NGOs work to de-escalate and respond to Kenya election clashes

Low voter turnout at polling station in Kibera, Nairobi. Photo by Sara Jerving/Devex.

NAIROBI — Election workers at a polling station in Kibera slum in Nairobi sat idle Thursday, as only a few voters trickled in. At the same polling station two months ago, voters stood in line for hours waiting to cast their votes.

Amid a court-mandated rerun of the August vote, protesters in pockets of Nairobi and western Kenya clashed with security forces. Opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga withdrew from the race and called for demonstrations, leading many in the country to boycott the vote.

Thursday’s poll came after the election in August was declared void by the nation’s Supreme Court, after the court found that the results had been marred by irregularities and illegalities. The court gave the country 60 days to hold a rerun election, but in the weeks leading up to the election, Odinga as well as civil society leaders questioned the preparedness of the nation’s electoral body.

Kura Yangu Sauti Yangu, a coalition of civil society organizations, filed a petition to the Supreme Court on Tuesday in attempts to delay the election, but not enough judges were present to hear the case on Wednesday.

The election went ahead as planned, and the widely anticipated demonstrations by Odinga supporters were met by government security forces, who responded with tear gas and gunshots.

In response, the humanitarian sector began to activate some of the plans it had in place in the event of post-election violence. As the nation heads into unchartered political waters, civil society is concerned about whether its relationship with the government could deteriorate and how this might impact development efforts in the country.

Inside humanitarian efforts to prevent and respond to Kenya election violence

As quickly as violence broke out following the Kenyan election, the humanitarian community began to activate contingency plans a year in the making.

Responding to the clashes

The government, aid groups, and civil society in Kenya have been planning efforts to mitigate post-election violence, charting out likely scenarios and contingency plans. The country has been divided up among aid groups, with different organizations and agencies taking the lead in different areas.

For now, the Kenya Red Cross Society is leading the charge nationally, as it did in August, responding to the clashes between the government and demonstrators. The society is providing first aid and evacuating those that need more complex care to area hospitals. The KRCS is responsible for the disaster response up until 150,000 people are impacted. If that point is reached, other organizations will step in.

Alongside these efforts, Mercy Corps began activating its network of influential people in spots where there have been clashes, in an effort to de-escalate potential violence. The organization created a map of community influencers throughout the country, training them on proper intervention methods in the lead up to the election. The network is reporting outbreaks of violence by text message to Mercy Corps’ team in Nairobi.  

Live chat with Devex East Africa Correspondent Sara Jerving on Kenya’s re-run election and the role of civil society, via Facebook

On Thursday morning in Kisumu, located in western Kenya, the organization sent influential youth leaders to negotiate with agitated youth, encouraging them to stay home. The organization has also kept an open line of communication with police, encouraging them to hold off on responding to protesters with force. That delay could buy their network time to intervene, said Maurice Amollo, head of Mercy Corps’ Kenyan Election Violence Prevention program.

If a broader response is needed, other organizations plan to step in. For now, organizations are monitoring the situation, according to Amina Abdulla, Kenya country director for Concern Worldwide, which is the organization coordinating the response efforts for Nairobi.

Fate of civil society

Kenya stalls on improving relationship with civil society

Kenya passed a law four years ago to create a more enabling environment for civil society. But the law still has not been made operational, sowing confusion and incoherence in the registration system that facilitates crack downs.

The relationship between civil society and the Kenyan government has deteriorated in recent years and the events surrounding the election are raising concerns that they will deteriorate further.

The relationship was meant to improve under the the Public Benefits Organizations Act, which passed in 2013 and would streamline the regulatory process for civil society organizations.

But under current President Uhuru Kenyatta, the law has yet to go into effect. Civil society see the delay as motivated by efforts to silence voices of dissent and those who monitor human rights.  

If Kenyatta wins this election, civil society expects that the PBO Act will not be made operational during his new term, and there may even be further attempts to limit funding for civil society, said Suba Churchill, presiding convener of the CSO Reference Group, an umbrella network of local and international NGOs and civil society organizations operating in Kenya.

The CSO Reference Group has developed scenarios of what the elections could mean for how civil society operate in Kenya. Currently, civil society is bracing for the worst-case scenario where the relationship with the government worsens, said Churchill.

“If [Kenyatta’s party] would win, the next five years could be a period of targeted intimidations and harassment of civil society actors. The targeting will be focused on individuals, no longer just organizations. People will leave the civil society all together because of the risks involved,” he said.

“If [Kenyatta’s party] would win, the next five years could be a period of targeted intimidations and harassment of civil society actors. People will leave the civil society all together because of the risks involved.”

— Suba Churchill, presiding convener of the CSO Reference Group

Development implications

The election aftermath could also have implications for development programs in the country.

The government has made it difficult for NGOs to operate in Kenya, using tactics such as canceling registration or work permits, said Churchill. Nairobi currently serves as hub for many development organizations and agencies working in the region, but if the situation deteriorates, Kenya’s capital may be less attractive as a base, he said.

The political tensions are expected to continue, which could distract from the country’s other goals, said Amollo of Mercy Corps.

“The country is very divided, so a lot of effort will be required to unite the country,” he said. “We might see a lot of standoffs between the government and the opposition. In the short term, we are going to have a lot of politics and not much development in this country.”

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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.