Ethnic Contest and Electoral Violence in Northern Kenya
Ethnic Contest and Electoral Violence in Northern Kenya
Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis
Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis
People wait to cast their votes during the Kenyan general elections at the Ldergesi primary school in Isiolo County, northern Kenya, on 4 March 2013. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola.
Commentary / Africa

Ethnic Contest and Electoral Violence in Northern Kenya

Kenya’s 2010 constitution was intended to end fierce electoral battles, but in the northern counties of Isiolo and Marsabit it has exacerbated ethnic and border tensions. To prevent these issues causing electoral violence in August, stakeholders should deploy more personnel and work toward intercommunal reconciliation.

The two northern counties of Isiolo and Marsabit are among the most conflict-prone in Kenya. The region is mainly semi-arid, and most residents are pastoralist nomads who often clash over access to scarce pasture and water. A new devolved system of government has intensified local political competition in the two counties, especially for the powerful elected governor positions. This means general elections in August could trigger intercommunal fighting. There is still time, however, to encourage a peaceful vote.

Devolution of power and resources was one of the centrepieces of the 2010 constitution, intended to reduce the previous all-or-nothing electoral battles for the presidency, and redress regional marginalisation and inequitable development. Forty-seven counties were created and their elected governors enjoy considerable power and control budgets worth millions of dollars. Although devolution brought services closer to the people, it has also deepened ethnic schisms in counties and galvanised communities to install one of their own into the many elected county-level seats. The governor’s position is especially coveted.

Border disputes and community claims over land – including attempts to extend borders and to “reclaim” territory they consider they wrongly have lost – also have escalated. Many candidates for governor and other positions such as senator are running on a platform of defending or advancing communal interests, a factor that is driving local tensions.

In Isiolo and Marsabit, longstanding tensions primarily pitting the dominant Boran against minority ethnic groups are exacerbated by the electoral contest for county leadership.

The area is vast and there are not enough security officials or national government administrators to provide protection or other basic services.

An additional grievance is the government’s virtual absence in most of Isiolo and Marsabit. The area is vast and there are not enough security officials or national government administrators to provide protection or other basic services. For a long time, the Catholic Church and non-governmental organisations have been the main service providers. “In this region the Catholic Church has been able to reach where the government has been unable to reach: building hospitals, schools, water points”, a member of the Catholic Church in Marsabit town told Crisis Group.

The availability of small arms has made communal warfare between and among communities more destructive. Many ethnic groups straddle the expansive and porous border with Ethiopia, which has made conflicts harder for security forces to contain and resolve. Parties in conflict can count on reinforcements from their ethnic kinsmen in Ethiopia and each community has its own youth militia that acts at the whim of its community leaders.

A Marsabit Ethnic Alliance Win Triggers 2013 Clashes

The results of the March 2013 elections changed the political landscape in Marsabit county. A coalition of minority tribes – the Rendille, Gabra, and Burji, commonly known as the Regabu – swept all major county seats, defeating the dominant Boran candidates who split their votes. The outcome fuelled Boran discontent and sense of marginalisation. This renewed tensions, especially between the two main rivals (the Boran and the Gabra), led to a series of bloody intercommunal clashes in August 2013 in Moyale, a mixed population town on the Ethiopian border. The Burji also were sucked into the conflict because of their political alliance. The conflict was overlain by competing claims on grazing land. Communities also got reinforcement from their kinsmen in southern Ethiopia.

According to the Kenya Red Cross, dozens were killed and 38,000 people were forced to leave their homes, many fleeing to Ethiopia.

The outcome was devastating. According to the Kenya Red Cross, dozens were killed and 38,000 people were forced to leave their homes, many fleeing to Ethiopia. At one point, Moyale was completely abandoned to armed ethnic militias, and the Kenya Defence Forces had to be deployed to contain the situation.

It took concerted efforts from several actors to end the conflict. The Garre – a local Somali clan that has traditionally played a conflict mediating role – were instrumental in forging a deal. The violence also died down when the Ethiopians and Kenyans agreed to improve cross-border security and curb ethnic militia infiltration.

When the conflict subsided, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed as mediators the former National Assembly Speaker Francis Ole Kaparo, now chairman of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a peacebuilding state agency, and Yusuf Haji, a Garissa county senator. The two brought together 35 elders representing all local communities in an ad hoc committee that negotiated the February 2014 peace agreement. The core element of the deal was to implement the fair distribution of county-level resources. Other than minor confrontations Marsabit has had no major conflict since then.

Yet the stakes once again are high ahead of the August 2017 vote. Different ethnic groups and individuals are jockeying for top county-level posts. Tensions are likely to rise in the final days of the campaign period and after results are announced. Minor incidents can escalate. For instance, in April 2017, after a twelve-year-old Gabra boy was killed in unclear circumstances, some from the Gabra tribe killed seven Boran in retaliation. As in the past, politicians will try to use ethnic violence – which displaces communities and prevents them from voting – to influence election results.

Once again the governor’s contest is between the Gabra and the Boran. The Boran, who historically had an upper hand in Marsabit politics, want to “reclaim” what they “lost” in 2013. Though there are two Boran gubernatorial candidates, the community broadly is united behind Mohamud Ali, popularly known as Abshiro. He is running against the incumbent governor, Ukur Yattani, and another Gabra contender, Adano Umuro. Local elders sought the intervention and guidance of the Aba Gadda (the traditional Boran leader based in southern Ethiopia) to emphasise the importance of not splitting their votes. Their chances are good, since this time it is likely that the popular Umuro will cost Governor Yattani significant Gabra votes.

The Isiolo County Gubernatorial Contest

When compared to Marsabit, Isiolo has experienced less violence but it has also seen instability. The contest for governorship revolves around two major Boran clans, the Karayu and the Warjida, and resident non-Boran minorities (Turkana, Meru, Samburu and Somali) are bargaining for positions to back Boran-led tickets and provide the swing vote. The Karayu (the largest clan) want to unseat Governor Godana Doyo, a Warjida, but has endorsed two candidates – former MP Abdul Bahari and former aid worker Aden Wario Kabelo. Mohamed Kuti, a Sakuye, former cabinet minister and current Isiolo senator, also is in the race. All sides are actively wooing minorities.

Sporadic ethnic fighting typically escalates during the dry seasons when the few water sources dry up.

Political conflict overlays resource competition between agriculturalists and pastoralists, and between rival pastoralist communities, usually over land, water and pasture. Sporadic ethnic fighting typically escalates during the dry seasons when the few water sources dry up. Since early 2017, sixteen incidents killed around 40 people and injured at least nineteen others in the county and its environs. Some of these clashes involved as many as 300 armed communal militiamen.

On 7 June, over 70 heavily armed Samburu raiders attacked Turkana herders in Burat location and escaped with hundreds of cattle. Eight people were killed. In an earlier incident on 26 May, over 300 heavily armed Samburu and Rendille raiders attacked Boran herders in a grazing area along the Isiolo-Samburu-Marsabit counties border. Seven herders were killed, while five others were injured in a gun battle that lasted several hours.

Ethnic and Boundary Disputes Compounding Political Tensions

Another major source of communal friction is the protracted boundary dispute between Isiolo and its southern neighbour, Meru. The border tension plays out in the electoral contest within Isiolo county where the Meru tribe constitutes a significant minority. Resolving inter-county and intercommunal border disputes has proven difficult. According to a religious leader, the national government generally prefers not to engage in the tough work of seeking new solutions and uses colonial-era maps instead. The interior ministry finally intervened in November 2015, but its demarcation of the border has been contested in court by the Isiolo government.

Boundary disputes are exacerbated by the planned Lamu Port, South Sudan and Ethiopia (LAPSSET) infrastructure project that aims to develop a northern transport corridor to better integrate Kenya with Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, and in which Isiolo is a key node. Speculators from outside Isiolo have been buying land along the common border to profit from government compensation. Areas most affected include those around the proposed Isiolo resort city and international airport. Other affected areas along the proposed LAPSSET corridor are Ilat, Attan, Gambela, Yarre and Kisima, inhabited by major ethnic groups, including Meru, Turkana, Boran, Samburu and Somali.

What Should Be Done

  • Non-state actors including Muslim and Catholic clerics who have great sway in the area as well as community elders should intensify peace meetings between and among all actors, both during the campaign period and after the elections.
  • Election observers (EU Election Observation Mission and African Union Long-Term Observers) should consider deploying more personnel to the two counties to boost confidence and ensure the credibility of the vote.
  • The National Cohesion and Integration Commission, whose mandate is to promote grassroots-based reconciliation, should take an active role in curbing conflict. It should monitor politicians engaging in hate speech or threatening communities with eviction and compile cases for prosecution, in cooperation with the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Officials from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) record the finger prints of a man during the launch of the 2017 general elections voter registration exercise within the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, on 16 January 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Commentary / Africa

Kenya: Avoiding Another Electoral Crisis

Political tensions are rising in Kenya ahead of elections in August for the presidency and other senior posts. Measures taken now can avert the risk of a repeat of electoral violence that killed hundreds of people in 2007-2008.

Kenyans go to the polls in August, and fierce contests are likely in the race for the presidency and other elections the same day to county governorships and other senior posts. Electoral commission preparations are dangerously behind schedule amid political polarisation, growing distrust and lack of communication between parties. Given the country’s troubled electoral history, it is essential that politicians and other key stakeholders discuss and agree on the measures necessary for credible polls and a way forward on the electoral timeline.

The elections matter well beyond Kenya’s borders. The country is the transport and commercial hub of East Africa, so a protracted crisis would result in significant disruptions further afield. The 2007-2008 post-election violence, which left 1,000 dead after a brutal police response to protests and ethnic killings, shut down international road links and slowed cargo shipments at Mombasa port to a trickle. Fuel prices more than doubled in neighbouring, landlocked Uganda and Rwanda, and humanitarian assistance further afield in the eastern Congo (DRC) was disrupted for weeks. It took a mediation effort led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and supported by international partners to get the main players to agree to a truce and form a power-sharing government.

In the August 2017 poll, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto face an energised opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance (NASA), that brings together all major opposition figures. It is led by Raila Odinga, whose campaign is all the more determined because this may be his last contest.

A Level Playing Field?

Neither side has made the job of the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) easy. In December, Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party used its majority in parliament to push through controversial amendments to the electoral laws with little consultation. They provided for a manual backup to the electronic electoral system in case of equipment failure. This is arguably necessary since no electronic system is perfect, and no technology is foolproof against bad behaviour by politicians.

The government’s unilateral measure sowed mistrust in the electoral process. But opposition leaders have not helped matters by claiming the voting will be rigged by the ruling party and threatening to challenge any outcome to the election that does not favour them outside legal channels. After the opposition claimed that the 2013 elections were fixed, the courts ruled against it.

What has not changed is the behaviour of politicians and the zero-sum nature of political competition.

Following the 2007-2008 crisis, the Independent Review Commission (IREC), headed by retired South African judge Johann Kriegler, concluded that the 2007 polls had been marked by large-scale vote-tampering and issued far-reaching recommendations on the conduct of future elections, including that election commissioners take office at least two years before a general election. The review commission concluded that the technical system for tallying, recording and transmitting results was defective and called for an overhaul. It noted that the vast powers vested in the presidency set the stage for a high-stakes contest that increased the likelihood of violence.

Only some of the proposals to improve the electoral process have been implemented. Most significantly, a progressive constitution was adopted in 2010. A two-round presidential election system now requires the ultimate winner to garner more than 50 per cent of the vote nationally and more than a quarter of those cast in more than half the 47 counties. The process for selecting election commissioners was made more inclusive, and power was devolved to counties whose elected governors and local representatives enjoy a fair degree of autonomy over the deployment of resources disbursed from the centre. The 2013 elections were reasonably peaceful, though the opposition challenged the credibility of the tallying process. Parliament has new responsibilities, including the power to vet most presidential appointees. Members also enjoy oversight of the cabinet through departmental committees.

What has not changed is the behaviour of politicians and the zero-sum nature of political competition. Though the 2010 constitution sought to change the division of power between the presidency and parliament, the head of state remains immensely powerful, able to dole out patronage to supportive elites. When the president’s party commands a majority in parliament, that institution can be reduced to a rubber-stamp assembly. By the same token, devolution in the new constitution has raised the stakes in sub-national contests, with heated competition expected for governorships.

Frequent leadership turnover at the IEBC means there will be a different set of inexperienced commissioners going into an election for the third vote in a row. Some who ran the last two votes left under a cloud, accused either of fiddling results (in 2007) or major corruption and political bias (2013).

While the Kriegler report recommended that commissioners be in office at least two years before an election to enable them prepare adequately, the new team took office on 20 January, a mere seven months before the vote. Delays in parliament, dithering by the executive and confusion within a team picked to interview the new commissioners were blamed for the holdup.

This has left the IEBC, now headed by Wafula Chebukati, a lawyer little-known outside legal circles, facing tall odds to deliver a credible election. Overcoming formidable logistical, technical and legal obstacles within existing timelines and in a febrile, divisive environment will be a major challenge.

Hi-tech Ambitions, Legal Challenges

Kenya’s electoral commission, like many in Africa, hopes to deploy a system with biometric voter identification and electronic results transmission so as to avoid the ballot-stuffing and dubious turnout figures that plagued past elections, particularly in 2007. The IEBC estimates that the vendor that wins the contract will need 60 days to deliver the custom-made integrated electoral management system. It is well behind schedule in finding such a supplier.

Legislative timelines initially called for the system to be in place eight months before the polls, which would have required installation by 8 December 2016. IEBC executives asked for more time, citing stringent procurement requirements. In November, Chief Executive Ezra Chiloba said it hoped to have the new system in place by the end of February. In fact, legal appeals by several of the companies that submitted tenders to supply the system meant that bid papers were only submitted in the first week of February. Now, another vendor’s legal challenge has blocked any decision on the tender.

The installation of a transparent, efficient electoral management system would go a long way to assuaging public concerns.

On 28 February, the IEBC admitted it was out of time to procure the new system on schedule. At a press briefing, its commissioners said, without elaboration, that they would explore using “an alternative voter verification” method. A day later, commission officials said they might procure the equipment directly from a vendor by “single sourcing” or issue a restricted tender that might be less open to legal challenge.

The equipment for transmitting results from polling places to the tallying centre is as important as the voter kits. Past elections were compromised by lack of transparency in tallying and transmitting. The installation of a transparent, efficient electoral management system would go a long way to assuaging public concerns. Unfortunately, rushed procurement, with little lead-time for testing, may set the IEBC up for failure. That would also deepen suspicions in a situation already marked by significant tension between parties. Government steps to limit the role of external partners, such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, that can offer valuable technical assistance, have not helped.

On 22 December, the High Court granted an order halting the IEBC’s award of a tender to financial services firm KPMG for verification of the voter register, upholding an opposition petition that accused the IEBC of making the appointment without sufficient consultation. On 13 February, the High Court nullified a tender to a Dubai-based firm for printing ballot papers, citing violations of procurement regulations and electoral laws.

A separate 13 February High Court decision that all IEBC executive decisions made before the January appointment of commissioners were null and void had particularly serious implications for preparations. The commission has appealed, but further court challenges to its decisions, particularly on tendering, remain possible and could create additional election complications.

Racing Against the Clock

The greatest operational challenge the IEBC faces is not lack of internal capacity but that there is little time to put in place all the elements required to make the vote transparent and credible. It needs to be clear-sighted and open about this. It should communicate to the public and international partners what extra help it needs to implement the various technical steps, including fast-tracked procurement of technology.

If it becomes clear, however, that the remaining time, particularly in light of possible legal challenges, is insufficient, it should ask for an extension. The opposition may be angling for a postponement for its own reasons. Nonetheless, from a technical perspective the IEBC could well run out of time to deliver credible polls.

If it becomes clear the commission needs more time, it may be possible to achieve consensus on a delay including by turning to the courts, because all parties have an interest in a smooth election. There is a precedent for this. Although the constitution provides that elections should be on the second Tuesday of August every fifth year, the High Court gave the IEBC more time to prepare for the last election. 

With little time left in which to build public confidence, the IEBC needs a communications strategy to update voters regularly. More importantly, it needs a mechanism to discuss progress with politicians and consult on key decisions it makes on preparations to assure them the vote will be credible, free and fair. 

The commission should expand its Election Preparedness Task Force, currently composed of IEBC officials, representatives of the interior ministry, judiciary and director of public prosecutions. Giving civil society and the opposition greater access to all aspects of preparations would boost trust in the process. 

How Outsiders Can Help

International partners should extend technical and financial help to the IEBC to help it better tackle the challenges. This should, however, be done with nuance, flexibility and complete transparency, in light of unfounded claims by the ruling party that external parties are seeking to influence the electoral outcome. International observers should be deployed in time to monitor crucial stages of the electoral process, such as verification of the vote register and procurement of electoral materials.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) should expand its technical aid initiatives, including deploying staff with experience handling fraught balloting around Africa to support the commission.

The greatest operational challenge the IEBC faces is not lack of internal capacity but that there is little time to put in place all the elements required to make the vote transparent and credible.

Kenya’s raucous politics shows the relative openness of its democracy. That politicians explicitly mobilise along ethnic lines, however, means elections are marked by high communal tension. Since their words carry extraordinary resonance in a still ethnically fractured country, politicians should weigh them carefully during the campaign. The ruling party should not use state resources to gain an unfair advantage. Opposition leaders should play a constructive role in monitoring and supporting the electoral process and commit to using legal channels to air any grievances.

The main presidential contenders could help by publicly signing a code of conduct ahead of the official start of the campaign, including a pledge to seek legal recourse in the event of disputes and a call to supporters to refrain from violence. A similar step during the heated 2015 Nigerian presidential election campaign helped calm tensions before the vote.

Similar codes of conducts should be organised in counties, including pledges not to use violence and to respect results. Establishing peace committees comprising different community leaders in especially contentious areas would help to bring groups together and limit the risk of communal violence once results are announced. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission should also closely monitor hate speech by politicians on the campaign trail and prosecute offenders.

Disputed polls can carry a major human and financial cost, and three of five elections since a multi-party system was re-introduced in 1992 have been marked by violence. Kenya needs to ensure that the 2017 vote goes smoothly. Faced with the extremely tight timelines, all stakeholders should make their contribution to this.

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