Warriors for Peace: Preventing Post-Election Violence in Kenya
In the wake of Kenya’s contested 2007 election, ethnic violence ripped through the country, killing over 1,000 and displacing as many as 600,000. Now Kenya is gripped by another disputed election, as the Supreme Court has annulled the recent Presidential election due to voting irregularities, with a new vote scheduled for October 17. And yet, while tensions remain high and some incidents of violence have occurred, it is nowhere near the levels seen in 2007. What has changed that has prolonged peace and stability in the intervening years? The answer lies on the ground, in places like the informal settlements of Nairobi, where citizens have been taking charge and leading the fight for peace.
Global Communities’ Kenya Tuna Uwezo (Kiswahili for “We Have the Power”) program, funded with support from USAID, is a great example of working directly with communities to help create the kind of citizens who are now playing such a vital role in promoting peace and stability. The program focused on the informal settlements of Nairobi, partnering with local NGOs to help reduce the inter-ethnic violence that helped drive the conflict in 2007. The informal settlements in and around Nairobi are especially fertile grounds for violence, with high rates of poverty, a cramped urban environment, and little opportunity, especially for youth. Many turn to crime, both to generate an income and due to social pressures. All of this leads to alienation, and makes people especially vulnerable to political manipulation and extremism, which can explode during contentious events like national elections.
To help address these circumstances, KTU worked with communities to create forums for dialogue and to air their grievances. At first these meetings were often conducted with separate groups to help individuals feel comfortable discussing the issues at hand. Key community leaders are identified and KTU would work with them to get a sense of what were the main drivers of conflict. Eventually these forums would expand to encompass all the various ethnic groups in the community, creating a space where everyone could voice their concerns, and most importantly, work collaboratively to help address issues in a peaceful manner.
At the same time, KTU was working to help give people a positive identity through a variety of trainings on leadership and employment. This work was coupled with civic education, including teaching residents about their rights and responsibilities under the new Constitution, and giving them a greater stake in governance and the political process.
The key to KTU’s success has been the so-called “cohesion champions,” volunteers from the community who work diligently to spread their message of peace. Often times former criminals or perpetrators of violence themselves, these young people both have an intuitive understanding of what drives violence, as well as clout with young people who are susceptible to following their path. It is always easier to hear the potential dangers associated with criminal activities from someone who has lived it as opposed to family members or police officers. These cohesion champions wouldn’t just speak to youth at forums, they utilize a variety of social media platforms, including WhatsApp and Facebook, to allow young people to interact with one another. This has the dual purpose of improving the ability of young people to get involved in their communities, lessening alienation, as well as intervening early if a crisis erupts or someone seems at risk for radicalization.
Over time, KTU even expanded its reach, working on inter-religious violence as well, and helping to combat radicalization among Kenya’s Somali population. The program had to adapt in these new environments, but on the whole the model remained the same: bring together disparate groups to engage in dialogue and air grievances, and identify and support cohesion champions who can help bring about peaceful change in their communities.
KTU ended in 2016, but the capacity built through the program, from the partner organizations to the cohesion champions, has remained in place. Even today, the youth involved continue their work to reduce inter-ethnic conflict and prevent radicalization. As the recent election neared, these people activated inside of their communities, bringing people from different ethnic groups together and helping ensure that the progress that has been made would not be undone by the election. So far they have largely succeeded, a testament to the devotion of the individuals who have been part of KTU and the sustainability of the program.
The second round of voting in October will no doubt prove another test for the resilience of Kenya’s democracy. But as KTU shows, when you empower communities to solve their problems, the democratic process can be strengthened and conflict can be avoided. As long as the cohesion champions and others committed to peace have anything to say about it, there won’t be a repeat of 2007 in Kenya.