How Kisumu 'defied prophets of doom', kept peace after Raila loss
The lakeside city of Kisumu has been applauded for keeping peace in the face of a slim yet humiliating defeat Azimio leader Raila Odinga suffered in the presidential elections held last month.
Ahead of the polls, there had been several predictions of violence, with businesses closing and international media outlets setting up base there to serve the menu to global audiences. Residents decided otherwise.
Observers attribute the development to a number factors, ranging from a fatigued voter base to a biting economy, with the population more preoccupied with where the next meal will come from more than political activism.
There were also active peace initiatives long before the elections were called.
A dedicated team of volunteers in Kondele – the epicentre of violence in previous elections – did wonders. Those who previously took part in mass action said violence was not an option.
On two occasions, the US Embassy issued a security advisory to its staff living in Kisumu. The first came ahead of the August 9 polls and the other about 72 hours before the Supreme Court issued its verdict on Mr Odinga’s petition challenging Deputy President William Ruto’s victory.
The court upheld Dr Ruto’s win and no violence was reported in Kisumu.
Because of Kondele’s history of political violence, it earned the moniker of Darfur, a restive region in western Sudan known for violence, deaths and displacements.
Days after the court’s ruling, the ever-busy Kondele remains peaceful, with business going on as usual. There are no signs of violence. In fact, at some point, residents kicked out a group of journalists they accused of only visiting the region to report on negative events.
“We only see them here when there is trouble. Does it mean there is nothing good to report about Kisumu and Kondele?” one of them posed.
How did Kondele remain peaceful despite predictions of violence?
An association known as the Kondele Transporters Self Help Group, which has 39 members, took it upon themselves to ensure the area remained peaceful before and after the court verdict.
“Our major aim was to prove the US Embassy and every other individual who had expected war and violence wrong,” said Mr Jacob Okuta.
He explained that the group met two days before the court ruling, with most members worried about the outcome.
The brunt of violence
“I have worked in Kisumu as a transporter for the last eight years. During violence, we are always among the people who bear the brunt of post-election violence,” he said.
Their vehicles are broken into and roads are rendered impassable, leaving them without a means of earning a living.
Shops and supermarkets are not spared either. Retailers often count losses without compensation.
Members of the group said it was important for peace to reign so that business could proceed as usual.
“We used our savings to fuel a lorry and purchase posters with peace messages printed on them,” explains Mr Patrick Mecha, another member.
They went round Kondele urging people to maintain peace. Posters were also placed at various locations with messages explaining why peace was important.
But members of the group admitted that their activism did not receive a positive reception at first, with many claiming they belonged to the rival party.
“But we are glad that residents soon understood our mission and were very cooperative, with most minding their own businesses on September 5,” Mr Mecha said.
The group also explained that their movements were restricted to Kondele.
“Whenever Kisumu is called out for being violent, every finger points at Kondele, but this time round, we had made the residents understand why we needed peace, whether the court ruling was in our favour or not,” Mr Mecha added.
On September 5, the group was still determined to move around preaching peace, while other members watched out for violence indicators.
The members would disperse any gathering in Kondele, ensuring business carried on as usual.
The group chairman also included his contacts on the posters for notifications about possible violence.
“We did not involve the police, but we were elated when the Kondele OCS reached out and commended us for our good job in peacekeeping,” said Ms Noel Achieng, a member of the group.
The group was also lauded by residents and others for a job well done.
They revealed that the success of their first assignment has motivated them to continue their peacekeeping mission.
“Peaceful coexistence is very important. We may have different political ideologies but still belong to the same nation at the end of the day,” Ms Achieng explained.
“As long as we continue having other elections, we will continue preaching peace now and in the future.”
Residents have also appealed to the incoming President not to sideline Kisumu, especially Kondele, in the development projects.
Another reason peace prevailed in Kondele was the handshake between Mr Odinga and retiring President Uhuru Kenyatta, locals said. With the President on their side, they argued, it was hard to believe reports that their votes may have been stolen by rivals and so there was no pent-up anger to trigger violence.
It should also be mentioned that Mr Odinga himself made a direct plea to his supporters to remain calm throughout the court process and after. Azimio leaders did not urge their supporters to go to the streets.
After the court ruling, Mr Odinga and his running mate Martha Karua publicly said that while they disagreed with the findings of the justices, they would respect it. That brought closure.