Reflection on the Kenyan Context

January 20, 2012

Happy 2012 from Sisi ni Amani – Kenya! We have some exciting updates on our programming this year, so please stay tuned for a blog post on our plans for the year.

One of the most exciting components of the new year is our collaboration with PeaceTxt.  As SNA-K launches this international collaboration, we wanted to take the time to reflect on the importance of this initiative in the Kenyan context.

In 2007, Kenya held a disputed presidential election, which resulted in widespread protests followed by violence throughout the country. The violence pitted ethnic communities against one another, and led to over 1,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the country.  While Kenyan elections have historically been marred by violence, the 2002 elections (which brought democracy after many years of dictatorship) were peaceful, and the 2007 elections led to months of violence and displacement at a larger scale than ever before. The damage and distrust created by the 2007-2008 post election violence has yet to be healed in many Kenyan communities. 

Within the next year and a half, Kenya will hold its next general election, the biggest election ever to be held in sub-Saharan Africa (the election date is yet to be definitively confirmed). The election is the first to take place under the country’s new Constitution, which was ratified by a peaceful referendum in August, 2010. While the Constitution and the approaching elections hold promise for increased checks and balances and opportunities for civic engagement, the election carries with it a risk of future violence.

The Constitution changes the structure of the country’s government and internal boundaries, creating a system of counties and changing the borders of constituencies. This has caused some tension over how boundaries will be divided. The Constitution also changes electoral positions, and many individuals at the grassroots do not understand how the new structure of government will work, or even which positions they will be voting for.

Additional factors add to the potential for tensions and violence. Six alleged suspects of the post-election violence, two of whom are expected to run for the presidency in the next Presidential Election and are the main political leaders representing two major ethnic communities in Kenya, have been indicted by the International Criminal Court, and had initial hearings to judge if their cases will proceed to trial. The response of Kenyan politicians and the suspects themselves has created tensions between political parties.

The country still has high numbers of internally displaced persons who have yet to be resettled after the 2007-2008 post-election violence. The resettlement of IDPs is a contentious issue, as many continue to suffer in camps and resettlement plans threaten to inflame existing land conflicts between ethnic communities.

Despite resistance to ICC trials, the Kenyan justice system has been criticized for a lack of will and ability to try local cases of violence adequately. International leaders recently warned that the next elections will be “make or break” for Kenya at a conference in Nairobi.

Finally, it is important to note that tensions continued after the 2007-2008 violence stopped. In late 2009, BBC reported on an “ethnic arms race” in which communities were re-arming in preparation for the 2012 elections in the volatile Rift Valley. This means that many communities within the Rift Valley rearmed and still possess the weapons that they armed with.

SNA-K was founded in response to the events of 2007-2008, and the potential for future violence and the use of mobile technology to create a foundation for, plan, and help spread the post-election violence. During the 2007-2008 violence, mobile phones – specifically SMS – were used to spread rumors and fear and to organize weapons distribution and attacks. Violent actors were extremely effective at using these widely proliferated technologies, while peace actors were neither well prepared nor able to leverage these technologies to the same effect.

Since July 2010, SNA-K has worked to understand and implement programming that utilizes mobile phones, and specifically SMS, to help build peace, collaboration, and conflict resilience in Kenyan communities. We have built a subscriber base of over 10,000 individuals in our target communities, and implemented civic education, civic engagement, and peace promotion programming.

As we move towards Kenya’s next election, we can’t think of a more exciting partnership than the one we have just launched with PeaceTXT – a unique collaborative project of PopTech, CeaseFire, Medic Mobile, Ushahidi, and the Praekelt Foundation. The partnership supports our work here in Kenya to reach more people and more communities, while CeaseFire’s proven approach and successful methodology will add a new level of training and expertise for our local teams.

Most of all, we are excited to help create best practices on the implementation of SMS-based programming for peace promotion and violence prevention, and to incorporate these lessons into PeaceTXT International’s model, enabling the work we are doing here in Kenya to inform efforts on a larger scale.