Elections, amnesia and impunity in Kenya

Peace narratives cover up the need to address historical injustice and end a culture of impunity dating back to the days of Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta and continuing via his son, President Uhuru Kenyatta.

President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta (R) greets his supporters with his running mate, former cabinet minister William Ruto after attending a news conference in Nairobi March 9, 2013. Kenyatta, indicted for crimes against humanity, was declared winner of Kenya's presidential election on Saturday with a tiny margin, just enough to avoid a run-off after a race that has divided the nation along tribal lines. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola (KENYA - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS) - RTR3ES31

As Kenyans process the re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta, competing narratives of resistance vs peace, and protest vs compliance are still dominating popular political discourse. Here’s what’s official: Opposition candidate Raila Odinga has lost the presidential election for the fourth time by a margin of roughly 1.4 million votes with a turnout of 79%. The opposition disputes the official tally, have compiled alternative totals and boycotted the official declaration. How their supporters and perhaps the Kenyan judiciary will respond to their controversial claims, is still in question. Challenges and protests of the results at the county and national levels are likely as leading opposition spokesperson James Orengo vowed to “take legitimate constitutional action to remedy what has happened.”

Kenyans are now attempting to resume normal life after a tense campaign and election season. The relative peace and calm in Kenya throughout the process is certainly something to praise. Tensions remain, but international election observers have released preliminary claims backing the election as relatively free and fair. Election narratives praise Kenyans for voting out powerful incumbents and elect women and relative newcomers to local and provincial positions.

Concerns over potential unrest are real. The last three incumbent presidential races (1992, 1997 and 2007) have all seen high levels of political violence. 2017 appears on the road to breaking this violent cycle, but the memory of these traumatic episodes have politicized public calls for peace and unity moving forward.

During this moment of cautious celebration it is important not to forget the past and reflect on the variety of issues that motivated millions of Kenyans to vote. Peace narratives were a prominent part of political and public campaigns, and helped subvert hate speech and the rapid proliferation of fake news. But just as citizens and the media widely preached Kenya ni sisi (Kenya is us), there was less acknowledgement that this discourse is also linked to a long history of wielding “peace” as a tool of both unity and repression in Kenya.


On May 9th 2016, while walking home from a day of research at the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi, my eyes started to well up with tears. Unfortunately I was not overcome with emotion at some wonderful scholarly breakthrough that day. Instead, I was struck like many pedestrians crossing University Way, with the fallout of the latest political protest.

In response to an opposition rally staged earlier that day to protest alleged corruption within Kenya’s electoral commission, the police descended on a crowd of protestors donning placards, chants and speeches, with Chinese imported water-cannons, tear gas, shields and batons. From video and social media, this state sponsored violence was wielded with disproportionately brutal force and fulfilled a promise made by the Nairobi police commander Japheth Koome. In an interview with the Kenya press the day before the planned protest Koome almost goaded the political opposition claiming in the name of ensuring safety that We have the strength and capacity to stop any protests and ensure law and order is maintained. If they attempt to demonstrate tomorrow, they shall regret it.”

Since my brief encounter with police tear gas in the name of maintaining “law and order,” I have been struck by the notion that public calls for “peace” have long been used a strategic political weapon in Kenya and across many other autocratic regimes. From the days of Jomo Kenyatta’s regime to the Presidency of his son Uhuru, Kenya’s five decades of independence have been marked by wide ranging uses of “peace” to silence more messy notions of reconciliation and political change.


When Kenya emerged from colonial rule it was a divided nation. In the 1950s, Mau Mau pitted radical freedom fighters against white and black colonial loyalists bent on maintaining their privileged positions within racial and class based colonial hierarchies. As a culmination of decades of colonial protest, Mau Mau was a war of liberation from within Kenyan society with 10,000s of casualties. Emerging from colonial rule with fresh memories of long term racial and class tensions, Kenyan needs of reconciliation went far beyond the removal of the Union Jack.

Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta set an early example of how peace and the hope of future prosperity, was used as a weapon to silence the skeletons of the past. The Kenyatta regime made distinctive efforts to remake the narrative of Mau Mau from a divisive class struggle to a simple, unified independence movement. Even before independence, peace narratives were used to silence the lingering domestic critics of decolonization. Responding to rural claims of renewing the Mau Mau struggle for land after independence, in September of 1962 Jomo Kenyatta dismissed his critics and declared “we are determined to have independence in peace, and we shall not allow hooligans to rule Kenya.”

After independence, Kenyatta’s reign is often characterized as one guided by the policy to “forgive and forget,” with the messy internal tensions of decolonization deemed inconsequential to notions of progress. As Kenyatta claimed simply at the 1964 national holiday celebrating the independence struggle, “it is the future, my friends, that is living, the past is dead.”  

By 1966 though, historical cracks and infighting within the Kenyatta administration led to the formation of a new opposition party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Led by Oginga Odinga, father of presidential candidate Raila Odinga, much of KPU’s public rhetoric pointed to the need to reconcile with and continue the struggles of the past. Land reform and Kenya’s growing inequality were just two of the topics debated within the global context of the disappointments of decolonization and rising Cold War tensions. These issues have remained a consistent critique from the political opposition ever since.

Instead of letting these debates play out on the floor of parliament, the policy of historical amnesia employed “peace” as a weapon to silence the opposition. From 1966-1969, opposition KPU members were publically harassed by the ruling KANU regime as agents of disunity and disorder. This led to a violent crackdown of KPU supporters following the high profile political assassination of Tom Mboya and subsequent protests of the Kenyatta regime in the KPU stronghold of Kisumu. KPU was officially banned in 1969 using a repackaged colonial law called the Preservation of Public Security Act which gave the President wide ranging powers to detain political dissents without trial.

From 1969-1991 Kenya was a one-party state with political detentions and even assassination used to silence dissent. “Peace and Order” narratives were often employed to justify crackdowns, with Kenyatta’s successor Daniel Arap Moi using many of the same tactics. Popular memory of this era is often one of fear, corruption and impunity for all state crimes committed in the name of political control.

By the early 1990s, internal protests, economic downturn and international pressure forced Moi to concede to multiparty elections. However even after the end of KANU’s one-party state, the ruling regime justified its marginalization of political protests using the old language of peace and security. During the initial widespread protests for multiparty rule in 1990, a former editor at the Daily Nation received a call from the Office of the President with a clear and threatening message, “cover the protests and it will contribute to the violence, you need to promote peace.”

With state sponsored violence, voter and press intimidation widely cited in Moi’s controversial re-elections in 1992 and 1997, the long term autocrat often responded to public calls for political change with silencing decrees. When violence first hit the Rift Valley during the campaign season for the 1992 elections, the state used their own complicity in the political unrest as a pretext to shut down peaceful calls for change with Presidential statements such as, “there will be no politics and no public meetings until law and order is restored.”


As the sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President squared off again in a tight race for the presidency it is important to acknowledge the impact of the past. The landscape of Kenyan politics has certainly changed dramatically since the 1960s. Kenyans fought hard to win their “second liberation” from one party rule in the 1990s. The opposition won a widely celebrated election in 2002, ending KANU’s 40 year political supremacy and delivered a new and progressive constitution in 2010 aimed particularly at checking the historic power of the presidency.  

However, the cast of characters in Kenya’s current election cycle are born out of the unresolved ideological struggles of decolonization and KANU’s 40 year grip on power. On both sides of the political divide, all the major players in the NASA and Jubilee coalition were members of KANU at one point in their career and benefited from the patronage of Daniel Arap Moi. Some were also victims of KANU’s repressive crackdown on dissent. In fact, the divide between Raila and Uhuru points directly to Moi’s choice to pick Uhuru and not Raila succeed him as the KANU presidential candidate in 2002.

Then relatively unknown outside of his presidential heritage, Uhuru positioned himself as the candidate representing the next generation of political leadership as opposed to the more senior Mwai Kibaki. However, Uhuru’s failed 2002 campaign vision offers a window into the influence of his father’s legacy as well as contemporary critiques of his government’s failure to deal with the crimes of the past. Unveiling his KANU vision of the future in October 2002, he spoke in a way that calmed fears of retribution among political elites and worried those advocating for change in the post Moi era.

We have to forget the past, however bitter we may be, and forge a common front to be able to overcome our emotions. We must therefore seek unity of purpose, learn to forgive and forget and march forward as a single battalion with one common goal of reconstructing our country for the betterment of all. (Uhuru Kenyatta 2002)


In 2013, when then ICC indicted politicians Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto won the popular vote, public calls for peace helped quell tensions and direct protests from the streets to the judiciary at a time when thousands of Kenyans were still displaced by the violence of 2008. Similar public calls are being made today. However, as Kenya’s controversial former anti-corruption czar John Githongo lamented after the 2013 elections “the tyranny of peace messaging has led many to feel Kenya slaughtered justice at the altar of a temporary and deeply uneasy apparent calm.”

Since 2013, the ICC cases against Uhuru and Ruto have been dropped as evidence was nearly impossible to gather with limited cooperation from a government some deemed the “alliance of the accused.” While the Jubilee government has improved access to basic civil services and completed large scale infrastructure projects, the forward looking agenda of economic development at all costs is often critiqued as ignoring the crimes of the past.

For much of Kenya’s postcolonial history, state response to political violence and historical injustice has been to form commissions of inquiry and produce reports of little consequence or action. After 2008, the state pledged a different approach and formed the most ambitious of these committees with the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).Charged with the investigation of human rights abuses and other crimes of historical injustice committed from 1963 to 2008, many saw this as a bold step towards ending the culture of impunity. Delivering their final report in 2013, the TJRC’s wide ranging recommendations were quickly tabled in parliament, and as recently as July 2017, Deputy President Ruto claimed implementing the TJRC would simply divide Kenyans and re-open old wounds.

Kenya’s authoritarian past is an important reminder of the historical burden everyday wananchi (citizens) carried with them to the polls. For many Kenyans I speak with, an election devoid of violence is not a universal marker of success or progress. Civil society groups, activists and those most vocal about the need for change in Kenya have rallied around the increasingly loud cry that “peace without justice” is just a way for the status quo of historical amnesia and political impunity to continue.  

Kenya has the tools to deal with the crimes of the past. The bigger question is, can Kenya’s political institutions and civil society check the lack of political and public will to implement change at the top. Raila campaigned in part on a platform to address historical injustices and implement the TJRC. On August 8th however, the majority of Kenyans rejected this vision and chose to bet on incumbency to deliver economic development and combat regional security on a policy to forgive and forget.

Peace at all costs” won the day on August 8th and the international press will likely move onto the next “hotspot” if peace prevails. Having framed most of their pre-election narratives with the fears of “tribal” violence, Kenya’s more contested past and future is in danger of fading from global view. With the opposition still disputing the election, it is important to remember that peace narratives also cover up complex needs to address historical injustice and end a culture of impunity dating back to the days of Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta, and have yet to be fully resolved by the re-election of his son Uhuru Kenyatta.

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