The risk of political violence in Kenya is “perilously high” ahead of next month’s election, the first since bloody post-poll violence five years ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned Friday.
Local communities “are arming themselves” fearing possible violence ahead of the presidential, parliamentary and local elections on March 4, HRW said, citing reports from local non-governmental organisations.
“The underlying causes of past election-related violence remain in place, and in some parts of the country the tensions have escalated,” the New York-based rights group said in a report.
“The risk of violence and human rights violations remains perilously high,” it added, blaming a failure to implement promised reforms, as well as “abusive or discriminatory conduct” of officials.
The 2007-8 violence shattered Kenya’s image as a beacon of stability in east Africa, when what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic violence that killed some 1,200 people and displaced 600,000 others.
“Violence is not inevitable, but the warning signs are too bright to ignore,” HRW’s Daniel Bekele said.
“The near total impunity for the murders, rapes, and forced displacement in 2007-2008 has left the people who committed those crimes free to commit them again.”
At least 477 people were killed and over 118,000 fled their homes due to ethnic violence last year, HRW added, noting that “many of these incidents have been linked to pre-election manoeuvring as local politicians mobilise support.”
Police or other authorities have “repeatedly failed” to prevent the violence or hold those responsible to account, the report added, which is based on over 225 interviews in flashpoint regions across Kenya.
“The victims of violence feel that justice has passed them by, and the people who caused the violence feel protected from the law,” Bekele said. “This is a dangerous cocktail for the approaching elections.”
Tensions have been stoked by the looming trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for key presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta for his alleged role in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after 2007 polls.
The trial, set to begin on April 11, could clash with a presidential run-off vote due within a month if — as many expect — no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round.
Kenya, whose army is still fighting in Somalia after invading in 2011, has also suffered a spate of grenade attacks and shootings, often blamed on Somalia’s Al-Qaeda linked Shebab or homegrown Islamist supporters.
Tensions on the coast also are high, where police have cracked down on Islamist groups as well as a separatists wanting to split the popular tourist region from the rest of Kenya.
Along with the presidential vote, parliamentary, gubernatorial, senatorial and local council elections will take place on the same day, a massive logistical undertaking which could see political tensions at the most local level.
Many fear a new constitution providing elections for the new posts of governors and senators, has increased the risk of violence at local levels, with ethnic rivalries exacerbated by political jostling for power.
Johnnie Carson, the top US diplomat for Africa, on Thursday warned Kenyans that “choices have consequences”, in an apparent caution over the possible victory of Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto, also facing trial at the ICC.
“We live in an interconnected world and people should be thoughtful about the impact their choices have on their nation, economy, region and the world in which they live,” he told reporters, without naming any names.