Inside humanitarian efforts to prevent and respond to Kenya election violence

Heavy police presence in Kibera following the announcement of the results of the presidential election. Photo by: Sara Jerving / Devex

NAIROBI — The crackling of gunshots have rung through parts of Nairobi for the past few days, as sporadic battles between rioters and police erupted in places including the Kibera slum, amidst a backdrop of torched shops, charred tires, broken glass and the intermittent hum of police helicopters.

The slum erupted in protests late Friday night in the moments after Kenya’s electoral commission announced that President Uhuru Kenyatta won a second term in office. His opponent, Raila Odinga, is contesting the vote as a “sham,” despite international and national observation groups expressing their confidence in the process. Kibera is considered a stronghold for Odinga. The violence in Kibera was just one of a handful of outbursts in Nairobi and western Kenya after the announcement.

As quickly as the violence broke out, the humanitarian community in Kenya began to activate contingency plans a year in the making. The government, aid groups and civil society in Kenya have been planning for any sort of tensions that could escalate before and after the election, creating likely scenarios and contingency plans, and trying to fill in gaps in the last weeks. Aid groups have divided duties throughout the country so that different organizations and agencies can take the lead in different areas, hoping to increase efficiency and mitigate the damage. Parts of theses plans have been put into motion in some areas, including Nairobi and Kisumu, where violence erupted.

Postelection violence has claimed the lives of at least 24 people, as of Saturday night, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. By Saturday morning in Kibera, Kenyan Red Cross Society vehicles raced through the streets, mapping out the violence and needs so that they could respond to injuries, providing prehospital care and medical evacuations. The organization has handled 108 serious injuries, including gunshot wounds, across the country.

Médicins Sans Frontières provided ambulance service and took patients coming in for injuries, evacuating and treating another 64 that were injured on Saturday, the organization reported.

“We are getting ready in case of any scenario. We hope that it is going to smooth down, but it can also get worse, including in other parts of Kenya, like the central part,” said Yann Libessart, East Africa communications coordinator for MSF. “We are just getting ready for anything.”  

National plan

Kenya’s experience with postelection violence primed the humanitarian community for the risks this time. Violence in 2007 left over 1,000 dead and 600,000 displaced. There were also minor clashes and displacement after the 2013 election. The collective memory of this crisis, coupled with concerns that many of the underlying tensions that sparked the violence have not yet been resolved, prompted efforts to put a robust plan in place to mitigate violence in the lead-up to this year’s election.

Kenya’s Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government, through its National Disaster Operations Centre, spearheaded a National Elections Contingency plan over the past year. This plan involved Kenyan government ministries, United Nations agencies working in Kenya, NGO and civil society, among others.

Specifically, the coordinator of the Kenyan government’s National Steering Committee for Peace and Conflict Management led early warning and prevention planning efforts; the National Police Service led security and safety planning efforts; the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs-supported Kenya Humanitarian Partners Team led humanitarian planning efforts; and the Ministry of Health and Kenyatta National Hospital led mass casualty efforts.

The plan revolves around eight decentralized humanitarian hubs. Each is led by various agencies and organizations, and serve as centers for coordination, logistics, storage and distribution. This model was also used during the 2013 elections.

As the largest humanitarian organization in Kenya, KRCS was assigned as the operational lead in all eight of hubs. It also played a key role in responding to violence that followed the 2007 election violence, when it provided emergency services including WASH, camp management, protection, recovery and reconstruction. It is acting independently, but is working closely with the government on coordination and information sharing.

KRCS pre-election monitoring identified 18 counties as potential hotspots, but then closer to the election it was reduced to 8 counties. The Kenyan government, supported by the U.N., developed similar hotspots. KRCS is responsible for leading in disaster responses where up to 150,000 people are impacted, so it is currently taking the lead. If there is displacement, then the coordination aspect of the hub system will be activated, said James Mwawgi, operations manager for KRCS.

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Their work has been challenged by “fake news” since the violence erupted, where people are falsely reporting in certain areas that there is violence, without verification, said Secretary General Dr. Abbas Gullet in a press conference Monday.

The national hub plan has the capacity to handle localized displacement in the short term, but would need more resources if more serious tensions escalated, said Neil Turner, Kenya country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “The hub system works fine, theoretically, but it’s only as strong as the resources behind it.“

An estimated 180,000 security forces were also deployed across the country, tasked with maintaining “law and order and the protection of life even during the election period,” according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. This was part of the electoral commission’s Election Security Arrangement Project.

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights issued a statement on Saturday appealing to the inspector general of police and the attorney general and cabinet secretaries to “ask the officer in charge of operations to direct their officers stop the use of live ammunition against citizens.” The organization also reported on allegations of police forcefully entering homes, beating people up, threatening with rape and demanding money.

The Kenyan Red Cross Society responds to the outbreak of violence in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Photo by: Sara Jerving / Devex

Closing the gaps

There is a country director’s forum of international NGOs in Kenya. That forum made a subcommittee for election planning. In the final months before the election, agencies involved in that subcommittee aimed to get a better sense of how the election could unfold.

In July, ActionAid, Islamic Relief, Trócaire and World Vision International — members of the Start Network, an international network of NGOs — applied to use the network’s new Analysis for Action grant, to conduct an interagency context analysis focused on the election. The organizations leveraged financing from the Start Network’s Start Fund, which is the first multidonor pool of funding mechanism that allows NGOs to access funding in advance of a crisis.

The NGOs also used a tool created by World Vision International, called the Good Enough Context Analysis for Rapid Response, to determine which of the eight humanitarian hubs did not have enough resources. Gathering information from conversations with over 300 community members, in a two-week timespan, the organizations identified hotspots that weren’t adequately covered. The analysis found some gaps in coverage in the national plan, where certain regions of the country were under-resourced. The Start Network took this information and triggered an “anticipation alert,” which released about $390,000 for agencies for preparations that would mitigate harm and loss related to violence before and after the elections.

The Good Enough Context Analysis for Rapid Response produced three possible scenarios and triggers as possible outcomes for the 2017 elections.

Some of the likely triggers included the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission not delivering results transparently, said Bijay Kumar, executive director of ActionAid Kenya. Another included a supreme court ruling on the election results that would not be accepted by the losing party.

In anticipation of these scenarios and in attempts to prevent them, organizations, through the existing hub system, and with these funds, set up safe spaces in advance, prepositioned some supplies in areas deemed likely to be cut off, and worked with faith leaders to promote dialogue and peace, according to Sarah Klassen, crisis anticipation officer at the Start Network.

This plan focused on six of the 18 identified hotspot regions, linking them with 11 agencies. These areas were picked because of a lack of capacity, funding gaps in areas and a pre-existing NGO presence.

The chosen counties include Baringo, Garissa, Isiolo, Meru, Mandera, Marsabit, and Nakuru. The responsibility of responding to violence in these areas was divided by NGOs. This includes ACTED, ActionAid Kenya, Action Against Hunger, Concern Worldwide, Doctors of the World, Norwegian Refugee Council, Christian Aid, Dorcas Aid International, World Vision, Trócaire and Handicap International.

In Garissa county, for example, there were protests over the results of a governor race. ActionAid Kenya, which is the co-lead for the hub, activated a “soft response” by working with religious leaders in the area to promote peace, said Kumar.

The Norwegian Refugee Council expanded programming in an area where it already had a presence. The 2013 election saw interethnic violence and displacement in the Wajir and Mandera counties. Since then, NRC has been working with those who were displaced.

NRC is now the co-lead for the Mandera county hub, where it is prepared to provide services that include potential WASH and sanitation response, cash programing and work described around legal protection, information counseling and legal assistance. The most likely scenario in Mandera county is friction and fighting between some of the clans, leading to localized displacement, said Turner. The potential response is aimed at some 60,000 individuals. This plan has not yet been activated, but the organization is keeping an eye on developments.

The Start Network’s Start Fund plan is short term, with funds expiring at the beginning of September, but it is aimed at encouraging other donors to jump in if long-term funding is needed, said Klassen. She described the strategy of acting early as an important change of mindset for the humanitarian sector. The funding aims to mitigate harm and loss, including through targeted risk reduction and prepositioning of supplies based on an assessment of a forecasted risk. The Kenyan election is one of nine “anticipation alerts” that have been funded by the Start Network.

“We’ve seen kind of a shift in culture of NGOs who might wait until something really develops and escalates before they apply for funding and we see that their appetite for risk and to analyse the situation and act proactively is really increasing,” she told Devex. “From our perspective that’s really encouraging.”

Tensions moving forward

Despite the pockets of violence so far, overall, calm has prevailed. Humanitarians say that they are still concerned that further violence could erupt, based on the political process moving forward.

Observers have encouraged the opposition coalition, the National Super Alliance, or NASA, to pursue its objection to the results through legal means. After losing by a small margin in 2013, Odinga unsuccessfully challenged the election results at the supreme court, alleging vote-tampering. Many Kenyans have lost faith in the independence of the judicial system, however, making a legal challenge of the results a less appealing process, said Maurice Amollo, head of Mercy Corps’ Kenyan Election Violence Prevention program.

“Nobody believes that the court can do much, but even more importantly is that the politicians have been really attacking the judiciary, including demanding that some judges should not be part of the bench that will hear certain cases,” he said. “It’s a mess.”

Ali Noor, a resident of Kibera and former candidate for member of parliament, thinks tensions could persist through the swearing-in of the next president.

“I think it will depend on the party leadership for NASA, if they come out and say ‘guys let’s accept and move on,’ it will stop immediately. But if they say ‘we have to get people power out in the streets, we have to voice our contempt, our dissatisfaction with the announcements,’ then it could go for quite some time,” he said. “It depends completely on their next moves.”

Update, August 21, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify that the Start Network is funding nine “anticipation alerts" and that the Good Enough Context Analysis for Rapid Response produced three possible scenarios.

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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.