Lessons Learned from Kenya’s Election

Kenya’s general election wasn’t perfect -- but it was peaceful. Here’s why.


As investors bite their nails over the latest Eurozone crisis in Cyprus, a different type of investment is paying off handsomely: Kenya’s elections passed largely without violence. 

This success was not just good luck. Well-prepared Kenyan institutions, global non-profit organizations like Mercy Corps, and governments from around the globe collaborated to help peace win the day. This result not only prevented significant human suffering: It also bolstered a stalwart ally of the West in the struggle against terrorism (Kenya is currently battling al-Shabab extremists from neighboring Somalia who could have exploited any violence to their own advantage) and protected a rapidly growing market for global exports. To be sure, many observers express skepticism regarding the election’s credibility and will not be pleased if the presumed winner, Uhuru Kenyatta, who is accused of fomenting violence in the last presidential elections, ultimately prevails. So far, however, any contested results will be challenged where they should be: in the courts, not through violence on the streets. 

Five years ago, Kenyans were not so fortunate. Violence surrounding the 2007 election, stoked by ethnic mobilization, led to more than 1,000 dead with 350,000 more displaced. The bloodshed cut Kenya’s tourism industry in half, and reduced Kenyan GDP growth by over half, from 6 percent to 2 percent, virtually overnight. These negative economic effects rippled throughout East Africa, as Kenya is a lynchpin economic and transportation hub, and have persisted for the past five years. 

A peaceful election required tremendous effort. Kenyan government and grassroots organizations implemented a nationwide early-warning and early response network to quell violence before it spread. Another Kenyan group monitored for hate speech. Political parties reminded their followers to defend the peace. Recently reformed police secured the polling places, religious leaders and local committees monitored and calmed tensions, and drama groups conducted mobile peace theaters. SMS texting technology facilitated a nation-wide public education campaign and was used to send calibrated peace messages to youths preparing to clash. 

Numerous international partners, ranging from the United Nations to the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, supported Kenya’s efforts. For instance, from the United States alone, the State Department’s Conflict and Stabilization Operations bureau and the U.S. Institute of Peace deployed teams to high-risk areas to assess conflict mitigation efforts. The U. S. Agency for International Development funded a large effort that mobilized youth against violence. 

The risk of violence was, and remains, very real. Observers have documented warning signs of violence, from stockpiled weapons to ethnic incitement, which was a root cause of earlier violence. Fearful families sent women and children to the farm or out of the country. Kenyan businesses closed in anticipation of violence, with economic repercussions across East Africa. Studies showing that previous bouts of electoral violence are strong predictors of repeated violence reinforced the need for prevention. 

Though it will take time to understand exactly what worked and why, the broad effort at conflict prevention succeeded, and the dividends of prevention are already evident. After the March 4 election, Kenya’s stock market soared, and GDP growth is expected to reach 6 percent again soon. Peaceful elections also saved millions of dollars worth of humanitarian assistance that would have been necessary to feed and house those who could have been displaced by violence. With East Africa’s largest economy, Kenya looks set to continue the economic growth that will restore the $7 billion dollars’ worth of losses since 2008. This, in turn, will lift many out of poverty, led by sustainable commercial growth rather than scarce aid dollars. 

The total cost of peace efforts in Kenya is shockingly low — less than a third the cost the military pays for a single joint strike fighter to leave the runway. If we can multiply conflict prevention savings in one country across the globe, the potential benefit is enormous. 

Though conflict prevention is cheap compared with alternatives, proving success is challenging. It is the classic dog that didn’t bark. In Kenya, some observers attribute peace to a political alliance between two tribes previously at loggerheads. Yet even with that alliance, indicators were present and a peaceful election was far from certain. What we know is that prevention efforts have worked well — at least so far. 

Though Kenya’s peaceful election is worth celebrating, it is too soon to declare victory. Violence could still return in Kenya. A court challenge to the razor-thin presidential results is generating anxiety, and the business sector is watching (a weakening shilling shows tension tied to a pending decision by the Supreme Court on the legality of the election). In addition, the team that appears to have won Kenya’s election is indicted by the International Criminal Court for allegations of stirring violence in the previous election and will face trials in The Hague later this year. Either of these events could revive ethnic tensions. Prevention efforts cannot rest. 

As the world prepares for a new round of critical elections — the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan is just one example — it is worth learning the lessons from Kenya and focusing on conflict prevention. War is costly in so many ways. But investing in peace pays.

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