Yes, Kenya’s Election Had Problems, But Here’s Why Things Are Better

Contributed by Hillary Omala, the Executive Director of CFK Africa

Fifteen years ago, more than 1,100 people lost their lives in the violence following Kenya’s 2007 elections. Every five years since then, the Kenya General Elections have occupied international headlines, and tensions have risen across the country as painful memories come flooding back. 

But the truth is, things have gotten better.  

While tensions rose during the recent election period, so did calls for peace. And even though this year’s results were contested, the arguments were resolved in our courtrooms rather than in our streets. 

When the election results were announced on August 15, the entire country seemed to hold its breath. There were pockets of protests and the smell of burned rubber as some lit fires in the streets, but by early evening, there was only calm. It was as if we made the collective decision as a country to change our mindset, move forward, and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. 

This change has happened incrementally over the years and while we still have a long way to go, it is important to recognize progress when we see it. Much of this cultural shift can be attributed to individuals and organizations that have campaigned for peace, promoted tolerance, and established strong community relationships over the last 15 years. 

NGOs Play an Essential Role in Driving Progress 

Though it may seem counterintuitive, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have helped shape the progress made in Kenya’s governmental elections since 2007. While NGOs do not have a political objective, they play critical roles in youth development, conflict resolution, partnership development, and peacebuilding. 

Many NGOs are headquartered in some of Kenya’s most challenging environments, such as informal settlements. Often located on the outskirts of major cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa, informal settlements are home to hundreds of thousands of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds who have moved closer to urban centers in search of opportunities. 

With political parties largely affiliated along ethnic and regional lines, these closely packed, multi-ethnic communities can give rise to conflict, as was the case following the 2007 elections. 

Within these communities, NGOs facilitate partnerships with local education, government, and school leaders, helping create networks that build trust and promote peace at multiple levels throughout the community.  These networks also include community-level clinics and health care services such as ambulances, which can more quickly organize emergency response.

Most importantly, these informal networks include people of all ethnic groups, helping ease tensions by creating interpersonal relationships and power structures that are not dependent on who holds power after an election.

Since the early 2000s, NGOs have also played lead roles in establishing and operating sports for development and peace programs that encourage young people to work together toward a common goal.  These initiatives impart an appreciation for diversity and tolerance at a young age and give youth the opportunity to experience firsthand how it feels to be part of a team. 

Players recognize that each team member has valuable skills and ideas to contribute, and these underlying principles continue to shape players’ mindsets as they grow older and move into leadership positions in business, politics, and civil society organizations, often referred to as CSOs, among others. 

Additionally, these teams provide safe spaces where youth can learn and ask questions about topics ranging from sexual and reproductive health to gender equity. Some NGOs even use the platform to teach youth how they can engage in peaceful advocacy efforts, encouraging them to exercise their rights and push for change in constructive ways.

Despite the Progress, There is Still Much Work to be Done 

Despite the progress made over the last 15 years, many of us still grow anxious during election periods. CFK Africa, the NGO I lead, has now experienced five elections, and we still don’t know exactly what to expect each time.  

During the post-election violence of 2007-2008, community volunteers protected CFK’s Tabitha Medical Clinic and offices in Kibera, one of the largest informal settlements in the country, allowing our staff to provide emergency response for victims in need. In advance of the recent election period, we prepared for potential supply chain disruptions, ensuring that our clinic and maternity home had enough critical drugs, such as antiretrovirals for HIV. We also guaranteed that our ambulance would be available to respond to emergencies even during any unrest. 

While the post-election environment this year has been relatively calm, CFK’s paramedic did respond to one emergency call on the day the election results were announced. A man was stabbed in the chest, reportedly after election results were announced, and needed emergency treatment and transportation to a hospital. Though we were able to evacuate him to a hospital, he did not survive.  

Even though this seemed to be an isolated case, his death is a grim reminder that, although progress has been made, much work remains to be done. The loss of one life is too many, and we must all continue to work toward promoting peace, championing diversity, and encouraging tolerance in our communities.

Hillary Omala is the Executive Director of CFK Africa, a registered NGO in Kenya working to improve public health and economic prosperity in informal settlements across the country.

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