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How Safe Is Kenya? How The 2013 Elections May Impact Your Safari

By Tracey Bell

With elections proposed for March 2013, security questions arise for those considering an African safari. The last election in December 2007 resulted in 800-1500 Kenyans savagely murdered and 180,000-250,000 displaced (figures vary according to different sources). Although the violence was inter-tribal, it was horrific and severely damaged the tourism industry. So as we approach the next election the question is "Will it happen again?" This article examines recent events in Kenya and the opinions of various parties about the situation. This article will not advise you whether to travel to Kenya in March or not - my intention is to illustrate the situation so you can make an informed decision.

Kenya has always had conflict around elections, but it has usually been in small pockets around the country. The post-election violence in 2007-8 was the first time it broke out throughout the nation. Those deemed responsible for inciting violence are on charges before the International Criminal Court (ICC) currently, including presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta. It seems a strange situation to have a man charged with crimes against humanity being allowed to run for presidency! The other main candidate though, Raila Odinga, spent most of the 1980s in jail for his involvement in a coup attempt, and was the one who called foul on the 2007 election results, potentially prompting the violence.

There are very few Kenyans who want a repeat of that violence and Kenyan security agencies assure us they are doing everything in their power to prevent that. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) does not believe a situation like 2008 will happen again. Similarly, Andrew Limo, training coordinator for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), says they have made measures to ensure that Kenyans are protected during the election and that it runs smoothly.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Kenyan Red Cross are less optimistic. Some incidents this year have led those non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to be sceptical of a peaceful election.

In early July, three musicians were arrested and charged with inciting violence through their music. If they are found guilty, they could face three years in jail. Inciting violence through music, speech or other means has become a very sensitive issue since the 2008 violence and indeed a criminal offence. Joshua Arap Sang, due for trial before the ICC for crimes against humanity, was a radio executive who allegedly incited violence in 2008 through coded messages on the radio.

Limo, from the IEBC, has advised journalists to be on the front line in preaching peace by reporting fairly. "Journalists you have big role to play in making sure that the general election is conducted peacefully by reporting fairly and objectively, by not siding with any individual or group, because our work is to inform Kenya accurately." He also said scribes should be focused on reporting matters that will unite Kenyans.

But despite the majority of Kenyans saying they do not want a repeat of the violence, stories such as the one that emerged in late August of 52 people (mostly women and children) murdered in the coastal Tana River Region does put that sentiment into question. On 22 August, 31 women, 11 children and six men (and 60 cows) were murdered with pangas (machetes). On 10 September a further 39 were murdered in a retaliatory attack. The conflict is between the Pokomo and Orma tribes, triggered over a fight for pasture. Resource scarcity and food shortages are the primary causes for conflict in Kenya. It is the same motivation that drives Kenyans to mug tourists - they are hungry and have children to feed. The fight for arable land and water is what drove those Tana Delta killings in a conflict between crop growers and cattle herders.

The riots in Mombasa on 27 August however were not borne of resource scarcity, but rather a religious conflict, which does not bode well for election security. Analysts from international NGOs suggest this is a sign of worse to come, although the Kenyan government seems to be working quickly to suppress the troubles, charging 24 people on August 29. Muslims were protesting the killing of cleric Rogo, destroying churches, private property, and government installations. Rogo was a terrorism suspect who preached jihad and who was a divisive figure even within Islamic circles, but who had strong militant support throughout the coastal region.

As we consider whether violence will break out again in March, one thing to remember is that in Kenya, power is worth fighting for. Corruption is rife through all levels of the public service, meaning that it is possible to become very wealthy if your friend is the president. The best jobs tend to go to fellow tribe members. That is why it becomes very important to ensure the man at the top is from your tribe, and desperate people will believe their situation will be improved if their tribesman is in power.

Fiona Herring, a post-graduate student of Refugee Studies at the University of East London, suggests that violence at the time of the elections will probably be limited to certain areas, specifically Nakuru, Naivasha, Eldoret, Mombasa and Kibera. It may be more widespread in April though, when the ICC trial is set to take place, especially if Kenyatta wins the election.

But in the post-election violence of 2008, even the white Kenyans were largely left alone and it was certainly never aimed at tourists. The impact on the tourism industry was, however, dire. Being that tourism is Kenya's top industry, it is unlikely that tourists would become a target in any election violence as it would be so detrimental to the economy. Most crime against tourists is opportunistic, so it is doubtful that it will increase with any election conflict. However, if you are on safari, be aware that the your driver's ethnicity may affect your movement should conflict occur. But again, even Kenyans do not want to see any election violence, let alone get caught up in it.


Partners' combined experience of 17 years

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