The Elder Community
Growing up in Kenya’s beautiful rural areas, I was fascinated by the power of the elders, a group of old wise men sitting under a tree delivering judgment on matters concerning the community. Everyone respected the decisions they made. Curious children would sneak up the tree under which the elders sat and observe them mete out justice to adults in their communities. When I turned eight, my older brother gave me a unique present—only after warning me not to tell anyone. He took me up with him into the branches of a tree one day just before the elders sat under it. We eavesdropped on this and several occasions afterwards, hiding among the leaves during school holidays. Day in and day out, adults we knew appeared before the elders. We learned that Waigwa the cobbler was a wife beater, and that Baba Kim, the church elder, had taken away his brother’s land. Each elder had to make an individual decision on what to do with the wrongdoers. To vote in favor of a verdict, he would lay down his staff, hewn from the branches of the very tree we were hiding in. I grew up in a place where crime hardly existed, thanks to these elders. What fascinated me most, as I clung to a branch, were the discussions on peaceful coexistence that underlined each decision and the respect for the elder community. There were no women elders, however. Women appeared only to give evidence, like my grandmother, who unlike many of the elders could read. My brother told me sternly that there were no women elders because making peace was not women’s business. I wanted to be an elder, but I was a girl.
Electoral Violence in Kenya
When I left home for other, more turbulent parts of Kenya, I was constantly uneasy about the inability of Kenyans to peacefully coexist. Violence marred Kenya’s electoral process in 1992, when multiparty politics were reintroduced. The Rift Valley was particularly hit. At that time, studying at the University of Nairobi, I was very conscious of the changes taking place in the country and participated in demonstrations against state action. The violence recurred in the next election year, 1997. But election year 2002 witnessed the peaceful transition from an authoritarian president to the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government. Hope abounded. Kenyans were polled as the most optimistic people on earth.
However, tensions continued to simmer below the surface as the NARC government failed to deliver on the promise of a new constitution, as well as other promises, as fast as expected. Kenya had gotten away with the illusion of being a country at peace surrounded by countries that had experienced conflict—Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Kenya’s peace masked issues that successive governments had not been able to solve, resulting in ethnic animosities and differences between communities. These issues included forced alienation and appropriation of land by the colonial and postcolonial governments and the unequal distribution of resources. The country had become a nation of ethnic communities drawn apart by their differences and that saw little in common with each other.
Kenya was like a pressure cooker, and the lid blew off following the contested election results of 2007. The unprecedented violence in 2007 and 2008 shocked the world. More than 1,300 Kenyans were killed and 600,000 displaced. Kenya stood naked, her ethnic communities exposed for what they were: products of competitive electoral politics occasioned by the lack of requisite institutional reforms, exclusion, and unresolved intercommunal mistrust and tensions. The criminal justice agencies could not cope, and communities once again began, in the age-old tradition, to rely on elders.
Enter Kofi Annan
The violence brought Kofi Annan to Kenya. He led mediation efforts that resulted in the Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation (KNDR) Agreement, which prioritized the role of Kenyans themselves in preventing and resolving the consequences of violent conflict. Independent government institutions, named the Agenda Four Commissions after the KNDR fourth agenda, were created. These included the Commission of Inquiry into the Post Election Violence (CIPEV), the commission investigating the 2007 general elections; the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC); the Commission of Experts on Constitutional Review (CoE); the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC); the Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC); and the Interim Independent Boundaries Commission (IIBC). The only one of these bodies that was permanent was the NCIC, which was mandated to promote peaceful coexistence. Through a rigorous appointment process conducted by Parliament, I joined the NCIC as a commissioner, fully conscious that the privileged position could influence the course of Kenya’s history towards peace between ethnic communities.
The Agenda Four Commissions discharged their mandates, delivering a new constitution, among other far-reaching changes. Tangible reforms were visible in the judiciary and criminal justice agencies.
The Real Test: A Peaceful 2013 Election
The real test, everyone knew, was going to be a peaceful March 2013 election. Kenya had successfully brokered peace elsewhere, ushering in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. However, putting in place a peace infrastructure proved to be difficult. Criminal justice agencies were still struggling to book many low-level perpetrators of the 2007–08 postelection violence. Victims were living side by side with perpetrators in the same areas without any recourse to law. Peace in these circumstances meant ensuring that violence did not recur, even in the absence of justice. Community elders took up the peacekeeping role with zeal.
The country had been to the edge of the cliff and was afraid of what it had seen there.
Between 2008 and 2013, Kenyans mobilized extensively for peace. The country made every possible effort, with the NCIC at the forefront of government work. Faith-based organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the entire education system, and the private sector all preached peace. It was clear that the country had been to the edge of the cliff and was afraid of what it had seen there.
Uwiano Platform for Peace
One of the most effective platforms for peace was Uwiano—Kiswahili for cohesion—which brought together the NCIC, the United Nations Development Programme, the National Steering Committee on Conflict Management, the police, and PEACE-NET, a civil society network of more than 500 NGOs. Uwiano’s strength lay in its partnerships and in the fact that it had been tried and tested in the 2010 referendum that ushered in a new constitution.
Many Kenyans later said that they knew violence would break out in 2007-2008 but did not know whom to tell. Thus, in the buildup to the referendum in 2010, Uwiano stepped into the gap, allowing Kenyans to report threats of violence—in a strategy known as early warning and early response. Through an extensive media campaign, including text messaging and radio, any Kenyan who needed help could get it. When Kenyans faced the ballot box in the 2010 referendum, everyone expected mass violence, but Uwiano prevented it—a huge achievement considering the tensions that were still unresolved, despite the Agenda Four Commissions’ work, barely one-and-a-half years after the 2007–2008 electoral violence.
Leading up to the March 2013 election, Uwiano upped its game, strengthening its coordinated response to include humanitarian agencies. It also brought into its stable the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission and UN Women. Uwiano’s key strategies included deploying peace monitors throughout the country and running a free text-messaging platform to report tensions and incidents, as 90 percent of Kenyans have cell phones or know someone who does. Uwiano ran a twenty-four-hour desk, where text messages were received, analyzed, verified, and disseminated for urgent action. Some of the cases required radio messages directed at specific issues or locations; others needed mediation or security measures. A rapid response grant provided funds through the mobile phone system for intra- and interethnic meetings between elders, to ensure quick interventions to stop a conflict before it became violent. These meetings addressed previously undiscussed issues, such as ethnic differences. The elders at these meetings, already highly respected in their communities, also had been trained by Uwiano as inter- and intraethnic mediators to mediate any tensions at the local level. Uwiano insisted that women be included in the eldership.
Uwiano handled information that included hate speech leading to ethnic incitement, mobilizing of gangs and militia, and destruction of property. The organization received, at its peak, an average of 5,000 messages per day forestalling violent incidents and reducing tensions.
Peace Efforts Multiply
Thousands of peace efforts were launched by nontraditional actors, such as the private sector, ahead of the 2013 elections. Faith-based and civil society organizations dedicated considerable time. Energy was poured into long-term peace and cohesion efforts, such as peace education, nationwide drama and music festivals on cohesion, and NCIC’s curriculum reviews in educational institutions to ensure all ethnic communities were included. There was an amazing convergence of peacebuilders and human rights activists toward a peace agenda.
The peace equation was complicated by the International Criminal Court’s indictment of six Kenyans, two of whom have since been elected to office as president and deputy president. The peace process was, however, considerably boosted by the peace campaign political actors conducted. NCIC ensured that all presidential candidates signed on to the Kenya Kwanza (Kenya First) charter, pledging not to engage in or fund violence. NCIC brokered social contracts between conflicting communities, forming a team of Kenyan goodwill ambassadors with the gravitas to reach all Kenyans. One of the ambassadors set up a mediation team, the Concerned Citizens for Peace, consisting of a group of elders with direct access to all the presidential candidates. Working to support them, Uwiano shuttled with the elders between the candidates. I constantly felt like I was up in the tree with my brother again—again as a witness of the process, not a decision maker. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when two of the elders officially asked me to join them as an elder. The violence had created space for the previously unimaginable in Kenya: a woman at the elders’ peace table. In 2013 peace became everyone’s business in Kenya.
In 2013 peace became everyone’s business in Kenya
This Child, the Kenyan Peace
In future elections, a peace infrastructure such as Uwiano that is inclusive and links national to community structures and processes is crucial to preventing violence in Kenya. A meaningful convergence of peacebuilding and human rights actors is necessary for peace and justice. Including women and youth in elders’ decision-making processes is as essential as a collaboration of state and nonstate actors toward peaceful coexistence. Community social contracts that address real issues, such as sharing water sources and keeping peace during elections so that schools and markets remain open, will ensure a peace that can hold after elections. The elders under the tree, dispensing indigenous justice through traditional dispute resolution mechanisms, are as useful as is equipping community-level service providers, such as nurses and teachers, with skills on conflict transformation. As they dispense medicine and classroom knowledge, they too can work toward peace. Dialogue as well as penalties that target politicians, urging them to desist from hate speech and build on diversity rather than ethnic differences, are essential, as is constant messaging through all media about the peace dividends of a nonviolent election. The state must provide security and citizens in turn must observe the rule of law.
A Kiswahili proverb says that giving birth is not difficult; bringing up the child is. Kenya has given birth to a fragile peace. How can we sustain it? That is the task Kenyans must now work toward.