In Kenya’s national elections, will youth choose peace?

Just a few days out from Kenya’s national elections, the prospects for a peaceful outcome are uncertain. Nearly half of the population is concerned about safety. The murder last week of Kenyan election official Chris Msando has punctuated what shaky optimism existed. Now, observers can’t help but think back to 2007’s post-election violence that left 1,500 people dead and forced 600,000 people to flee their homes.

And though we’ve seen progress since 2007’s violence — evident by relative peace in the 2013 elections — acts of intimidation and physical harm, blackmail and citizen abuse have sought to undermine the electoral process. Police reforms have stalled, and local-level competition has intensified, renewing inter-group competition for resources and political power primarily at a county level. Consequently, if there is electoral violence in 2017, it will likely be deeply localized.

A critical factor for peace in this year’s national election is largely the same as the tipping point to violence in 2007’s national election: young people. In 2007, 70 percent of those who engaged in post-election violence were youth. They were easily mobilized, alienated and disengaged. They had few opportunities available for employment or to start businesses, or avenues to voice their grievances.

After the 2007 election violence, development groups like Mercy Corps sought to better understand what drove youth to violence. Working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and local partners, Mercy Corps began one of the largest youth empowerment program’s in Kenya’s history. We believed that young people who saw the benefit in being engaged with their communities and their potential influence in the public sphere represented enormous opportunity. We believed then — and still do today — that they are the key to a stronger, more peaceful Kenya. Our efforts eventually reached 2.5 million youth across two regions of Kenya, and helped form more than 11,000 bunges (youth parliamentary groups) with 250,000 members.

For the last 18 months, we’ve been building on this experience and working to decrease the risk of violence surrounding next week’s elections. In hot spots where violence is more likely, we’ve established electoral security committees comprised of civil society representatives and religious, business, community, police and government leaders. We’ve also created an early warning early response system, including a toll-free call center and SMS platform where members of the public can send and receive short text messages. A response team made up of over 2,000 people is now trained in mediation and conflict negotiation. Already, this early warning response mechanism has resolved more than 300 election-related disputes across four counties.

Knowing the critical role youth play, we have also focused on improving dialogue and trust between youth and authorities through activities like police/youth soccer games. As one senior police officer observed recently, “the joint police and youth sports and community cleaning exercises are really helping the police service to understand young people, their challenges and life in their communities... young people only really get to see us when we have to break their protests. If you look at that and how we’re portrayed in the media, you can understand why many young people have a negative perception of the police.”

Today, half of the Kenyan electorate is between the ages of 18 and 35. They are looking for peace and prosperity and they know the important role that they can play in the future of their country. As a youth at a recent Mercy Corps mediation and negotiation training told us: “Participating in Mercy Corps activities has been such an eye opener. We youth have a lot of energy, and sometimes politicians lie to us and make us beat each other because of our political and ethnic difference. I want to direct my energy to beat poverty, ignorance and disease in Kenya, not to beat fellow Kenyans.”

We’ve already seen similarities between these elections and the 2007 elections that nearly destroyed our country. This time though, we have invested a great deal of time and resources establishing and strengthening peace and electoral violence prevention and response structures. Next week we will see these structures put to their greatest test.

And just a few days after Kenya’s elections the international community will commemorate International Youth Day, this year celebrating young people’s contributions to conflict prevention, inclusion, social justice and sustainable peace. Whether not we’ll be able to celebrate youth’s role in ensuring peace in Kenya is unknown. But we remain hopeful that in an increasingly unstable region facing drought, violent extremism, starvation and chronic weak governance, Kenya’s youth will step up as the agents of peaceful change their country needs them to be. If peace prevails we know youth will largely be to thank.