Kenya referendum: How groups came together to prevent violence

For Robert Kipkorir, sipping tea by the roadside while young men washed his pickup truck early one recent morning, the fact that this month’s highly charged Kenya referendum passed peacefully was no surprise.

“There was no reason to fight, because no one had been cheated, no one felt they were an enemy to anyone else,” the passionfruit farmer says.

He concedes that he opposed the country’s new Constitution – passed with 67 percent support in the Aug. 4 vote – but he has accepted the result because “we lost fair and square.”

There was a good deal of concern across Kenya, especially in Rift Valley towns like Iten, where Mr. Kipkorir lives, that the country’s first national vote since the disputed Dec. 27, 2007 election could spur the same type of ethnic violence that killed more than 1,300 people back then.

Some 63,000 police officers patrolled polling stations for this month’s historic vote, almost a third of them in the Rift Valley.

In late 2007 and early 2008, hundreds of people died as the majority Kalenjin tribe turned on people from other ethnic groups who had settled here.

But last Wednesday, polling was calm and ordered, and the result was met with enthusiasm nationwide.

So, what changed?

“We were all shocked by what happened after the last election,” says Rev. Maritim arap Rirei, a community services officer with the Anglican church in Eldoret, a large Rift Valley town 15 miles southwest of Iten. “Immediately, we began work. We gathered people from all communities [tribes], we called meetings of ordinary people, we focused on ways to show that only unity and peace will bring growth to Kenya.”

Rev. Rirei and his colleagues were far from alone.

‘Cows for peace’
Hundreds of organizations, funded with millions of dollars from within and outside Kenya, ran workshops in village squares, organised meetings in church halls, and arranged peace programming on local FM radio stations.

“We focused on allowing people to talk of their local frustrations, but tried to show that only by working together with all Kenyans can peace live in our country,” Rev. Rirei adds. “No community can be an island. An island cannot grow, you must interact with others to learn, to educate your children, to make things better.”

One program launched by his group, which is part funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as well as by German and Kenyan Christian organisations, was called Cows for Peace.

Under this program, participating families were given one cow each.

Each family cared for a cow and earned money by selling the cow’s milk – all on the promise that they would donate the cow’s first calf to a neighbor from another tribe.

“Sharing ownership of an asset, it’s something which teaches us so much,” Rev. Rirei says.

Fake fights in the slums?
In Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums on the fringes of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Kepha Ngito has been working with some of the most violent agitators who took money from political leaders to stir up trouble around the last elections.

These charismatic young men hold great sway over the volatile unemployed youth in the slums. Mr. Ngito’s aim has been to bring their influence to bear for peace, not violence.

Funded by the British Catholic charity, Cafod, his Youth Building Bridges for Peace in Kibera organization employs some novel tactics.

On occasion, a group of them have turned up on a packed slum street and launched into a fake fight.

A crowd would quickly form, and when it was big enough, Mr. Ngito would confess that this was in fact street theater, and then start throwing out questions about the scenario, about voting on the new Constitution, about its promises, to those who have gathered.

“The Constitution will bring fundamental changes in the lives of the people,” he says. “Even in terms of something as simple as hope – if people can believe this will bring change, sometimes it helps to keep people working hard and be more unified and peaceful in a way that we lack but need so much.”

From the evidence of the referendum vote, projects such as Mr. Ngito’s and Rev. Rirei’s appear to have started to heal the wounds of the post-election violence.

Group hugs? Not just yet.
Not so fast, warns Ken Wafula, head of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Eldoret.

“Let’s not cheat ourselves that since 2007 things have changed,” he says. “Reconciliation between tribes has not happened, apart from in some very, very small ways.”

The referendum was peaceful, Mr. Wafula says, because there was a heavy police presence at the polls, because hate speech by influential elders and leaders was stamped out, and because the world was watching.

Key players suspected of orchestrating the 2007-08 clashes fear that they are already in the sights of Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who has opened a case on Kenya.

“That critically influenced the peaceful nature and lack of ethnic violence,” of the referendum, Mr Wafula said.

For Elizabeth Cherotich Karanja, a member of the Kalenjin ethnic group who is married to a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group and is chair of her village “peace committee” near Iten, there has been little change.

“I have been attending peace seminars and workshops, organized by church organizations and NGOs, where we were being taught how to disseminate the seeds of peace in our conflict areas,” she says. “However, these have remained purely academic talk shops. The concept seems not to work in real life situations. The Kalenjin are simply not interested in reconciliation.”

The key test of Kenya’s supposed shift away from poll-linked violence will be the next election, slated for Dec. 2012. The political stakes then will be much higher than at last week’s referendum.

“Our work cannot stop simply because the vote [earlier this month] passed peacefully,” says Rev. Rirei. “Our greatest challenge – 2012 – is still before us.”

Additional reporting by Robert Oluoch in Iten, Kenya.

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