If you google “Google” today, or go to google.com, you’ll see that the google emblem for today is Kenya going to the polls. Today is Election Day, not just for a new president, but also for nearly the entire government. A new constitution is in place, and is being enacted as we speak. Instead of broad powers invested in a centralized executive branch, the new constitution disperses many powers to the county level. Kenyans will vote for six levels of governance today, in a new and complex ballot process. This will be the most expensive election, per capita, in world history.
Election day is a major event in any democracy, but today is particularly poignant for Kenya. Like so many African countries, Kenya is struggling to emerge from its oppressive colonial period, a time when sovereignty was lost to exploitation of the nation’s resources and people. Since gaining independence in 1963, Kenya has been on a path of economic growth and progressive democratization of society.
Unfortunately, that path was marred by widespread violence after the last presidential elections in 2007. The election results were disputed, and the nation turned to tribal conflicts and organized violence instead of the court systems. Many died, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and a compromise government was patched together to appease the warring parties. That government will be replaced today.
I love that interval, on the fourth of July, between the “whoomph” of the big firework being launched and the moment when it explodes across the sky. The pregnant pause. The anticipation. Everything has been set in motion, the outcome is unavoidable, and you hold your breath, seeing what will happen. You know it’s going to be big, but what exactly will it look like? That is the feeling in Kenya today.
I was down at the maduka (shops) earlier today, chatting with the shopkeeper Stephen. He’d gotten up early to be at the polling station by 5:00, and still hadn’t gotten to vote until 9:00. The lines were huge even at 4:30 in the morning, though the polls didn’t open until 6:00. Kenyans know this is a defining day, a day when they will continue their march toward prosperity, security, and democracy, or slide back towards tribalism, violence, poverty, and insecurity.
A word about tribalism. Before we moved here, I would read about tribal violence in Africa, and envisioned men from one village raiding another village. In reality, African tribes are akin to what we would think of as a race. One tribe might have millions or tens of millions of members. These are really distinct ethnicities, with different languages, histories, cultures, facial features, and body habitus. Even after a short time in Kenya, it’s pretty easy to tell a Kikuyu from a Luo or Kalenjin. Kenya has more than 40 distinct tribes. Though things are changing in the cities, in general, tribal affiliation runs very deep, a defining personal characteristic.
Elections tend to run along tribal alliances, more than along ideology. In the past, when a member of a particular tribe was elected president, the entire government tended to be of that tribe. Elections, then gave incredible, nationwide power to the winners. The decentralized form of government enacted today aims to put power in the hands of locally elected officials, which should decrease tribal tensions.
Talking about Post Election Violence, or PEV, is not taboo. That’s all people are talking about. It happened, it was terrible for everyone in Kenya, and very few people want a repeat. The major candidates have stood on stage, hand in hand, in front of tens of thousands, and pledged peace after the election. National times of prayer, various social media movements, and the press, have all hoped for and predicted peace. Only history, a small minority of hate-mongers, and CNN and other outlets hoping for a good story anticipate widespread violence.
So we sit here today, prepared for the worst and praying for the best. Is Kenya an overheated pot about to boil over into violence and hatred, or a nicely warmed melting pot, ready to blend its various cultures into an integrated national identity? The truth will probably be somewhere in the middle.
Democracy was never meant to be tidy. We only need to look at American or European history to see the lurching, uncertain, wavering path western democracy has taken. Democratic nations have given us Abraham Lincoln, but also Adolph Hitler. Visionary, sacrificial leadership, and racist maniacal violence. So maybe we should be saddened, but not cynical, when African democracy follows a similar course.