New Internationalist

KENYA VOTES: Peaceniks use mobiles to cool election tempers

Moses Omondi holds a megaphone on a peace demonstration in Kibera
Moses Omondi leads a peace demonstration in Kibera. Moses Wasamu

A lot has happened since 2007, when Kenya last held a presidential election. The violent aftermath, which left more than 1,300 people dead and over 600,000 displaced, has taught our citizens vital lessons which they are now using to avoid such unrest happening again.

On 4 March 2013, Kenyans will cast their votes for president, among six other elective positions. They have eight presidential candidates to choose from in a race that will be closely fought.

Election expert and consultant on conflict analysis Dr Makodingo Washington says that there is a greater threat of violence now, compared to before the 2007 election. Human Rights Watch has reported that some communities have armed themselves with guns in readiness to defend themselves. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) says it has identified potential hot spots and is asking citizens to exercise restraint.

Caught in the centre of the row in 2007 and 2008 were young people, many of whom were the perpetrators of the violence. In response, many youth-centred groups and initiatives have been formed to campaign for peace in the country.

Recognizing the potential of SMS technology to spread violence quickly and efficiently, some local groups now want to use the power of mobile phones to support peace efforts in a more effective and efficient way.

Leading communications service provider Safaricom, in partnership with Sisi Ni Amani-Kenya (SNA-K) (We are Peace-Kenya), a community-based organization, has launched a unique short text message-based project. The company has donated 50 million free SMSs (text messages) for the purpose of sending messages during the campaign and election period, aimed at preventing, reducing and stopping election-related violence.

A woman holds a banner calling for peace
A woman holds a banner which reads: 'Peace is Justice, Justice is Peace' Moses Wasamu

Other partners in the initiative include the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), NCIC and the Kenya Police Service (KPS).

According to Sisi Ni Amani founder Rachel Brown, at the height of the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007-08, peace actors made many attempts to bring calm to events, but they were hampered by a lack of proper communications tools.

‘This initiative therefore aims to bridge that gap and promote the usage of the mobile phone as a gateway to promoting peace and participatory elections,’ she said at the launch of the campaign in Nairobi.

Brown added that in addition to sending messages for peace and civic education, SNA-K also advertises local peace events through the platform for free in order to increase participation in peace activities. They currently have over 50,000 subscribers in the 14 target areas and hope that between now and the election, they will increase the number and cover a much broader portion of the country.

The Kenyan election has drawn interest from both local and international players. UWIANO, which means ‘cohesion’ in Swahili, is another peace initiative which brings together local peace groups and the United Nations Development Programme. It is running media campaigns to sensitize citizens to the need of maintaining peace during and after the elections.

In Kibera, one of the most volatile slums in Nairobi, Moses Omondi, a community mobilizer and peace campaigner, goes around shouting on a megaphone, calling for peaceful campaigns and elections. Recently, he had to move around the slum at night urging residents to calm down, after skirmishes broke out over party nomination results. He is a member of the district peace committee in the area. Speaking about peace is not just hot air to him. His grassroots peace efforts enabled him to participate in the London School of Economics Equipping Emerging Young African Leaders programme last year in Britain.

‘Tuvuke Initiative’ (Let us Cross Over), is a consortium of 17 groups, funded by the Ford Foundation, that work to forestall any violence during and after the elections, and gives Kenyans skills and information to help them work for peace and justice. It targets young people, who are most vulnerable to manipulation by politicians.

Another similar initiative, ‘Mkenya Daima’ (Kenyan Forever) is being spearheaded by players in the private sector. The initiative preaches the message ‘we are all Kenyans first and should by no means allow anyone to plant seeds of discord amongst our people’. The private sector bore the brunt of the 2007 post-election violence, during which millions of properties and livelihoods were destroyed. They don’t want to be found sleeping this time round!

Brown’s message to Kenyans is to remember their identity as one Kenya, ‘so that we can work together to have a peaceful election and move towards development. We also urge individuals to interact carefully with information and not to make assumptions, always to ask and use dialogue and peaceful procedures for conflict resolution.’

Join us for our live blog ‘Kenya Votes’, during the presidential polls on 4 March 2013. We will be working with Radar and citizen journalists reporting on events from all over the country, via SMS.

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