access to the internet and other mainstream media sources. Act! engages community representatives to disseminate peace messages through vernacular-language radio talk shows.
Below are personal stories highlighting the successes of the CMPs and radio talk shows in reducing electoral conflict as reported directly by IFES’ partner Act!.
Fostering Locally-Led Solutions Through CMPs
A common image of Meru County is one of undulating hills covered with lush green vegetation of crops and natural forests, but that is just half the story. Another part of the county is an almost exact opposite. Instead of lush greenery, the areas are covered by an inconsistent brown. Rather than undulating grasslands, the land is covered by rock and dust, with shade provided by canopies of pygmy acacia trees. Though extreme, the weather is not the greatest concern for residents of Kiremu, a town in Meru. For Lucy, the greatest fear lies in a known danger nearby. A danger that took her husband and paralyzes her every day.
“A friend called and asked me if I had heard the news,” she says. A day before the call that changed her life forever, her home was attacked by raiders after the family’s herd of cattle. “They came at night, shooting in the air. None of us could leave the house. We stayed inside with the children,” she said. The raiders got what they wanted – the family’s 11 heads of cattle as well as eight calves.
In Kiremu, once an agriculturally productive area, small-holder farmers like Lucy keep a few animals as a backup plan for the erratic weather that might destroy whole crops. For Lucy, the few heads of cattle were a means of livelihood. Unknown to her husband, politicians from a neighboring pastoral community had incited their community against their farming neighbors. Lucy’s husband was killed during a raid on the cattle by neighboring community members.
Every time Lucy hears about the threat of violence during this election period, she goes back to that day when she was told of the death of her husband. Through the years, women have borne the brunt of conflicts. For instance, during the 2007-2008 post-election violence, women were displaced, beaten, raped and lost the small businesses they were running, with others dispossessed of hard-earned small-holder farms.
“We are the ones who feel it most. No one knows death like we do. No one knows pain like we do. We have been beaten. We have been raped. Conflict is always violent to us. We are the ones who are undressed during war, not the men, us!" – Leila, resident, Maweni Santa Fe in Malindi
Leila says that because it is the women who feel it most, they should fight the hardest to keep the peace. She says women can’t fight, but they can talk to men and their sons to stop fighting each other. “When they fight, we are collateral,” she says. “We have to tell our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons not to take up arms.”
But is dialogue with the family enough to stem the tide?
“Not at all,” Zeinab, a member of the Garissa CMP in Kenya’s eastern town of Garissa says. “We have to do much more than that.” The CMP is a consortium of peace actors charged with the mandate to mediate and mitigate electoral related conflicts within their communities. Like Leila and many other women CMP members around the 10 counties, Zeinab has managed to train women from the four sub-counties within Garissa on the importance of peace and mediation as a mechanism for peaceful co-existence. “As a result, inter-clan violence has reduced and we are no longer burying our men daily. Neither are we consoling our girls with each rising sun,” she says.
The freedom enjoyed within the space in which female CMP members operate was not easily attained. Stereotypes and cultural beliefs provided a high, albeit surmountable, hurdle, and a helping hand was needed to jump over it. “The county government understood and supported what we were doing. When we decided to organize and take part in [the] peace caravans, they bought into the idea and gave us security,” Abdia, the CMP chairperson in Isiolo County says. “Even in politically charged meetings, we were given a chance to address the groups and we somehow managed to calm people down. There is something about a woman’s voice that can pacify any situation,” Abdia says.
Information is power. Its availability can have a massive impact on how communities interact with one another. It shapes perceptions and opinions, and its access can turn once politically volatile regions into islands of peace. In 2007, just as the post-election violence descended on Kenya, radio was blamed for having stoked ethnic hatred among different tribes. Ten years later, the same medium is being used to spread peace rather than war. “We have to keep speaking truth to the people,” Stellah says. “Politicians will say whatever they want to say and disappear behind their gated communities leaving us going at each other’s neck.” Stellah works for Mugambo FM, which broadcasts from Meru County in the Meru dialect. The station is located at Meru town’s Kenya National Library services’ offices, primarily reaching the whole Northern Frontier District.
“We know the power we wield over the people and we exercise this power with responsibility." – Stellah, staff member, Mugambo FM
In the months leading to the August 2017 general elections, Stellah hosted a popular current affairs breakfast show. “My guest and I talk about politics, health and peace,” she says. “Our aim was to make peace part of the political conversation.”
A 2015 Kenya Audience Research Foundation survey showed that radio still rules the airwaves as the most preferred source of news for a majority of Kenyans in both rural and urban areas. “Up to 54 percent of Kenyans regularly get their news from radio as their primary source,” the report reads. One of the key things that Stellah and her team at Mugambo FM set out to achieve was to debunk certain myths that had come to light in the course of vigorous campaigns for the different political seats in the county.
Gabriel, an assistant county commissioner for Imenti North, says the broadcasts played a key role in their efforts against electoral-related violence and conflict. “For the first time we saw restraint and responsible reporting from radio stations in the region. They focused on issues and debunked rumors. This helped us very much,” Gabriel says. Conversations around a peaceful election period were not unique to Meru County. In Mombasa, these were facilitated in part by Radio Rahma, which was instrumental in making sure the electorate had its pulse on the promises offered by politicians. The radio station broadcast a series of live debates featuring all the politicians who sought office.
“The people listened to and watched their favorite candidates on radio and TV and made their decisions. The response was good and the turnout impressive,” Yusuf, the executive director of Human Rights Agenda, a nongovernmental organization on human rights and governance in Mombasa that helped organize the forums. “Our intention was to shift the mindset of the people to a more progressive, peaceful thought process, and we succeeded in that,” Yusuf says, adding that, for the first time, politicians were questioned on their motives for leadership, their association with violence and violent gangs in the region, as well as the practicality of their promises.
“Of importance, though, was that after the debates, the electorate was less inclined to propagating violence on behalf of their candidates and as a result, incidences of unrest greatly reduced in comparison to previous elections." – Yusuf, executive director, Human Rights Agenda
Stories adapted from Making Peace in a Time of Political Conflicts by Act! Photos by Elvis Ogina.
*Rene Travis is a program coordinator with IFES' Africa division.