We can get through this election if we’re smart

Wednesday July 12 2017

Youths set up a road block in Naivasha on January 28, 2008, at the height of Kenya's post-election violence.

Youths set up a road block in Naivasha on January 28, 2008, at the height of Kenya's post-election violence. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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As August 8 draws closer, worries about a meltdown are growing.

We’ve had several warnings about the potential for wide-scale electoral violence this week, from both public institutions and external electoral observation groups. We’ve had exhortations to behave from private sector and religious bodies.

They are right, of course, to warn us to tone down our language. To not propagate ethnic stereotypes.

They are also right that some of the conditions that have correlated with electoral violence in the past pertain now. An incumbent defending the presidency. What is becoming a more closely contested race for the presidency than in the past.

Electoral, security and judicial institutions whose impartiality, independence and non-partisanship we have little faith in. Unemployed young men who’ve learnt to make hay while the sun shines by acting as political mobilisers on the ground. And a politically polarised electorate, whose vitriol expresses itself in xenophobic ways.

But as any statistician will tell us: Correlation is not causation. Not a single one of these conditions, on their own or in combination, magically combine and combust into full-scale electoral violence. They are all — on their own and together — entirely manageable.

What tips the scale? From our own experience, we know it’s the following:

First, perceptions of hanky-panky by the electoral management body — not so much before polling or even during polling itself, but during the counting and tallying of results at the presidential level. Then there is the Electoral Management Board’s shady procurement, unsatisfactory answers to questions about voter registration figures, equipment failures and so on and so forth.

And we explode. Taking our cue, of course, from the aggrieved (presidential) candidate and his political formation. This is the second thing that tips the scale — and in this election is particularly worrying because, unlike 2013, we are not sure an aggrieved presidential candidate will turn to the Supreme Court given its not-credible performance in 2013.

Nobody has a clear plan B except tried and tested mass mobilisation. Except that we are not very good at peaceful mass mobilisation and non-violent resistance. Economic sabotage (like blocking the port) and public demonstrations and protests are one thing.

But people going ballistic, breaking into home and stores, carting off other people’s stuff and causing damage to one another is an entirely different thing. And then the third thing that tips the scale: The response of the security services. Let us not forget that the majority of deaths in 2007-8 were caused by the security services.

Who went completely amok in low-income, opposition areas. Our security services are completely appalling at policing impartially and independently and in the public interest. And they are equally appalling at effective crowd control—why de-escalate and persuade when brute force is so much easier?

The point being that exhortations for us to all to behave will not do the trick. What will do the trick is the following:

Not interfering with the counting and tallying process. The High Court decision that results at the constituency level are final is a good one. Let the media broadcast them live. Let those doing parallel vote tallies publicly release their findings. Both will provide checks on what the EMB tells us are the results. And increase our confidence that the EMB is not playing around.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is Amnesty International’s regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes