Why Kenyans didn’t run berserk after the tense March 4 elections

What you need to know:

  • If you give people real hope that tomorrow will be better, and you build symbols to that hope, they are less likely to be violent”

The Kenyan election, to use the hip-hop expression, has gone down. Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, who headed up the Jubilee coalition, was declared winner with 50.07 per cent of the vote cast, while Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the Cord candidate, came in a close second.

Cord has gone to court to dispute the results. As we await the outcome from the bewigged ones, there is one thing that we can interrogate.

Not everything went down. Many were terrified that the 2008-type post-election violence would envelope the country. It didn’t. Kenya dodged a bullet this time. Or did it?

In many ways, there was no bullet to dodge. So why was this election peaceful? A consensus is emerging that Kenyans learnt from the violence of 2008 that killed more than 1,100 people, displaced 630,000, and cost the economy nearly Sh300 billion (at current prices).

In addition, there were a lot of peace activities by musicians, civil society groups, and the media. In fact the media is being criticised for bingeing on peace and getting too sentimental, instead of doing serious reporting.

The Kenya media, critics suggest, became like the proverbial high school dance where the kids get so engrossed and begin dancing to their partners, instead of to the music.

An analysis on the BBC website quoted a Kenyan commenting on the peaceful conduct of the country, saying it was a “revolution in Kenyans’ political maturity but not a revolution in the leadership”.

Yes, the peace campaigns helped, and the trauma of 2008 was high on the minds of many Kenyans, but I think they played a very small part in the peaceful vote. I don’t put much stock on the goodness of men and women.

In reality, four things shape people’s behaviour: One, incentives. Two, institutions. Three, the environment in which they operate. Four, the fear of being caught and punished.

To begin with the fourth point, unlike 2007/2008, this time, Kenyan authorities and police tried hard to crack down on hate speech. They deployed equipment to track down the hate merchants, and a few cranks were detained.

Though abusive comments continued (I consider those legitimate political insult), there was a very sharp drop in hate messages on social media. By Election Day, I had not got a single inciting SMS. In 2007 they came in at a rate of five a day.

In respect of the other points, if you give people real hope that tomorrow will be better, and you build symbols to that hope, they are inclined to be less violent.

Therefore, a couple of projects and structural shifts explain why Kenya had a peaceful election.

There was the Thika Superhighway. It was grand enough to capture the imagination, and to make folks believe that the State can actually splash money and deliver on a big public project.

The other was the upgrading of Kisumu Airport. It kicked off a boom in the lakeside town that was the unending story in the business pages of the Kenyan press. Kisumu Airport watered down the strong sense of marginalisation and grievance felt by Nyanza, and had a knock-on effect in western Kenyans, thus radically de-radicalising politics in the region.

The third was the counties. The election for governors was the most orderly, and in Nyayo Stadium, it drew a huge crowd to hear the results. People sensed that the bacon was finally coming home, so why fight for the piece remaining in Nairobi?
And then there was the very dreamy and futuristic Konza technology project (it is like the biblical promise of going to heaven).

All this is critical, because it determines policy choices for the future. If we believe that Kenyans became more good-hearted, then to prevent future violence, it would be necessary to preach more peace, hold peace concerts, and keep warning about the dangers of a repeat of 2008.

If we believe that people respond to incentives and symbols of progress, then the correct policy is to build more roads, fix more airports, complete Konza City and start a second one, keep working at political reform, and walk around with a big stick to crack the skulls of hate entrepreneurs.

I am a structuralist; I am in the last camp.


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