Kenya’s election: a mighty snub to the West

By electing Uhuru Kenyatta as president, Kenyans showed they are not willing to have their future decided by outsiders.

Vidhi Doshi

Topics World

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On Saturday, when Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in Kenya’s general election, the entire international community exchanged awkward glances. What should they do with a country that chose a leader facing charges for bankrolling and inciting war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

Kenyatta was indicted by the ICC in connection with violence surrounding Kenya’s 2007 general election, in which 1,100 people were killed and 600,000 were displaced. Indeed, world leaders, NGOs and the national and foreign media expected Tarantino-style savagery ahead of the recent, hard-fought election: images from the 2007 elections were conjured up by the press to remind everyone what Kenyatta was apparently capable of.

But this year’s election turned out to be peaceful. There was little sign of the grisly tribal violence that we’d been prepped for. Instead, the Kenyan people went to the polling booths simply to cast their votes. Kenya’s people refused to play along with the pre-written narrative; instead, they turned out to be disappointingly patient and went through the rigmarole of voting without much commotion. Every foreign newspaper, somewhat patronisingly, praised Kenyans for their composure, as if it were some kind of medal-worthy achievement rather than normal behaviour.

But the authorities decided that Kenyans couldn’t be trusted to keep the peace on their own: 90,000 armed security personnel were deemed necessary to march up and down the queues of voters on polling day, to keep the unpredictably unruly voters in line. Only Kenya doesn’t have 90,000 policemen, so instead, the IEBC hired anyone who knew how to use a gun: 60,000 park rangers, ex-army men and prison guards were conscripted into the peacekeeping forces to guard the ‘hotspots’ of violence – despite having no training whatsoever in crowd control. Kenyans proved to be a dull bunch, making no fuss. In the absence of anything better to do, security guards thought they would literally give the Kenyan taxpayer some bang for his buck, by marching up and down the queues of voters and randomly firing in the air.

As a result of the replaying of past events and the authorities’ choices about security, fear reigned in Kenya on election day. The spectre of the 2007 elections was repeatedly called on to justify an unnecessary security presence and press censorship. An absurd paranoia drove Kenya’s electoral commission to enforce a careless militarisation of the election, despite the overwhelming evidence that it was precisely this kind of amateurish policing that contributed to the violence in the last election, rather than preventing it. After the 2007 poll, the Commission of Inquiry into the Post-Election Violence (dubbed the Waki Commission, after its chair) and Amnesty International separately documented widespread allegations of attacks, including killings and rapes, committed by the police, and allegations of deliberate negligence where the police failed to respond to violent situations.

Last week’s election was also shot through with press censorship and self-censorship after a new law was enforced to prevent the incitement of violence. In order to prevent ‘hate speech’, a concept rather nebulously defined, radio shows were being broadcast with a delay, so that unacceptable comments could be stopped in their tracks. Only the most politically correct of messages were broadcast, usually those spoken by Raila Odinga – Kenya’s prime minister and generally considered the cuddlier of the two main presidential candidates by the upper classes and foreign communities. And yet, Odinga still lost.

Despite the constant reminders by the state-controlled press of the violence that followed the 2007 elections, Kenyans chose Kenyatta, the man blamed by the ICC for that violence, to lead their nation. British and American brows are furrowing and diplomatic heads are shaking at this election result that nobody wanted. Relations with Kenya might turn sour if the USA doesn’t bite its tongue and work with the man that Kenya’s people have chosen. But it is crucial to remember that Kenyatta was by no means solely responsible for the atrocities that occurred in 2007.

After that election, the previous government of President Mwai Kibaki, winner of the 2007 elections, did nothing to right the wrongs of 2007. No attempt at reconciliation between clashing communities was made and none of the policemen involved in the violence was prosecuted. Kenyatta is no angel, but the charges brought against him at the ICC are a shrewd political move by his opponents, in time for this year’s election, designed to put a stain on his national and international reputation.

The government-sponsored security forces’ own responsibility in the 2007 clashes was completely swept under the rug. Kenyatta has yet to face trial at The Hague; the proceedings will probably be dragged on until the next election to make Kenya’s relations with the international community a little more comfortable. Meanwhile, the police forces who ravaged Kenya in 2007 will get away scot free – indeed, if anything, with a better reputation than ever, thanks to the erroneous perception that they kept the peace this time around.

Vidhi Doshi is a freelance journalist based in London with a strong interest in African politics.

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Topics World


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