The Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops is calling for peace and unity in the country, following the conclusion of general elections held on August 8. A day after the incumbent, President Uhuru Kenyatta, was declared winner by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission on August 11, the bishops appealed to the president-elect to “move with speed to heal and unite the country,” after what they termed as an “emotive electioneering period.” The bishops also offered to serve as mediators in any further debate of the election results.
Kenyatta’s presidential opponent, Raila Odinga, is disputing the outcome of the election, claiming the entire process was fraudulent. Soon after Kenyatta was declared the winner on Friday night, pockets of violence broke out in some areas where Odinga is considered to enjoy strong support. The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights claims that by Saturday afternoon, 24 people had been killed as a result of excessive use of force by the police in the Kibera and Mathare slums in the capital Nairobi and in the western towns of Kisumu, Siaya, and Migori, areas thought to be Odinga’s support bases. The commission’s chair, Kagwiria Mbogori, called on police to cease using lethal force on unarmed protesters.
Earlier in the day, the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, Dr. Fred Matiang’i, had refuted allegations that police had fired live rounds at protesters, and said that he was unaware of any deaths that had occurred as a result. Dr. Matiang’i, in a media briefing, stated that the government had always protected the right of citizens to peaceful protest, and that police would provide security to protestors who were peaceful and acted within the confines of the law. He was adamant that criminal gangs were known to attempt to take advantage of protests to loot property, and police were responding with proportional force to the threat posed by the gangs.
The bishops seemed to contradict the Cabinet Secretary’s assertion, stating that they had “received disturbing reports of loss of human lives and destruction of property in some parts of the country.” Just hours after the bishops’ statement, local and international media were reporting on the death of Stephanie Moraa, a 10-year-old girl who was struck in the chest by a stray bullet while playing with her friends on the second-floor balcony of her parents’ house.
The bishops are urging the police to respect the sanctity of life and to exercise restraint as they go about keeping law and order. “We once again emphasize that no life should be lost because of an election,” the bishops said.
The current situation evokes dark memories of the post-election conflict that was experienced in Kenya in December 2007 and January 2008, which left more than 1,200 people dead and more than 600,000 displaced. The violence was precipitated by a disputed presidential election between Odinga and then-president Mwai Kibaki. At the time, the electoral commission had pronounced Kibaki the victor, under circumstances that lacked transparency and credibility. In the mediation process that followed, chaired by former UN Secretary General Koffi Annan, a power-sharing agreement was reached, with Odinga being named Prime Minister and Kibaki president. The two men shared cabinet posts between their parties, and a new constitution was approved in an August 2010 referendum, ushering a new form of de-centralized governance. The rallying call was, “Never again,” with politicians pledging to ensure that the country would never experience bloodshed on account of political competition.
The 2013 elections, though a marked improvement on the 2007 edition, experienced its own share of challenges. Kenyatta and his running mate were both facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court based in the Netherlands at the time, and faced off with Odinga, who was making a third attempt at ascending to the presidency. Odinga lost the election, an outcome which was upheld by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision, after listening to his petition contesting the result.
Today the Kenyan bishops are imploring Odinga to seek redress through legal means. However, the opposition leadership is insisting that they will not be going to court this time round. This has created concerns that opposition supporters may interpret their leaders as calling for street protests, even though Odinga and his coalition have repeatedly called on supporters to “remain calm.” The bishops seem to have picked up on this mixed messaging as well, and urged “all politicians to be sensitive and ensure that their choice of words and way of communication promote unity, peace, and reconciliation.”
In his acceptance speech, President Kenyatta extended an olive branch to Odinga, referring to him as “our older brother,” and pledging to “serve equally all those who voted for us and all those who did not vote for us.” He went on to invite the supporters of “those who won and those who lost” to shun violence and instead to reach out to each other, as “we have no other country to call home but Kenya.”
While the bishops have now made themselves available to mediate the dispute, it remains to be seen if the political players will be willing to sit together at the table for the good of the country. The statements and actions of the opposition leadership, and the reaction and approach of the security agencies, are set to shape how the current impasse will play out in coming days and weeks.