NAIROBI — In the months leading up to Tuesday’s general election in Kenya, civil society organizations have been laying the groundwork to prevent the kind of violence that has erupted during elections past.
Amid concerns that tensions between communities could spill over into violence if the election outcome is not perceived as legitimate, organizations have been working in recent months to mitigate localized conflicts over issues such as resources, borders and land rights.
A key part of this strategy has involved reaching out to influential individuals in communities across Kenya to serve as violence mitigators.
Daniel Orozo is one of those individuals. In Kibera, one of Nairobi’s slums, the government recently gave land titles to one group of inhabitants, causing tensions over land tenure for other residents. With the help of Mercy Corps, Orozo — a Kibera native and founder of Lang’ata Youth Network — has been working to calm these tensions in the hope of transforming the bitter conversation between parties into understanding. As a trusted member of the community, he helped to organize three community forums at a local church to bring together people with opposing viewpoints to talk through their differences. The outcomes of the conversations were then broadcast over community radio. Heading into election day, Orozo is tasked with keeping a close eye on developments — ready to jump in and negotiate with parties where needed — and looping in Mercy Corps and the broader network of civil society, government and security representatives that has been established.
After a contested election in 2007, some 1,100 people were killed and 650,000 displaced. There are concerns that if the main presidential contenders — President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga — don’t accept the outcome, there could be violence again. The actions of local politicians could also play a role.
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Mercy Corps has spent the months leading up to the election combing the ground for influencers in five counties in Kenya which have been identified as potential hotspots. Funded by the U.S. Department of State, the program now has a network of around 2,000 individuals who will be able to report early to Mercy Corps’ dedicated hotline if they notice developments that could turn violent. These individuals may try to step in and negotiate with conflicting parties, and can involve the right stakeholders if tensions escalate.
Mercy Corps is just one organization involved in this work. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, ACT!, the International Republican Institute and Saferworld are all using similar tactics.
“When the messaging is coming from a source of authority, that is locally recognizable, it resonates differently with people. They follow these people because they know their track record, because they know they belong to those communities, because they know that a community has benefited from their work,” said Marija Marovic, resident program director for Kenya for IRI. “If there is a certain conflict, these people can talk to both sides of [it].”
Shekh Ismail Haji Komora has been a trusted religious leader and mediator in the Eastleigh community of Nairobi for about 15 years. IRI and the Kamukunji District Peace Committee, a group of local stakeholders, tapped into this, asking Komora to speak at a series of community forums. In his trusted role in this predominantly Muslim community, he was able to speak to locals about religion and violence.
As part of their broader strategy on conflict prevention ahead of the election, IRI held stakeholder meetings where it mapped out which individuals were best positioned to play a role in conflict prevention and information provision within each community.
Mercy Corps also mapped out networks of individuals in their hotspot zones through focus groups — identifying people with the capacity to rally people towards violence, and those with the capacity to steer them away from it. The “peacekeepers” have been trained on response strategies in the event of violence, and have developed scenarios based on potential outcomes of the election. They have also been brought into committees that include representatives of the police, the private sector, civil society, local government and others. The individuals are volunteers, but are provided with logistical support.
“Who are the right responders to deal with that particular situation?” asked Maurice Amollo, head of Mercy Corps’ Kenyan Election Violence Prevention program. “Is it that influential lady, in that particular area, who when she arrives, the youth will listen to her? Then we strongly link her with Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission so if she calls, they pick up her call. They know, this is our person.”
The tactic is used, in part, as a way to try to resolve problems before involving the police, which could escalate tensions. But it has its limitations.
“It will be as effective as the level of violent conflict. If it gets really bad, these individuals can’t put themselves in harm’s way — they can only do so much,” said Amollo. “There is a level where it reaches that we will leave the security services to deal with [it].”
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