Kenyans are inundated with several peace initiatives launched in readiness for the elections. This is a good thing. As ethnic polarization increases, the question many Kenyans are asking is, beyond preaching peace, marathons, musical concerts and peace-themed beauty pageants what do we do? How do communities own their peace? What can we demand of our political leaders to ensure a conflict-free election?
The root cause of our ethnic problems is poverty across ethnic lines coupled with real or perceived inequality between ethnic groups that the political class is so wont to take advantage of to whip up ‘ethnic nationalism’.
Ethnic tensions are therefore a symptom of the problem not the cause. Despite the numerous efforts by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission that have included brokering several community social contracts to ensure inclusion, identifying opportunities in employment in public service for marginalized communities, sponsoring drama, music festivals, theatre, reviewing school curricula to ensure inclusion, ending of the education quota system, leading nationwide dialogues on ethnicity and drafting Africa’s first ethnic and race relations policy, among many other initiatives, it will take a considerable amount of time to get Kenyans to a situation in which cohesion is tangible.
In the circumstances, to secure peace at the community level, it is wise to work with the do-no-harm principle on the premise that in every conflict there are factors that separate people from each other – dividers and factors that bond people together -connectors. The experience of the 2007-08 violence means that for a peaceful pre and post-election period, Kenya must build a critical mass of connectors. There is still time to do so.
What are these connectors?
1. Leadership is always a key connector. Conflicts are not transformed by agreements alone; commitment to address ongoing problems through political will is needed. Presidential aspirants must lead by spelling out to Kenyans practical steps by their political parties in plans towards ensuring conflict prevention and dealing with the consequences of political violence, county by county.
2. Spaces that Kenyans meet in that are not defined by ethnicity must be utilized to ensure an ongoing conversation. These spaces include work places, parents’ teachers associations, chamas, agricultural and livestock meetings, neighborhood associations, churches, mosques, and temples. These spaces can also be used to build understanding between people with diverse perspectives.
3. Dialogue is a powerful connecting tool to build bridges that can begin a conversation resulting in the realization that the “other” is not an enemy but a human being with the same aspirations, needs and priorities for their families. Without communicating with each other, Kenyans will continue to demonize the “other” in their homes, at dining tables and fireside conversations instead of mapping out practical approaches towards preventing violence.
4. Civil society connects by cutting across all ethnic communities. There is an old and well-developed tradition of peaceful protest and non-violent direct action that channels conflict through peaceful processes. This is a powerful resource for civil society and wananchi expression as famously demonstrated by Mahatma Gandhi in ending colonial rule in India and Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement in the U.S.A. This form of protest needs to be maximized now towards political parties that do not have clear agendas towards conflict prevention and for a movement of connectors. Political parties that have not already done so need to formalize political inclusion through power sharing arrangements that ensure inclusion of minorities, both ethnic and religious.
5. Reconciliation is a connector and a powerful mechanism for dealing with conflict transformation and prevention. There exists a critical mass of Kenyans willing to reconcile. Religious and political leaders from all faiths must create momentum for societal reconciliation, despite the absence of justice. In Australia, thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly separated from their families and it was recommended that the nation hold a “Sorry Day” to acknowledge the wrongs done. The day was celebrated across the country with thousands of events opening the door to healing and acts of reconciliation from both sides. Religious and political leaders need to lead us on in a national “Sorry Day” at Uhuru Park and in churches, mosques and temples across the country.
6. Trust in the media connects across ethnic communities. The ability by the media to set a compelling agenda for conflict prevention will be a significant force in shaping political response to key structural problems that fuel ethnic differences. Positive visions and positive messages are crucial at this point.
7. All these are not possible without the key connector, which is respect for the rule of law.
(Nderitu is a commissioner at NCIC)