The following is the final entry in a three part series on Kenya’s 2013 general elections and their implications for similar mass atrocity prevention efforts moving forward. The peaceful Kenyan election this past March was hailed as a major victory for those working to prevent a repeat of the mass atrocities committed in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 elections. From the perspective of the mass atrocity prevention community, Kenya did a commendable job in upholding their responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities. The international community also succeeded in assisting national and local authorities throughout this process. Thus, both fulfilled their 1st and 2nd pillar responsibilities under the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) framework, which are, accordingly: that a state must uphold its responsibility to protect its populations, and that if that state is unable to do so, the international community has an obligation to assist. Lessons learned from the 2007-2008 atrocities catalyzed both domestic and international momentum to proactively address the risk factors and causes of potential violence. But does the Kenyan case study represent a true shining example of successful R2P application, as well as a model for future applications in unstable democracies? Or were there unique circumstances germane to this case and/or a large overhype of the risks that make this atrocity prevention success not as generalizable a model as some may think?
A True Model of 1st and 2nd Pillar R2P or an Aberration?
Kenya was certainly seen as a resounding success within the mass atrocity prevention community, but what are the lessons and best practices that are logically transferable to similar cases where there’s risk for political violence? In terms of the risk of mass atrocities, Kenya was indeed a unique case for several main reasons. Kenya’s government was first of all deeply committed to avoiding the same pitfalls suffered during the last national election cycle, where over 1,000 were killed and 350,000 displaced. These events prompted a political crisis, subsequent ICC indictments and led to the rapid destruction of more than half of the country’s GDP. Following this, Nairobi engaged in massive reforms, local and national conflict mediation efforts and greatly enhanced its police presence prior to the elections. These efforts fostered a narrative for a national violence prevention agenda that had not been seen in Kenya during past election cycles, essentially laying a strong foundation for creating a culture of accountability aimed at dissuading the incitement of political violence. In these five years, Kenya actuated a multidimensional peace industry that involved cohorts and partners from all walks of life, all invested in the same goal. It’s hard expect such an effort to replicated elsewhere in Africa where lack of resources, institutional capacity and political will would probably be in short supply compared to the Kenyan case. The feasibility of implementing highly coordinated tech campaigns in the DRC or Somalia is practically impossible compared to doing so in Nairobi, also known as the “Silicon Savannah”, as the disparities with infrastructure, resources and outside assistance are stark. But while the individual building blocks of peace were positioned to succeed in the Kenyan case, that doesn’t mean the blueprint of what worked in Kenya can’t be utilized in similar cases.
Secondly, when advocating for mass atrocity prevention in nations where strong electoral management and effective governance are lacking, strong institutions are usually the first defense against fraud and instability. Kenya, who many see as a model for democracy amongst East African nations, had institutions that weren’t completely broken, but rather in serious need of fixing. In other fledgling democracies it may be hard to quickly repair and restore confidence in institutions in order to establish a foundation for a peaceful democratic process, that of which Kenya managed to achieve in a relatively short period of time. Thirdly, the main risk in Kenya was election-based violence, which means the roots of violence weren’t nearly as deep as other countries in the region like the DRC, Sudan, or Somalia, where mass atrocities are being committed in the context of civil wars and widespread militia-based fighting. A key wildcard in this case was the ICC’s involvement after the last general elections and the symbolic impact they had on dissuading violence. It’s easy to see that the Hague was a powerful antidote to violence in Kenya, just as it’s not in Khartoum.
Another factor that makes the model utilized in Kenya ungeneralizable to other R2P cases is that the Kenyan government was fully committed to atrocities prevention for a variety of reasons previously mentioned. Externally driven capacity building, robust civil society partnerships and various election observers were more than welcomed by Nairobi, which differentiates this from more classic R2P cases where atrocities are occurring in closed systems, like Syria or Sudan. Many allege that the general elections were a classic case of the dog that didn’t bark, and that over hype and exaggeration distorted the true risk of mass atrocities. It remains hard to prove how much of an effect various initiatives had on the risk of violence during the elections, which may render the exactitude of recommendations for future cases somewhat unclear. Whether there was over hype or not isn’t going to bug policymakers, citizens, or international investors when considering the alternative, inaction, but it does muddy the waters for the international community when seeking to replicate, with confidence, the ingredients of the Kenyan model. The Kenyan example was uniquely geared towards a strong possibility of peace, that doesn’t mean some of the preemptive efforts taken can’t be seen as a successful utilization of the R2P toolkit. Certain lessons in Kenya may be useful in helping assist unstable democracies where election violence is a serious concern, such as Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Mali in the short-term. The lessons and successes/failures in coordinating local early warning and response systems, pressuring political leaders to limit incitement, training indigenous media outlets to spread tolerance, and strengthening local capacities for peace, should be shared widely within the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community.
Finally, part of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ norm requires governments and the international community to work to ensure sustainable peace by addressing the root causes of violence. In fact, the International Commission for Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) Report from 2001, one of the foundational documents of R2P, considered this to be the international community’s most important obligation. To think that root causes of Kenya’s past atrocities have been completely addressed because of one short-term success would be dangerous and irresponsible. It is the obligation of the international community to assist Kenya in addressing these root causes in order to ensure long-term mass atrocity prevention. As Kenya exhales after a tense several months, the international community must begin this process while consolidating on gains made in enhancing civil society capacities and institutional accountability, particularly the judiciary. Newly appointed President Kenyatta must work to further establish trust in the electoral process, carry out constitutional reforms, continue the ongoing process of national reconciliation, and build upon the peace industry that helped carry Kenyan society through the recent elections. Not capitalizing on Kenya’s short-term victories in mass atrocity prevention would not only tarnish the generalizability of lessons learned for future cases , but would also amount to a failure by neglecting lessons of the past.
Photo: AP Photo / Ben Curtis