The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Bitter Memories Create Fears Ahead of March Polls

analysis

As Kenya heads towards its first general election under a new constitution in March, many who suffered during the bloodshed that followed the last polls in 2007 have not registered to vote.

For thousands of people still living in displacement camps in Rift Valley, the prospect of voting on March 4 evokes bitter memories. Many fear that the violence of five years ago could be repeated.

Others feel disenfranchised by a lack of support from the government over the last five years, and have lost faith in the political process. The violence that followed a contested presidential election in December 2007 left more than 1,100 people dead and caused approximately 600,000 others to be uprooted from their homes.

More than 10,000 people remain in displacement camps, too afraid to return to villages where relations between ethnic communities remain difficult.

Rift Valley province was the area worst affected by the 2007-08 poll violence. Only 65 per cent of eligible voters in the province had registered by the time the process ended on December 18.

Figures from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission indicate that areas of the region's Uasin Gishu county recorded the lowest voter registration figures. In Burnt Forest, less than half the anticipated 40,000 registered.

Jane Waithera has lived in the Naka camp near Eldoret for the last four years, and is among thousands who have pleaded with the government to resettle them in new homes and provide better education, healthcare and other basic services.

She decided not to register to vote in the March 4 polls. "The last elections put me in this desperate situation," she told IWPR. "I surely do not know what to do."

Others are dissatisfied with the government's efforts to make amends for the chaos that unfolded five years ago. While the International Criminal Court in The Hague has charged four senior figures for orchestrating the violence which erupted along ethnic lines, no one has been prosecuted inside Kenya.

Kenya's parliament twice rejected efforts to set up a special tribunal, and recent efforts by the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute alleged perpetrators have revealed a dearth of evidence, which means that thousands of possible suspects are unlikely to face justice.

The lack of prosecutions and the failure to resettle displaced people has led some to turn their back on elections altogether, while for others, taking part will serve as a stark reminder of their suffering.

"I was shot by the police and had one of my legs amputated during the [violence]," Daisy Jepkosgey, a 36-year-old woman from the village of Maili Nne on the outskirts of Eldoret, told IWPR.

"My family broke up because of my situation and the government has never bothered to help me in any way. It's difficult and [brings back] bad memories to think of another election."

Eldoret was hit by election violence in 2002 as well as 2007. Jepkosgey is afraid that things will be no different in March. "I do not see any guarantee that it will be safe for me to go and vote again," she said. "I have suffered, and justice has not been forthcoming at all. I have registered as a voter but I have so many fears."

The IEBC and President Kibaki urged Kenyans to turn out in large numbers to register as voters during the month-long process. But according to civil society groups working in the Rift Valley, victims and others had real concerns.

"Many people we have talked to say they fear that violence may reoccur during the elections and thus they do not feel it is safe to register and then go ahead to vote," said Ken Wafula, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Eldoret.

With just over two months until the elections, Kenya has already witnessed worrying levels of violence. In November, more than 40 police officers were killed as they pursued cattle rustlers in Baragoi in the Rift Valley.

The same month, a crackdown by Kenyan forces following the shooting of three soldiers in the north-eastern town of Garissa left 50 people injured and several businesses destroyed when the town's market was set on fire.

Simon Ngetich of the People's Security Initiative said the government's failure to address the plight of all displaced people means they fear for the worst. Many could even be forced to relocate again, to avoid volatile areas during the vote.

"To many of the victims, voting is [the] same as endangering one's life," Ngetich said. "They weigh the risks of participating in elections, and I think many of the victims will abstain."

Many of those still displaced have been further discouraged by a new policy which will see power devolved to district-level local government.

"The victims fear that their concerns may not be tackled well through the county governments," Ngetich said. "Even if they vote in another national government, it may not keenly focus on the resettlement [process]."

Meanwhile, unfinished reforms to several institutions, most notably the police, are another cause for concern ahead of the March elections. Wafula said this was "causing fear" among past victims as well as other Kenyans.

A four-point plan laid down by international mediators led by former United Nations Secretary-General Koffi Annan also remains incomplete.

After the last election, Annan outlined steps that should be taken to secure long-term peace, including building cohesion and addressing regional economic imbalances, impunity and accountability.

The Catholic Church is among the institutions working to restore victims' livelihoods in the Rift Valley. Bishop Cornelius Korir of the Eldoret Diocese said that while the government and other groups had made great strides in addressing some of the concerns, resettlement of the remaining displaced families and rising security problems needed to be dealt with promptly in order to build confidence ahead of the vote.

"It's difficult to ask people who are still in camps because of the last elections to go and vote again. Their situation is precarious. What assurance do they have that it will be safe for them to vote again?" Bishop Korir asked.

The IEBC has noted valid concerns about security surrounding the elections. But IEBC Commissioner Abdullahi Sharawe said the body was working with the police and other institutions to ensure the polls would be conducted in a safe environment. Before the registration process ended, he urged Kenyans not to hold back from voting.

"By voting for leaders of their choice, they can also help to determine their own future and the destiny of the country," Sharawe said. "It's our collective responsibility to ensure the polls will be free and fair. We will achieve that by turning out to vote in a secure environment free of violence or even threats."

The ministry of Special Programmes, which is tasked with resettling and providing compensation for victims of the 2008-08 violence, had also sought to allay peoples' fears ahead of the December 18 deadline.

Minister Esther Murugi said her office hoped to finish the resettlement process before the polls. She said the problems facing victims of past violence were actually good reason to go out and vote.

"The victims should not have fears to cause them not to vote," Murugi said. "They need leaders and a government to deal with their concerns even after the polls. Let them prepare to vote and be assured of their security, because as a country we are not ready to go through another cycle of violence just because of polls."

Murugi said "peace and security committees" set up at community level in every district would help keep the peace during the election period.

The regional police commander for the Rift Valley, John M'mbijiwe, also urged people to vote. He said new police stations had been opened and more officers have been posted to the area to boost security.

"We will ensure they [vote] in a very safe environment," he said. But Ngetich remains sceptical. He says "mere promises" from government officials are no guarantee of security.

Some of those who witnessed violence in the past are similarly unconvinced. John Muriuki, who lives in Kiambaa in Burnt Forest, said the government had reneged on a number of promises made over the last four years, so he doubted that the IEBC and the government were really committed to ensuring an election free from violence.

"We have many fears considering what we went through," Muriuki said. "We pray for a credible and peaceful election next year because it will give us hope and erase the bad memories of violence."

Mathews Ndanyi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Eldoret

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