Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission recently listed 23 counties that are considered potential violence hotspots ahead of the country’s August 2022 elections.
This mapping is part of the commission’s mission to ensure a peaceful election. Several of Kenya’s past polls have seen high levels of violence. The violence that broke out after the 2007 elections stands out in particular. It caused over a thousand fatalities and led to a national crisis. This was eventually resolved through a coalition government and constitutional reform.
Election-related violence in Kenya often takes the form of inter-communal violence. This involves groups – without formal organisation – clashing along identity lines. Violence between ethnic groups aligned with Kenya’s main political parties has erupted in connection to the 1992, 1997, 2008 and 2017 elections.
Existing research indicates that patronage politics, a history of violent conflict and high-stakes elections increase the risks of poll violence. These studies have mainly focused on national-level drivers of violence. My research has explored the causes of communal violence at a more local level. Much of my work has focused on Kenya.
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I highlight a few key drivers of communal conflict that could inform efforts to predict and prevent election violence in Kenya
Drivers of conflict
Communal violence erupts in connection with elections for different reasons. Firstly, some of it is directly election-related. For instance, politicians may instigate violence to frighten opponents. They may also use hate speech, which makes groups more hostile to each other and increases the risk of violence.
Secondly, violence may erupt due to local conflicts that aren’t directly election-related. The uncertainty and re-negotiation of power relations during the election period causes conflict to intensify. To understand local risks of violence, it’s therefore important to look at local-level conflict dynamics and what is at stake in the elections.
While analyses of past episodes of election violence in Kenya have often focused on national-level political actors, the current devolved system of governance matters for local violence risks.
The 2010 constitution allocates significant financial and political power to Kenya’s 47 counties. In part, devolution was aimed at decreasing the risks of large-scale election violence by diminishing the importance of national power.
However, it increased the importance of which political bloc wins at the county level. This has implications for who has access to local resources and patrimonial networks.
The fact that elections in Kenya often heighten inter-communal tensions has roots in political developments during and after colonial rule. Successive political leaders and aspirants have used group-based grievances to mobilise voters and, at times, violent militias.
Importantly, land tenure has remained closely connected to communal identity in Kenya. Land is important for livelihood but also for belonging. Narratives about ancestral land and first-comer status have often played a role in political mobilisation. For example, former President Daniel Moi threatened his constituents in the Rift Valley that they would lose access to their ancestral land if they voted for the opposition.
Regions where land conflicts are prominent – and politicians are mobilising based on these conflicts – are areas to watch for signs of violence. Such conflicts may be very localised, with relatively small geographic areas contested along group lines. If such conflicts are perceived as intertwined with election outcomes, the risk of election-related violence increases.
The risk of violence also depends on perceptions of vulnerability and state bias. If local communities don’t trust the government to impartially protect their interests and basic needs, they are more likely to support violence to ensure that political candidates who claim to represent them win. Research by others has shown how people who felt their ethnic community had long been neglected by the government turned to violence when they perceived ‘their’ candidate was robbed of victory in the 2007 election.
Conflict may also erupt in reaction to changed local boundaries. Redrawing boundaries or creating new constituencies can affect local election outcomes, and has been frequent in Kenya since the 1990s. Such shifts may change the balance of power and local election outcomes. This can spark a violent response in cases where inter-group tension is high. For example, in Mandera, the creation of new districts fuelled tensions that erupted into major inter-clan violence in 2005.
Finally, drivers of communal violence can differ between urban and rural areas. Cities have high density and mobilisation potential. They also have the starkest inequality between the rich and poor. These factors can be used to instigate violence.
After the 2007 elections, Nairobi and other cities saw high levels of violence, particularly in informal settlements. Kenya’s cohesion commission points to informal settlements as a risk factor for election violence. Not all informal settlements become violent, however.
Mobilisation strategies and connections between political aspirants and local violent gangs are important factors to consider when analysing which urban settlements are at risk. It’s also necessary to consider local violence prevention and conflict resolution strategies.
My research in Kerio Valley illustrates how mediation and dialogue can yield peaceful solutions to local conflicts. More generally, local dialogue can reduce tensions between communal groups and increase perceptions of security.
It’s, therefore, important to pay attention to local dialogue and prevention efforts when predicting local risks of violence. However, the mere presence of dialogue or agreement may not be sufficient.
Others have found that local peace agreements are more likely to be effective if they are facilitated by trusted and legitimate mediators. They also need to include clear implementation and enforcement stipulations.
Sometimes, communities agree on how to share local power after elections, for instance by nominating different county positions from different groups. A study from Nigeria found that such arrangements promote inter-group tolerance, reduce fears of exploitation and make politicians less likely to use divisive rhetoric.
In the Kenyan context, a comparison of two violence-affected areas indicated that the presence of such an arrangement in Nakuru County decreased hostility and confrontation during the gubernatorial race in 2017. Political discourse in Uasin Gishu, which had no such agreement, was more antagonistic and intimidating.
Risks in ‘mapping hotspots’
Kenya’s cohesion commission uses a 13-point risk matrix to identify areas at high risk of election violence. Many of the variables it uses resonate with existing research on communal violence. It is also encouraging that the commission pays attention to prevention strategies, as well as risk factors.
However, a note of caution. While the approach of mapping risk areas may help prevent violence – for instance by devoting more resources to certain counties – there are risks in this.
Research in Haiti has highlighted that the mapping of risk areas can have adverse effects on the local economy. In the worst case, it can become a self-reinforcing prophecy as it increases threat perceptions.
Given that antagonistic political rhetoric in Kenya has often played on communities’ fears of victimisation, this risk needs to be kept in mind.
Written for the conversation by Emma Elfversson
Emma is an associate professor, Uppsala University