After Kenya went to the polls five years ago, Victor Situma and his family were among some 600,000 people who fled their homes as, in many parts of the country, a bitter dispute over who had won the presidency degenerated into widespread inter-communal violence. His house and shop were looted and vandalized. In all, more than 1,500 people were killed.
Two years ago, he returned from his rural home in the western Kakamega District to Mathare, one of Nairobi’s largest slums. But father-of-six Situma plans to move his family back west soon.
The next elections are due in March 2013. A raft of posts - from the presidency to ward representatives - is up for grabs. Candidates and parties tend to revolve not around policy but geographic region and, by extension, ethnicity. The run-up to the polls has already been marred by several incidents of violence.
“I will vote here in Nairobi because of my job. But I will take my family to western Kenya so that even if there is violence, I die alone. I don’t see any guarantee that the election will be peaceful,” he told IRIN.
“I don’t know who will win the elections, but you can still be attacked, because politicians are already saying ‘our people must get this post or another’, but the poor people we live with here believe in what they say and will take their word for it,” he added.
According to Olga Mutoro, policy and governance officer at the Peace and Development Network Trust (PeaceNet), Situma’s fears are far from uncommon.
“In the slums, suspicions among people from different ethnic communities are growing, and many are beginning to segregate according to their tribes in order to give themselves a sense of comfort” she told IRIN.
Rispa Wambui, 35, also no longer feels safe in Kibera, another major Nairobi slum, where she has lived with her family for 15 years.
“Many of my neighbours are not from [my] tribe, and I know whatever the outcome of the coming election, they might attack me. I don’t want to wait for that to happen. I am looking for a house to rent in a place where my people are many. It is the only way I can feel safe,” she said.
“We are witnessing pockets of violence across the country - much of it with political motives - and this could be a pointer to what the country might witness when electioneering moods set in properly,” Saida Ali, executive director of the NGO Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), told IRIN.
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“People who live in informal settlements experience few security patrols, and many are also vulnerable to political manipulation due to their low economic status,” she said.
According to government data, 71 per cent of Kenya’s urban population lives in slums. “During the [2007-8] post-election violence, traditional myths about the existence of ‘ancestral homelands’ - considered to be binding to specific ethnic communities by blood - were transferred to Nairobi’s suburbs and violently enforced,” the Nairobi-based Peace Research Institute wrote in a recent report.
“Ethnic identities were checked by vigilante groups at zone boundaries [in slums], inter-group clashes occurred mostly along such boundaries, and the slum-dwellers adjusted their daily movements with regard to the location of ethnic zones (e.g., by avoiding zones held by members of opposing ethnic communities),” the report added.
Experts say that as fears of electoral violence grow, so do fears of gender-based violence.
“Women bear the greatest burdens of violence, and this is what happened even in the 2007 and 2008 conflict,” said Atsango Chesoni, the executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, an NGO.
“It is during the elections that people take the opportunity to defile women,” COVAW’s Ali said.
Mutoro of PeaceNet says empowerment programmes are needed to help people ward off political manipulation.
“People need to be sensitized on national unity and, at the same time, given the skills to be able to address their grievances without necessarily finding comfort in their tribal groupings,” Mutoro said.