Raising Voices for Peace in Kenya: A Personal Reflection
Updated: Nov 24, 2020
“When the spider webs unite, they can tie a lion” African Proverb My mobile rang incessantly the morning after Mwai Kibaki was sworn in. One caller was persistent. Three times I was asked, “Irungu, we need to meet, when are we meeting?” With images of anger and mayhem from the entire country flooding my television, it seemed futile. However, we did meet that afternoon on the 31st December 2007 at the offices of the Peace and Development Network in Kilimani, Nairobi.
Thankfully, during the post election crisis, there were very few moments over the next sixty days that I allowed a sense of powerlessness to paralyse me again. Throughout, I kept the words of South Africa’s Oliver Tambo to a young Winnie Mandela close. When she shared how worried she was, he told her, “When at a loss, history provides. Do not do anything. History will provide a situation for you to react. Remember that always, in life. Just wait there. History will rescue you. You will get guidance from within, from yourself”.
With barely three hours notice, forty of us met that afternoon and reviewed the rising tide of hatred and violence. Luos being forcefully circumcised in Gachie and Nakuru, the burning of Kisii, Gikuyu and Indian homes in Kakamega, looting and police shootings in Kisumu, rising number of deaths in Burnt Forest, Kapenguria and Narok, the ban on live reporting and the silence from our leaders. An inescapable set of thoughts ran through my mind in those early days. As political affiliations and ethnicity fused, we were facing the greatest onslaught on our national identity. Our only hope as a country lay in non‐violent ways of resolving the election crisis. ODM, PNU and ODM‐K political leaders needed to find a pathway to resolving the highly contentious elections and the violence had to be stopped.
On the eve of the elections, Kenya had a functional Government, Judiciary, no less than 6,000 non‐governmental organisations, 100,000s of community based organisations, one of the most sophisticated mass media sector in the region, 1000s of international organisations and corporations including the headquarters of various United Nations Agencies. Their collective silence that first week of January suggested that they had all left Kenya. We were about to be reminded of an important lesson. Organisations are as effective as the individuals who work within them. In a time of profound upheaval, it is to individuals that we must look to catalyse and bring people and organisations together.
Raising Voices for Peace
At least five new initiatives sprouted over the first three days in Nairobi. Around the Peace and Development Network, the People for Peace Network, Maendeleo ya Wanawake, ActionAid, Oxfam and World Vision created the Election Violence Response Initiative (EVRI‐1) to call for peace and re‐establish the national network of community peace‐workers (http://www.peaceinkenya.net). Under the auspices of the Inter‐religious Leaders Forum, a social intervention taskforce of humanitarian agencies began to assess and plan for the emerging humanitarian need. Governance, legal and human rights organisations began to call for a rejection of the results of the General Elections.
Convened by the Kenyan National Commission of Human Rights, this lobby became known as the Kenya Peace, Truth and Justice network. Elsewhere, Kenyan artists formed Musicians for Peace and Concerned Kenyan Writers. Recognised peace‐workers and professional mediators within the Horn formed Concerned Citizens for Peace, a lobby that operated from Serena hotel.
The Concerned Citizens for Peace pre‐occupied itself with three priorities namely; publicly calling for an end to violence, mediated dialogue at the highest level of the two large parties PNU and ODM and creating a space for concerned citizens to act. It was clear to me that the ODM policy of mass action and the PNU policy of mass denial were recipe for further chaos. Unleashed by a flawed political election, the character of the violence found its shape in social and economic identities. Kenyans were being attacked for being the “wrong tribe”, for being women and girls, for having property or wealth or for being old.
In those days, our radios, televisions, mobile phones and the Internet were flooded with stories and graphic images of this violence. That this was also fuelling the violence was one thing I could agree with the Minister of Information. However, in context of suspicion that the newly elected Executive had rigged itself to power and national uncertainty, the attempt to ban live broadcasting would prove unpopular and futile. The task was to create a third voice, one that called for an end to the violence and a mediated conversation on a political solution.
The role of the Media Owners Council was crucial. The media had to look beyond the sensationalism of youth carrying pangas at roadblocks along the major highways of the Rift Valley, the crowds in our informal urban settlements and the numerous press conferences calling for Kenya to be made ungovernable. CCP had to find and promote the peacemakers, those Kenyans who were trying to hold inter‐ethnic communities together, to build dialogue and alternative ways of expressing their frustration with the political process or even the gross inequities they experienced. A diverse list of fifty men and women from different communities, professions, regions and political affiliations was prepared and sent to media houses for them to interview on the way forward.
Later, media activists working in both CCP and EVRI‐1 composed several peace messages that were later sent round by the major mobile phone companies. One of the most powerful calls for peace was performed by several of Kenya’s finest gospel musicians. It was at one of the early press conferences by CCP that the song Umoja Pamoja was given substantive and free airplay. Members of CCP, the Concerned Writers for Kenya would produce over 100 articles for international and national newspapers and magazines by February 6 2008 (http://www.kwani.org/blog). This proved very successful and soon dominated the airwaves and front‐pages by January 7 2008. A key important message at this time was “we can fix this”.
The international media on the other hand, found itself stuck in the pornography of mayhem and genocide long after the national media had shifted to more balanced reporting. The Media Council issued a statement to these agencies counselling against the “mention of particular tribes involved in the violence by name” as it was fuelling already heightened emotions. They called for the international press to “apply the same international principles … while faced with similar circumstances in western countries where the dignity of the human person is respected and observed”. Lastly, they declared “The local media has taken a stand to unite and use resources available to them to help contain the violence in Kenya and not to exacerbate it. Do join us in these efforts.”
Calling on our political leaders to stop the Violence
Placing direct pressure on the top leadership of ODM and PNU to agree on a way forward on the flawed and disputed elections was the other major focus at the time. This was a pre‐occupation not only of the peace groups at the time but the international community whose capitals were seized with influencing the two Presidential candidates or Principles as they became known to come to the table. Throughout the crisis, we attempted this is different ways. The first early attempt was an evening vigil march to the offices of ODM, ODM‐K and PNU led by the religious leaders. A diverse range of musicians, spiritual and development leaders were supported to convene a well‐attended press conference. After that fifty of us climbed into buses and presented a single open letter to the offices calling for immediate dialogue.
Later, we would write and widely circulate with the political leaders an options paper “A Citizens Agenda”, several press statements and another open letter to the main Principles calling on them to personally lead the process of finding a solution. All opportunities were used to offer guidance. The Serena hotel corridors proved very spacious for sharing materials with the various mediators, political leaders and even those like us who were trying to influence the process. The ODM Presidential candidate even found himself being offered alternative reading material when he stopped to have his haircut at the Serena Hotel salon.
Over February, consistent briefing meetings were held with the AU Mediation Team led by H.E. Kofi Annan. A reader on wealth and inequity was prepared for the largely non‐Kenyan technical staff working on the draft Agreements. During the AU Summit at the end of January, a daily newsletter prepared in Nairobi was circulated to national delegates and the AU Commission conflict‐monitoring unit.
It was these actions that established trust with the formal mediation process and allowed us to access and circulate widely the Agreements as soon as they were concluded. Indeed, we found ourselves a source of information for the media and other interest groups on the progress of the talks before the Mediation Team established its own system of consistent reporting back.
Expanding the community of peacemakers
While many of the efforts of the first month were centred in Nairobi, they were accompanied by important initiatives to support the establishment of peace corridors and safety spaces for ordinary people seeking refuge. Visits were made to camps for the internally displaced and inter‐ethnic football matches were organised for youth in Kibera, Korogocho, Dandora and Baba Ndogo.
Community newsletters like the Kibera Journal published calls for the communities not to burn down their houses and destroy shops and schools. Counsellors and social workers in the Rift Valley accepted to offer free counselling services in Eldoret and Nakuru and university students were financially supported to convene meetings when campuses finally re‐opened. Peace monitors were sent phone credit to maintain their surveillance. The Kenya Veterans for Peace would discourage its members from supporting the militia with their military skills. An e‐newsletter Amani Sasa ran as a daily page for the first month and then became a weekly of several pages providing analysis of planned events and profiles of peace actions and peacemakers.
At their height, seventy men and women would meet daily each morning in the Karna room of the Serena hotel. The meetings ranged from 1‐3 hours and were designed around the principle of harvesting ideas. Many of the actions mentioned above and the successful Valentines day flower memorial in Uhuru Park were hatched in this room. While all these actions were taking place, the virus of suspicion and division was always present in the highly diverse space this enabled.
Supporters from antagonistic parties including former Ministers and Ambassadors, youth and the elderly, the careered and the unemployed, Kenyan staff of Embassies met daily to share information and agree on actions. This diversity became uncomfortably apparent one morning when three men stood up and introduced themselves as members of Mungiki sect and that they too, were trying to bring an end to the violence. The Convenors were careful to moderate language and the space given to different viewpoints.
The sessions always started and closed with first three stanzas of the national anthem. The best moments for me were when we reflected and decided on a course of action in the morning, acted by the end of the day and reported the next. The worst were when we spent too much time analysing the context or discussing how we should be organised and not agreeing on a practical action to take.
By the end of February, it was clear the tide had turned. The skilful mediation of H.E. Kofi Annan and his team, the national outcry backed internationally for a political solution and a return to the rule of law had wrested the mindset of mass denial and mass action from PNU and ODM. The sense of urgency began to be replaced by a sense of relief. This victory came not without cost to the various initiatives.
The voluntarism that had fueled the ideas, actions and resources began to wane. This voluntarism had seen guards offer to protect peacemakers going into the Rift Valley and designers, journalists, singers, writers and Kiswahili translators produce and publicly distribute peace materials. University graduates daily recorded and circulated minutes, photocopied documents and lobbied our leaders. Social workers, mediators and drivers had voluntarily gone into heal communities, temper and channel their anger constructively. Former campaign party activists had cut thousands of peace ribbons, spoke to their party leaders, held peace rallies and night vigils and mobilised young men and women to protect persecuted communities.
Without sustained funding and firm organisational structures, this voluntarism could not be sustained. Focus and momentum disappeared. Perhaps this was inevitable in these circumstances. Many of us could now return to our normal lives, our jobs and families. Yet, this was not without the lingering feeling that too many had lost their lives and livelihoods. We had come very close to losing our very nation. We had held together and if Kenya was threatened, we could find each other and do the same again.
Irungu Houghton wrote this as Pan Africa Director for Oxfam based in Nairobi in 2009. It was firstly published “Personal Narratives about the 2007 Post-Election Violence in Kenya” -Ed. Kimani Njogu. This is a personal testimony only in one sense. The views contained are that of the writer. The events described in the testimony were the collective efforts of many Kenyans who over the two months of post-election violence voluntarily gave their time, money and relationships to the pursuit of one Kenya and a political and non‐violent solution to the crisis. The writer is proud to have stood among them. You can interact with him on twitter: @irunguhoughton