By Susan Benesch
One can hardly take a walk, turn on a TV, or even visit YouTube in Nairobi now without being bombarded by peace propaganda—rainbow graffiti murals, ads by soccer stars, PSAs, prayers, and of course a music video, “Rufftone and the GSU,” in which rows of troops from Kenya’s General Service Unit sway fetchingly in their combat fatigues and red berets, singing “let hatred not finish us…we forgive and love each other.” The GSU is a paramilitary force that deals with Kenyan civil disorder, for example by beating up students who demonstrated for multiparty elections a few years ago. Kenyans are keenly hoping that the GSU will be able to stick to singing during the national elections today.
Kenya’s presidential vote is taking place in the tense shadow of the last one in December 2007, when more than 1,300 people were killed after the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was abruptly declared victor in a televised announcement. Within an hour, Kibaki was sworn back into office and his government shut down all radio and television broadcasting. On the same afternoon, SMS messages began popping up on Kenyan cellphones, falsely reporting that one of Kibaki’s political opponents, a member of a rival Kenyan tribe, had been killed. Almost immediately, bullets began flying along with frightening rumors. By the time the violence finally ended more than two months later, some 500,000 people had fled their homes to escape neighbors who had turned on them. International mediators including former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had persuaded Kibaki to form a coalition government with Raila Odinga, who still believes Kibaki stole the presidency from him.
This time Kibaki, now 81, has chosen to retire but Prime Minister Odinga is running for president again. Odinga’s new opponent is Uhuru Kenyatta, who is neck-and-neck with Odinga according to polls, even though Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity stemming from his alleged role in masterminding the post-election violence of 2008. Kenyatta says he fully expects to win the office that he considers his birthright (his father Jomo Kenyatta was the country’s first president after independence). He is so sure of the outcome that a Kenyatta campaign billboard in Nairobi seems to offer to spare Kenyans the bother of conducting the election. Using a slang term for “president” it reads, “It is decided—prezo Uhuru!” Odinga also professes to be so confident of winning that if he is not declared the winner, he has said, it will be because the election was rigged.
The language and behavior of the two men is dangerous, since one of them must lose, and the contest is so close that it would be easy for either one of them to persuade his supporters that he—and they—have been cheated. They know that they are playing with fire and that no peace mural or video can succeed unless Kenya’s political leaders preserve peace as well.
Susan Benesch is currently serving as the Edith Everett Genocide Prevention Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.