Kenyan Sports Stars Give Election Violence the Boot

A national campaign supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is using footballers and other sports stars, along with a range of other methods, to reduce the risk of violence in Kenya's upcoming elections.

Kenyan rugby sevens star Lavin Asego is focussing on a new challenge after last week's World Series tournament final against England.

This time his foe is not the menacing English rugby line-up. It is the spectre of potential electoral violence.

Asego is among dozens of Kenyan sports men and women who are lending their voice to a joint campaign by sports associations and the United Nations in Kenya; rallying voters to participate peacefully in the country's upcoming general elections on 4 March and beyond.

"I love rugby and I play better when Kenya is at peace," Asego says on a poster which is part of the Sports 4 Peaceful Elections campaign, launched late last month. James Situma from Harambee Stars, one of Kenya's premier football teams, echoes the sentiment on another poster: "Football is my passion and I excel when Kenya is at peace."

UNDP support to the campaign complements other longer-term measures to build peace. This follows Kenya's elections in 2007, which were marred by widespread violence and led to a political, economic and humanitarian crisis, during which up to 1,500 people were killed and over 200,000 were displaced.

Initiatives put in place through a UNDP-led programme to build peace helped make the subsequent 2010 referendum on the constitution relatively non-violent, but as the possibility of conflict hangs on horizon, UNDP is again stepping up efforts, in conjunction with the government and other partners, to ensure that upcoming polling does not cause a repeat of the 2007hostilities.

In addition to on-going peace building and conflict prevention activities since the violence of the 2007 election, and the Sports 4 Peaceful Elections campaign; in preparation for the March vote, UNDP has improved communications between a national situation room and 108 regional centres, which will enable police to respond faster to trouble.

UNDP training of police has beefed-up overall election security, and a national hotline now gives members of the public the opportunity to report potential violence. Before the 2010 referendum, UNDP helped establish a national conflict early warning system using the Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform to receive and react upon text messages from the public, which will continue to function during the March polls. Continued engagement and training with media has helped get journalists on-board with the anti-violence message and it is hoped, will encourage responsible reporting that does not incite violence. Over 1,000 volunteer mediators have now also been trained by UNDP to diffuse local disputes as they arise.

Online monitoring of "hate speech" will be central to UNDP's conflict prevention efforts. This includes the monitoring of social media. Monitoring work conducted so far with Google Kenya shows that there are currently over 770 reported incidences of dangerous speech related to the election per month that could possibly incite violence.

With Google Kenya support, dozens of Kenyan sports stars from a range of disciplines have agreed to host a series of Google+ Hangouts to sensitize Kenyans, including the diaspora, on the electoral processes, encourage responsible social media use in the run-up to elections and elicit a personal pledge to maintain peace.

"The plan is to entice politicians to publicly commit to peace," says Alfredo Teixeira, UNDP Kenya Deputy Country Director. "Hopefully we can even get them to express their readiness to accept election results and unconditionally concede defeat in the event that they lose, as well as appeal to their supporters to remain calm and utilize the judicial process if they wish to dispute election's outcomes. This will reduce the chances of post-electoral conflict and save lives."

"Competition is healthy and the sportsmanship that Kenya's athletes demonstrate on the field or track is an apt metaphor for the way people need to behave during an election," says Teixeira. "But behind the message appealing for calm, UNDP is also assuring that the critical ingredients that enabled a peaceful and successful 2010 referendum are still in place for 2013. This includes strong visibility and presence; an effective situation room with volunteers analyzing information about emerging violence and facilitating timely responses across the country; and active and empowered peace committees and local civil society partners strengthened and deployed in a timely manner to respond to any potential triggers of violence."

The Sports 4 Peaceful Elections initiative brings together the UN in Kenya, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, Google Kenya, the Kenya Premier League, the Kenya Football Federation, Athletics Kenya and the Kenya Rugby Union.

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