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Peace over the airwaves: pre-election dialogues in Kenya

With general elections scheduled for 8 August 2017 and an ongoing drought that is exacerbating local tensions, the political atmosphere across Kenya is turbulent. Amidst these challenges, Saferworld and partners are promoting peace through radio discussions on conflict-related issues that could be flashpoints for violence during and after the election campaign.

As ongoing drought affects East Africa, resource-based conflict in Kenya is becoming increasingly prevalent with reports of land-related violent incidents and revenge attacks. This hostility over access to, and control of natural resources overlaps with the upcoming elections that sees communities and ethnic groups engage in competition for political power – a potentially toxic combination that increases the likelihood of violence in the coming months.

With media reports and campaigns intensifying, ethnic and historical divisions among different groups are regularly exploited by politicians looking to gain support using the frustration of citizens as a catalyst. As this political landscape continues to unfold, it is vital that people have ‘safe spaces’ and public platforms to discuss issues that are likely to escalate and to work collectively to avoid violence.

Tension in Isiolo County 

In Isiolo County, pastoralists and farmers have a long history of conflict. The pastoralists - mobile farmers who adapt to changing environments, and farmers - static agriculturalists fixed to owned land, regularly clash over water distribution, access to resources, mobilisation and methods of grazing. Isiolo County was also a hotspot of electoral violence in 2007-08, where inter-communal disputes between the two groups fighting for political control resulted in a number of deaths.

Saferworld is working with partner Catholic Justice & Peace Commission (CJPC) Isiolo to facilitate discussions between pastoralists and farmers as part of a larger pre-election initiative to address hostilities through meetings and discussions in hotspot areas in an attempt to prevent further violence.

Radio as a tool for peace

Due to its combination of affordability and accessibility, radio remains the most popular and widespread form of media in Isiolo County despite a growing youth population that embraces the online world. With wide coverage that reaches the most remote areas of the county, talk shows and audience call-ins encourage people to voice opinions that would otherwise remain unheard. For this initiative, we engaged with local station Radio Shahidi as a platform for promoting peaceful co-existence and debate between communities and individuals affected by a combination of historical conflict and drought that is being brought into focus by the forthcoming elections.

Radio Shahidi in Isiolo County is considered ‘impartial’ in comparison to other stations that are perceived to have political bias or have previously aggravated disputes – a common problem with local media that often fuel tensions through hate speech. The need for impartiality in this case is essential for all voices to be heard. With tensions across the county rising, communities often shy away from voicing their concerns due to a fear of victimisation. The show created an anonymous and safe space for citizens to raise issues without becoming targets of violence.

Bringing together the pastoralists, farmers and various other community members to engage on issues that may cause conflict between them, the discussion also involved panelists from various communities and localities to ensure a wide range of people affected by the drought were included. Well-balanced conversations allowed participants and listeners to hear and relate to the difficulties of each other’s situation, constructing a space of empathy and understanding.

Yet, as worsening conditions spark fresh disputes over water access and sharing, these discussions are just the start. Saferworld’s Project Manager Emmy Auma noted the importance of facilitating discussions: “conflicts around elections are not single events - they often reflect the historical fractures of society” - indicating how important conflict resolution is both during and between electioneering periods.

Looking to the future

Following the radio discussion, a face-to-face meeting was held between pastoralists and farmers who agreed to work together to produce guidelines on resources access. Despite difficult circumstances, the initiative demonstrated that radio is not only a tool for raising awareness and sharing information, but can be effective in mobilising community groups and leaders to find ways to resolve conflict. Saferworld and partners are now engaging marginalised groups, including women and youth in pre-election discussions and peace dialogues across hot spot areas.

These efforts are a starting point for creating a tangible impact on people’s safety and security during the election period. For that impact to be sustained between elections and replicated across the country requires high-level political commitment to building a more peaceful, just and inclusive society, an active and engaged Kenyan civil society raising awareness and promoting peace, and responsible, conflict-sensitive media such as Radio Shahidi and others like it offering communities and individuals a platform to raise grievances and deal with them peacefully.

Saferworld in Kenya is working in partnership in numerous hotspot areas of election violence and conflict across the country, to support communities in resolving disputes and to engage in peaceful dialogues during the electoral period.

Find out more about our work in Kenya here.

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