Let us all stand by Kenya as she holds elections By RAPHAEL OBONYO | Wednesday, February 13  2013 at  13:34

A woman is robbed in a Nairobi slum during Kenya's post-election riots in January 2008. PHOTO | FILE 

On March 4, 2013, Kenya, a once peaceful country in troubled East Africa, will hold elections. In the last elections, held in December 2007, the country plunged into chaos following disputed presidential results. It was the international community, along with Kofi Annan’s mediation team from the African Union, that stopped the violence.

But the impact of the violence was dire. More than 1,300 people were killed and 650,000 people forced out of their homes. Terrorist groups particularly from Somalia took advantage of the general lawlessness in the country to set up cells. Kenya has since suffered a series of grenade and bomb attacks.

Political violence in the coming elections could cause instability in Kenya and the whole region. If that happens, terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab will reign. It is worth noting that Kenya borders Somalia, considered a safe haven for Al Qaeda-linked terrorists.

It is a simple truth that the world is interconnected. Effects of events in Kenya could be felt in other parts of the world.

Kenya is an important partner in the war against terrorism. The country has also played a defining role in negotiating peace deals in neighbouring countries, including Sudan and Somalia.

But the coming elections could roll back the gains made in the region, particularly in the war against terrorism.

The political tension in the country has caused uncertainty and fear as opponents engage in divisive political campaigns across the country. There are two leading coalitions that are poised to contest in the elections.

On one side is Uhuru Kenyatta, leading the Jubilee Coalition. Mr Kenyatta is among four Kenyans facing criminal charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged involvement in the 2007 post-election violence. His trial will commence in April 2013.

On the other side is Raila Odinga of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (Cord). Mr Odinga is the Prime Minister of Kenya. He will be making a run at the Presidency for the third time. He was one of the protagonists in the disputed presidential elections of 2007, and he is determined to win this year.

Credibility

Elections in many African countries cause ethnic tension and tribal conflict. In many cases, election contestations lead to violence. Electoral violence in Africa is most often attributed to electoral malfeasance, weak institutions, disregard for the rule of law and political incitement.

This year alone, twenty-one countries in the continent are scheduled to hold elections. Some of the other countries on the list include Mali, Madagascar, Somalia, Libya, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. Looking at the violence that characterises elections on the continent, it is justified to feel anxious.

But there is a glimmer of hope. In 2012, Ghana, the fastest growing economy in Africa, held peaceful elections that received international endorsement.

Established democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom must help other countries in Africa follow in the footsteps of Ghana. The international community must support Kenya in holding free, fair and peaceful elections.

First, the international community must maintain neutrality and refrain from explicitly taking sides.

The message from President Barack Obama about the United States's official position is quite encouraging. In a televised message, he pledged to support Kenya in its efforts to hold credible elections.

Although non-interference with the local affairs of any country is crucial, countries have a responsibility to protect citizens and ensure that human rights and the rule of law are upheld. It is only then that they will claim true sovereignty.

As such, the international community and the African Union must put pressure on the government of Kenya and its political parties to ensure that the elections are free, fair and peaceful.

Support for institutions conducting elections is also crucial. The Electoral body, the police and the Judiciary are expected to need support to successfully discharge their mandate.

Engagement with civil society is critical. The political progress registered in Kenya is attributed in part to a resilient civil society. Without the remarkable work of civil society in Kenya, the gains that Kenya has made would not have been achieved.

Most importantly, the focus should be on the Kenyan youth. Roughly 36 per cent of Kenya’s population are between the ages of 18 and 35. Young people hope to speak through their votes. They want peace and stability. If we cannot ensure credible elections, we shall have failed the youth who care about Kenya’s future.

Raphael Obonyo is External Advisor, United Nations Habitat's Youth Advisory Board. Email: raphojuma@hotmail.com