Kenya's peaceful election doesn't make it a healthy democracy

Earlier this month, Kenya held what analysts have described as perhaps the single most significant sub-Saharan electoral contest in 2013. It was the country's first general election since the widespread post-electoral violence of 2007-2008, which claimed more than 1,200 lives, displaced 350,000 people, and obliterated more than half of the country's GDP in the blink of an eye.

So did the election pass the test? The answer depends on how one looks at the question.

If the measure of success is that the elections transpired peacefully, then they have been a major achievement. The most important thing to have happened is that nothing has happened (at least so far) -- and for that Kenyans deserve credit. Since the days of 2007/2008, which brought Kenya to the brink (as Daudi Were of Ushahidi put it at an event held by my organization in London in March), there have been active efforts from all corners of Kenyan society, from government officials and political and religious leaders to political parties, civil society organizations, and young activists, to embrace a discourse of peace and reject violence. Many international partners, from the European Union and the United Nations, to the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, have also supported Kenya's efforts to promote conflict mitigation and early warning systems. A run-off election was averted by the narrowest of margins, but electoral results are being contested through the courts and not through violence in the streets. These are all positive -- and meaningful -- steps, even if the elections were far from perfect and marred by irregularities and incompetence.

But if the benchmark is what the elections say about the overall health of democracy in Kenya, then their appraisal is more sobering. Peaceful elections on their own do not make a democracy, and the root causes of what led to violence in 2007/2008 in the first place remain unaddressed. It is certainly the case that, in the intervening years, formal institutions have been overhauled and reforms implemented, a new constitution has been approved, and transitional justice mechanisms have been pursued. But the underlying dynamics of how power is contested and distributed have not changed. The salience and politicisation of ethnicity remains a defining characteristic of the Kenyan political system, even if at the local level voters have shown that they are willing not to vote along ethnic lines. The winner-takes-all nature of the system generates dynamics that reinforce fault lines of conflict along ethnic and regional divides and make it extremely hard for political leaders to look beyond their narrow self-interest (or who gets to "eat") and focus on the broader national interest. But unless these kinds of perverse incentives are addressed at their core, the patterns of exclusion and patronage they engender will continue to be latent sources of violence.  

The electoral process has also highlighted the precarious balance between different but competing objectives -- and the resulting dilemmas. For instance, as discussed at the ODI event, the peace narrative may have been essential to prevent a return to violence, but it has also limited the space for more critical reflections and assessments of the electoral process within Kenya. That may well be a price worth paying -- but there are concerns that it has led to self-censorship and that it has prevented the airing of legitimate grievances, while the narrative to maintain peace at all costs may have helped to strengthen the hand of power-holders.

And then there is the matter of Uhuru Kenyatta, who won the elections even as he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for fomenting violence in the last presidential elections. As some analysts have suggested, ICC proceedings may have unwittingly strengthened Kenyatta's position at home and helped him secure the election in reaction to what is perceived as unwelcome Western interference. But there can be no doubt: the fight against impunity within Kenya has suffered a serious setback.

Overall, there is room to interpret the Kenyan elections with some optimism, but there are also real grounds for concern. Whether one sees the glass as half full or half empty, one thing is clear. This is no time to be complacent. The fate of Kenyan democracy hangs in the balance.

Alina Rocha Menocal is a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in London, UK.

Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images


Libya's Copts under attack?

You'd think that Libyans wouldn't have much in the way of objections to Coptic Christians. There aren't really enough of them in the country to cause any problems: Only about 1 percent of the population consists of Copts, and more or less all of them are immigrants. Unfortunately, their low profile hasn't protected them from the forces of intolerance.

The new Coptic Church in Benghazi was ransacked and burnt on Thursday, March 14. Protesters broke into the church and set furniture on fire. This was ostensibly an act of retaliation against Egyptian Copts who recently attacked the Libyan embassy in Cairo, raising a cross over the entrance and burning the Libyan flag. In turn, the Egyptian protests came after an Egyptian Christian by the name of Ezzat Atallah died while in Libyan custody: He had been arrested on charges of proselytizing.

The series of tragic events began when security units arrested around 50 Egyptian Copts in Libya on suspicion of possible proselytizing activities. There are claims and counter-claims about what this meant, specifically. The group was captured with thousands of Arabic-language  books and materials about Christianity. It still isn't clear, though, whether the material was being used to convert Libyans from Islam to Christianity, or was simply intended for personal use by the Christian community in Benghazi and Libya in general.

There is growing concern over religious freedom in Libya. The European Union Delegation in Tripoli expressed deep concern about the detention of Atallah and accompanying reports that he and other detainees accused of missionary activity were abused by security forces. The Libyan government has expressed its determination to ensure human rights in general and religious freedom in particular. But proselytizing is currently a punishable crime in Libya, a country whose population is more than 97 percent Sunni Muslim.

In post-revolutionary Libya, however, the space for freedom has opened wide, and not always for the better. Muslims and Christians co-existed peacefully in modern Libya for decades. Unfortunately, extremist elements have now become active after the revolution. Some Libyan mosques are controlled by these extremists, who use them to spread their values and ideas. Many young unemployed men in post-revolution Libya are finding refuge with extremist groups, where they can find a sense of belonging and a fixed worldview that offers an alternative to what the authorities have so far failed to provide. If Libyans want to solve this problem, we'll have to come up with ways of managing the immediate expectations of our young people along with producing long-term strategies for tackling unemployment and other youth-related problems.

Religious intolerance in Libya has also targeted Sufi Muslims. Islamist hardliners have attacked and demolished Sufi shrines around the country. These hardliners are members of a minority that by no means represents Libyan society; if these people are not confronted and stopped, however, they could cause serious damage. The only time they've been effectively confronted so far was on September 7, 2012, when clashes broke out between conservative Salafis and local residents in the small town of Rajma, not far from Benghazi. In that case, the residents managed to block the hardliners and saved the local shrine from desecration.

Despite the fact that proselytizing is a punishable crime according to Libyan law, the right to practice religion is guaranteed by the constitutional declaration (Libya's transitional roadmap). This makes the attack on the Coptic Church in Benghazi a punishable crime. The problem, though, is that the current situation in Libya makes it highly unlikely that any arrests or prosecutions will take place. As a result, unfortunately, Christian expats and practicing Christian communities in Libya need to be careful about any activities that could be mistaken for proselytizing or appear suspicious.

The Libyan foreign ministry condemned the attack on the church in the strongest terms, emphasizing that the actions of the individuals behind the attack represent only a very marginal minority. Indeed, the attacks on churches and Christian graves stand starkly at odds to the moderate and tolerant nature of the majority of the Libyan society. Many Libyans took to Twitter and Facebook to condemn the violence, and emphasized that such actions rather imply the total ignorance of the perpetrators of the values and virtues of the moderate Islam that most Libyans embrace.

The desecration of Christian sites in Libya underlines the importance of safeguarding the freedom of practicing one's faith. Soon enough Libya will embark on a constitution-writing process. These events will serve as a reminder of the importance of enshrining freedom of religion into the constitution, and providing it with safeguards against any violent and extreme views.

The Libyan authorities are still in the process of establishing something resembling the rule of law throughout the country. It is crucial that such sensitive issues as religious freedom are debated in a peaceful and healthy environment. In addition, civil society groups and international NGOs should raise awareness of religious freedom and encourage tolerance as Libyans continue to discuss the constitution.

 Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here. 

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