How development organizations have navigated Kenya's election uncertainty

The Kenya Red Cross Society responds to violence in Nairobi following the August elections. Photo by: Sara Jerving / Devex

NAIROBI — Kenya’s Supreme Court this week upheld the reelection of President Uhuru Kenyatta, pushing the country toward another wave of heightened political tensions. In recent days, faceoffs between protesters and security forces have left at least five dead, just the latest in a series of violent clashes since August, when an initial election result was voided by the courts.  

The tensions have put development actors in a complex bind, trying to navigate whether this instability is a temporary flare up or simply the new normal. Some have placed projects on hold, while other initiatives have been delayed. Programs involving large community meetings were particularly vulnerable during the campaigning periods, as well as projects that involve registering people with their national identification card, as they could be misconstrued as political. Programs in areas that have seen sporadic violence, such as in the informal settlements of Nairobi and in Kisumu, located in Western Kenya, have been hit especially.

Development programs were initially de-prioritized in the lead up of the August elections, as politicians focused on campaigning rather than development. Many organizations closed shop during the initial August vote to keep staff safe, as well as during the October re-run election. As post-election violence flared up in pockets across the country, some initiatives were temporarily paused. While programs have largely gone back to normal in the majority of the country, in some of the hotspot areas, operations have been paralyzed.

Despite the returning calm, uncertainty still lingers. Two elections have now been held since August, with opposition candidate Raila Odinga boycotting the re-run in October. Even as the court affirmed Kenyatta’s victory, the opposition coalition has repurposed itself as a ‘national resistance movement’ that vows to “do everything we can to remove” the president.

“You can’t provide normal programming when there is a breakdown of law and order. Definitely not,” Dr. Ademola Olajide, United Nations Population Fund Representative to Kenya, told Devex. “You kick off into an emergency mode.”

Out of work

In August, Kenya largely shut down as the polls opened. Streets were barren and shops were closed. Development programming was also largely put on pause.  Everyone was holding their breath, hoping that a repeat of the violence that erupted after the 2007 election, where more than a thousand were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, wouldn’t happen again.

Violence of that magnitude did not materialize, but clashes between protesters and security forces in pockets of the country still left at least 37 dead in the wake of the first election. Tensions continued to mount in the days leading up to the nation’s re-run vote, as candidates traded accusations and senior officials from the electoral commission resigned. One even fled the country after receiving threats. 

When it came time for the October election, everything was once again put on hold and violence, again, followed.  

Plan International Kenya’s community-based field programming, for example, largely stopped for two weeks around the August election, and some of the field programming was closed for a week around the October election, said Juliet Ratemo-Okumu, communications manager for Plan International Kenya. The organization has used discretion to manage projects in hot spots; at times, Plan International Kenya has advised its staff to check in with its security team before entering areas where there could be tension.

“When it was not safe for the staff to move to the communities, because they might pass through demonstrations or maybe if they were planning an activity that might put people in large groups, and that could be misinterpreted, those types of activities were suspended,” said Patrick Ngenga, director of operations for Plan International Kenya.

In fact, the impact on development programming was felt long before August. Mercy Corps Kenya started to see political interference in its programing as early as December 2016, from local governments, and others, especially around its peace-building work, and things generally started to slow down in terms of productivity. This ramped up in the weeks leading up to the election, when it was difficult to find local governments to engage with on development priorities, said Lynn Renken, Mercy Corps country director in Kenya.

“Things became more political. Many local county governments were out electioneering. It was hard to get things done and tensions were high,” she said.

In addition, the medium-term plan for Kenya’s Vision 2030, which is the nation’s long-term development blueprint, was put on hold in the lead up to the election. This plan offers important guidelines for development actors’ policy documents, which must align with national strategic interests, said Olajide of UNFPA. Program managers could not make long-term program decisions because newly-elected officials could ultimately change national strategy.  

“Programs slowed and implementation also slowed,” he said. This resulted in delays of procurement of commodities and service delivery decisions.

Protecting staff

In September, a meeting of the Nyanza Women of Faith Network in the western city of Kisumu was stormed by a group of youth who accused the women of buying the national ID cards of locals, which are used in voter identification.  A standoff with the police and youth followed, with the police firing teargas and the youth throwing stones at police and attacking the women. The incident put other groups on edge, said Ngenga. Plan International Kenya asked staff to hold off on conducting community meetings in the Kisumu area, as a result.  

In Nairobi, one of Plan International Kenya’s workers was confronted in the informal settlement of Kibera, while registering community volunteers for an HIV program, which required asking to see national identity cards, said Ratemo-Okumu. The organization believes the confrontation occurred because the registrations was misinterpreted as being intended to influence the election. In response, Plan International Kenya suspended this type of registration in Kibera until after the second election. Similarly, a biometric system that encourages girls to stay in school in Kibera, and requires them to use their fingerprint each day to verify their attendance, was halted because it was a similar system to what the nation’s electoral commission uses.

Programming is only just getting back to “semi-normal operations,” but with caution, said Ngenga. The elections put the organization “in a bit of a crisis mode” because some of its operations are in the heart of where violence erupted, he said.

Plan International created a ‘security review team’ for the election, which meets regularly to review the operating environment, consulting with their staff on the ground, in order to make decisions on how the organization will operate, he said. For example, this week, on the day of the court ruling, the team met to make contingency plans based on likely outcomes of the decision.

They also created a ‘security tree,’ which organizes employees into groups. During election-related disruptions, a text message was sent to group leaders, who would then report back to say that everyone in their group was accounted for, he said.

Organizations and agencies have also been sending staff email and text message alerts warning them to avoid certain parts of towns, for example, if there is a planned political rally.

Tense spots

In Nairobi’s Mathare slum, which has seen bursts of violence for the past few months, development programming has largely come to a standstill in some areas, said Eric Nehemiah, co-founder of the The Mathare Foundation. The foundation provides classes in performing arts, photography and sports to youth. The soccer field that the foundation uses is in an area that is now no longer safe for children to play.

Whenever there is a political announcement and violence flares up, the youth don’t come into the foundation’s center, he said. The center was largely empty this week because of violence that lasted several days. Nehemiah has been going to children’s houses directly to bring them into the center.

“We are hoping there will be a political agreement because now things are not very good,” he said. “Our programs have been a bit paralyzed.”

Beyond the hotspot regions, such as at the county level, tensions have largely calmed, said Renken of Mercy Corps. Kenya adopted a new constitution in 2010, which created a new layer of government at the county level. In the 2013 election, 47 county governors and county assemblies were elected with new functions and funds.

Graffiti throughout Kibera slum in Nairobi discourages post-election violence. Photo by: Sara Jerving / Devex

Following the August election, new county governments were put in place and started to function properly. There was a sigh of relief, because the anticipated local violence around local, hotly contested elections didn’t materialize and the counties stabilized quickly, she said.

Mercy Corps has some youth employment programs in Nairobi, though, where progress has moved at a much slower pace surrounding the elections, she said.

“It depends on where you are in the country, also at what time,” she said. “People do seem to be tired of the electioneering and want to get back to work…. This is a different scenario in informal settlements in Nairobi and Kisumu, where it’s much more hot.”

As many organizations are moving forward with their work, they are keeping an eye on the political climate.

“We are watching the developments. We don’t know what will be said when the opposition makes their statement and what impact that will have in the strongholds. We are watching and responding depending on how things pan out,” said Ngenga.

Read more Devex coverage of the Kenyan election.

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About the author

  • Headshot sarajerving

    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.