You may have heard that on Wednesday, August 4, a historic event will be taking place: a referendum deciding the acceptance or rejection of a new constitution for Kenya.
The Green side (aka ‘Yes camp’) is headed by President Mwai Kibaki and supported by Kenya prime minister Raila Odinga and much of the parliament. The Red side (aka ‘No camp’) is led by higher education minister William Ruto and has significant support from the church. The proposed constitution limits the sweeping powers of Kenya’s presidency, creating a second chamber of government and giving greater power to local leaders. Contentious issues include the creation of a land commission, retention of Kadhi (Islamic) courts, and a clause which allows abortions if a pregnancy endangers the life or health of the mother. Opinion polls indicate that most people support the proposed constitution.
The number one fear surrounding the vote is a renewal of ethnic tensions and violence in Kenya. In fact, there has been limited violence surrounding the upcoming referendum. The flashpoints are in areas where neighboring ethnic groups have different voting preferences. Among identified hotspots, the northern Rift Valley is considered most likely for violence as the area has many Kikuyu supporting the Yes camp and Kalenjin supporting the No camp. Like many other conflicts that have come before, the real issue at stake is land. Some feel that the Kikuyu, Kenya’s most populous ethnic group, were unfairly allocated land in the Rift Valley at independence. Kalenjin and Kikuyu members who clashed fiercely in the last election could be set off again by the land measures incorporated into this year’s referendum.
The upcoming referendum differs from the 2008 violence in a number of ways. The 2007 vote was highly controversial with widespread suspicion of election fraud. This time around, the government is much more prepared and has deployed a good deal of military and police. Most of the people we’ve talked to are expecting a peaceful vote with limited and isolated outbreaks of violence. Our team from SIPA’s MPA in Development Practice program is based in Nyanza Province, which is not considered a hotspot, but as a precaution we will relocate to Nairobi for the week of the referendum.
Potential chaos and evacuations aside, it’s a fascinating time to be here. An incredible amount of innovation is coming out of East Africa, and particularly from Kenya. Some may recall that SIPA was involved in mapping and monitoring incidences stemming from the earthquake in Chile last year, reporting collapsed bridges, closed schools, water and medical needs. I co-directed the team which did this remotely from New York using a tool called Ushahidi, an incredible platform which serves to aggregate media, twitter, and eye-witness reports around an issue – often disaster relief – in an online map. The key to the take-off of Ushahidi is that location based incidences are brought together in one forum, in almost real-time, which then enables NGOs, media, and government to take action on real needs. The birthplace of this popular tool that’s being used in Haiti, Iraq, Chile, Washington DC, Ethiopia, South Africa, New York, and elsewhere? Kenya. Ushahidi was developed in Nairobi to report violence stemming from the 2007 election. As explained on the Ushahidi website:
The website was used to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phone. This initial deployment of Ushahidi had 45,000 users in Kenya, and was the catalyst for us realizing there was a need for a platform based on it, which could be use by others around the world.
For the August 4th vote, Ushahidi is being used once again in its country of origin. This time, to monitor incidences around the referendum. The website is up at Uchaguzi (meaning ‘election’ in Swahili) and is likely to be one of the best — and first — sources of eye-witness reports surrounding security issues, voter issues, and defamation. It’s odd to wish for a project to not receive any reports, but here’s hoping that these incident categories are sparingly used.
Note: If you are in Kenya, you can report incidences by sending a message to 3018, an email to email@example.com, a tweet with the hashtag #uchaguzi, or by filling out a web based form. Remember, there’s also a category for “positive events”