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This article participates on the following special index pages:

  • Unity governments - Kenya experience - Index of articles


  • Preventing violence - Lessons from the Kenyan Constitution Referendum - Peace Watch 8/2010
    Veritas
    August 13, 2010

    Background

    The constitution making process was started over eight years ago in Kenya, at the time of transition from a virtually one party state to a multiparty democracy. A proposed draft was put to a referendum in 2005. As many of the reform provisions of the draft had been watered down by politicians, it was rejected following widespread opposition and civil unrest. To end the crisis caused by political polarisation after the controversial results of the 2007 elections and the horrific violence which ensued, leaving well over a thousand dead and hundreds of thousands displaced as internal refugees, a Government of National Unity was set up in 2008. Part of the plan hammered out by Kofi Annan’s mediation team was a new constitution which would rally all Kenyans in the interest of national unity. A draft was drawn up, after wide consultation, by a committee of experts. It was adopted by Parliament on April 1st this year, gazetted on May 6th and put to voters in a referendum on August 4th.

    Fears of Renewed Violence during the Kenyan Constitution Referendum

    After its gazetting, those supporting the draft constitution - “the greens” - and those against it - “the reds” - waged nation-wide campaigns to mobilise supporters. As the date for the referendum drew closer there seemed good reason to fear that the violence after the 2007 elections might be repeated. In mid-June there was a bomb-blast at a rally held by opponents of the new constitution and the ensuing stampede left six dead and dozens wounded. There were also reports of hate-speech and threats. Various political leaders with followings from different ethnic groups were taking different positions. As early as March leaflets in some areas warned ethnic/political “outsiders” to leave the area before the referendum. In Tenderet, southern Kenya, leaflets dated July 5th warned the communities to prepare for war should the 'Yes' team win. Local vigilante groups, 'Home Boys', some of who were believed to have carried out the atrocities in the post-election violence in Nandi East and Tinderet, were thought to be operating again. Similar threats were issued to 'outsiders' in other areas. The chairman of Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission expressed concern that growing tension in some parts of the country would undermine the upcoming referendum and that there was documentary evidence of a threat of violence as campaigns continued. “We are seeing some very hot spots, particularly in the Rift Valley, and we are concerned about it.”

    The potential for serious outbreaks of violence was real. It was obvious that action was necessary to prevent that potential turning into ugly reality.

    Launch of Uwiano Peace Platform

    The Uwiano Platform for Peace was launched in Nairobi on 14th July as a partnership of:

    • The National Cohesion and Integration Commission [NCIC] [set up by the Government of National Unity to create harmony, tolerance and appreciation of Kenya’s ethnic diversity]
    • The National Steering Committee on Peace Building and Conflict Prevention [NSC] [set up by the Office of the President and comprising representatives from government, civil society, UNDP]
    • PeaceNet [a broad-based coalition of peace workers, largely at the grassroots level, who strive to foster peace in their local communities and in the nation at large].

    Uwiano [Kiswahili for cohesion] aimed to take proactive steps to prevent violence over the referendum. Speaker after speaker at the launch called on all people to be ambassadors for peace, wherever they were, and as responsible citizens to do their part in preventing violence in their neighbourhoods. As a joint initiative, Uwiano enjoyed the support of government, local civil society and churches as well as foreign donors, etc. Its basic strategy was to try and maintain peace by organising a system to get up-to-date information on tensions, hate speech, incitement, threats and violence throughout the country and to relay this information to organisations in the best position to undertake a rapid response.

    Uwiano Built on Existing Peace Campaigns and Interventions

    Because of a long history of sporadic violence in Kenya - over land settlement, between agriculturists and pastoralists, regional conflict based on unfair distribution of resources, political conflicts exacerbated by and in turn exacerbating ethnic and regional tensions - a number of organisations had set up peace building initiatives in Kenya. After the outbreak of violence following the 2007 elections there was a more concerted effort to respond to both the effects and causes of the violence and to prevent it happening again. As polarisation, tensions and threats of violence increased towards the referendum, it was decided to coordinate these activities.

    Early Warning System

    Uwiano engaged all Kenyan peace building structures to monitor potential violence and share early warning information so as to facilitate early intervention. Media clips - voice and video recordings, photographs, including of hate leaflets - and in particular SMS's were the main sources of information. Through close working ties with civil society organizations and district and community peace committees, UWIANO came up with focal point persons in every locality who would verify early warning alerts. The peace committees, civil society and members of provincial administrations lined up a series of meetings in specific “hot spots”.

    Use of Cell Phones to Report Problems

    A system was set up enabling individuals to use their mobile phones to relay text messages free of charge on all available networks to the Uwiano secretariat. Any Kenyan citizen was free to send text messages about the peace situation in any part of the country in order to guard the peace in their own neighbourhoods - what was happening, where it was happening, why it was happening, who was involved, and how serious the happenings were. For example - an SMS came in 3 days before the referendum day. It read as follows: “Good afternoon, we just received a message from Nyeri about a looming attack by the Mungiki [a politico-religious group banned as a violent criminal organization] on a vigilante group after they killed one of them yesterday. We have verified but have no mandate to call the police. Kindly follow up.” On receipt of this message, information was relayed to one of the UWIANO Platform for Peace principals for quick intervention. Within a matter of 25 minutes, details had been communicated to the District Commissioner in Nyeri Central and action was taken by the police, including arrests.

    Mapping and Responding to Alerts

    A team of data analysts at PeaceNet Kenya managed and responded to the information coming in through an SMS nerve centre. It verified to ensure that the information released was authentic, and analyzed information into peace, tension or violence categories. Reports were sent to all the networks and the media and relayed to the rapid response mechanisms - the District Peace Committees [DPC’s], police, media, CSO’s, the NCIC and the NSC.

    Media and Publicity Campaigns

    To enable as many Kenyans as possible to report incidents of violence or tension build-up, a media campaign with messages on national cohesion, how to report incidents, and best practices was rolled out in the print and electronic media. The watchwords ‘Chagua Kenya, Chagua Amani’ [Choose Kenya, Choose Peace] were broadcast and printed on T-shirts and on Electoral Commission materials.

    District Peace Committees Some of these existed through the peace building efforts of the last few years. In the build-up to voting day, more committees were set up in districts which had been identified as potential flashpoints through the Early Warning System. The peace committees were ready to serve as mediators to defuse conflict situations before they erupted into violence. They maintained close liaison with police and local government structures. The DPC’s played a key role in documenting peace building information around the referendum period.

    Peace Vigil

    UWIANO Platform for Peace held a Peace Vigil at Kenya International Conference Centre from 4.00 pm to 7.00 pm. on Tuesday August 3rd, the eve of the constitution referendum day, as a culmination of the peace campaigns and interventions they had been running across the country. The vigil theme was a peaceful referendum. It brought together District Peace Committees from the 9 districts of Nairobi, civil society organizations, community based organizations and government agencies involved in promoting peace. The vigil was preceded by a march from Uhuru Park led by a band from the Office of the President. At 6.59 pm a moment of peace was observed and televised on national television, and all Kenyans were encouraged to switch off the lights, light a candle and observe silence for one minute. Musician Achieng Abura led the entire country in singing the national anthem. The crowd that had gathered then joined in a rendition of the Bob Marley song “One People”.

    Results

    The referendum passed off peacefully despite the threats of violence. The Interim Independent Electoral Commission announced the final referendum tally as 66.9% “Yes” votes against 30.1% “No” votes. Voter turnout stood at 72.1 %. Election observers declared it free and fair. Despite the bruising referendum campaigns the leaders of the “No” campaign accepted defeat gracefully.

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