Poll warning signs that we should heed

Kenya’s elections attract huge interest not just in the country but beyond the borders. FILE PHOTO | JEFFF ANGOTE
Kenya’s elections attract huge interest not just in the country but beyond the borders. FILE PHOTO | JEFFF ANGOTE  

The European Union Observer Mission for the 2017 General Election is reported to have warned that Kenya stares at the possibility of violence during the August 8 polls.

It is easy to dismiss this statement as alarmist. After all, Kenyans went through a traumatising experience just ten years ago.

That experience is still etched in our memories. Surely, they cannot be gravitating towards a similar experience? They must be much wiser than that? But, in reality, are we? Do the EU observers have a point?

Events over the past two months, provide pointers as to whether the elections may result in violence or not. While the election campaigns have largely been peaceful, the amount of rhetoric, negative propaganda and ethnic intolerance are on the rise. Social media discussions have been vicious.

There has been the ongoing contestation about whether what Kenyans need is a peaceful election or one that is free and fair. This debate traces its genesis to the 2013 elections.

Since Kenyans had experienced the dangers of violence associated with elections, there were active campaigns to avoid a recurrence of the 2007 flare ups.

As a result, peace campaigns and messages dominated the period leading to the 2013 elections.

When the elections were over, while there was contestation about the results, those disagreements were settled through judicial mechanisms. Peace largely prevailed.

In the wake of the results of the 2013 elections, debate arose as to whether over-focus on peace compromised credibility. This is the reason Kenyans argue whether they prefer a peaceful or a credible election.

This argument takes place in spite of the constitutional dictate that violence compromises free and fair elections and secondly elections that are not credible invites violence.

Kenya’s elections attract huge interest not just in the country but beyond the borders.

I was in Uganda last week for a meeting of the East African Community. It was interesting to hear colleagues from other countries discuss the Kenyan elections, complete with the slogan for the different political formations as if they were Kenyans.

Kenya is not the only country within the region that is holding elections soon. Yet the sole election-related discussion was about Kenya.

The National Cohesion and Integration Commission has kept alive discussions on the need to ensure that political campaigns do not result in hate speech and incitement to violence.

They have been a permanent feature in our national discourse in the last year or so.

In this last month to elections, they must heighten their engagement. Their county monitors have to ensure rallies and campaign activities are monitored so as to avoid inflammatory statements.

In addition, much more has to be done in monitoring social media. There are a lot of reckless communication in the social media space. Several of these are spread from parody accounts making the process of holding people accountable to them difficult. Add onto this the emergence of fake news and the complexity becomes enhanced.

As we deal with social media, though, we must ensure we still respect the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

Election time provides perfect excuse for public agencies to curtail citizens’ freedom of speech under the guise of dealing with inflammatory speech. This approach can only have the effect of increasing and not preventing possibility of violence.

In any case what is the value of pursuing peace through violation of the rights of citizens?

Campaigns have to be robust and passionate. In the process though, moderation is necessary. Every player in the electoral process must consider that their friend, colleague, neighbor or fellow citizen may not share their political persuasion.

That is the essence of multiparty democracy. As one passionately supports their candidate, do not despise your opponent. The nature of elections is that you may actually end up finding them the winner on election day and consequently your leader. This is what a truly fair and democratic election should guarantee.

Watching the recent events on the campaign trail one sees a high level of recklessness. It behoves us all to realise that this is dangerous and can lead the country to a 2007/8 situation. We have to avoid such an eventuality.

A starting point is to avoid the false dichotomy between a peaceful and credible election.

Kenyan needs and deserves both.