On December 3rd, 1976, Bob Marley, his wife Rita and some friends were wounded by gunmen at his home in Kingston, Jamaica and in 1980 Jamaica saw close to 900 murders: what’s the connection? In 1976 and 1980 there were bitterly contested national elections between the People’s National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party.
The last few general elections have not been mired by as much violence. Everyting hasn’t always been irie during Jamaican elections. Jamaica’s experience with election violence in the post colonial period offers salient lessons to be imparted to Kenya and other countries that experience a high incidence of violence and murder during elections from Jamaica’s reduction of election violence incidence through distrust of “big man” politics and forging of a strong national identity.
As I write this I’m attending a daylong conference on Kenyan election violence: “Fragile Democracy? The 2013 Kenyan elections between reform and regression”. Although two very different places I see some parallels between the two situations based on my conversations over the years with Kenyans and following the news coverage of Kenya’s recent elections. The memories of the over 1000 of Kenyans who were murdered in the aftermath of 2007 election and the haunting conversations that I had with Kenyan friends are still very much present.
Crystal was one of my first friends in college. We instantly clicked. An 18 year old me was utterly fascinated with anything African. She was the first Kenyan woman I met, and to finally get to have conversations about all the things I read about Kenya as a teenager was bliss for me. She was surprised by my knowledge of Kenya’s history, I remember how taken a back she was when I was asking her about Jomo Kenyatta, the Swahili coast and asking her about the tensions between Kenya's many ethnic groups. A few weeks into our freshman year she introduced me to Njeri and Wangari, two of her friends who were going to Salem College, another school in Winston-Salem. I also became good friends with the both of them. I loved hearing them speak Swahili –mellifluous is how I’d describe it—I remember them telling me that they liked my accent, and we all loved reggae and dancehall. To this day whenever I hear Brown Skin by Richie Spice, I think of these three Kenyan friends and remember how we bonded over cultural exchange.
The first time I realized the centrality of the ethnic identity to Kenyan political sentiments was in the run up to the 2007 presidential elections. It was at this juncture that it was clear that Wangari and Njeri were Kikuyu and Crystal was Luo. Crystal was very vocal about her support for Raila Odinga, who like her was Luo and a close family friend. She exhibited almost blind support and was effusive in her praise of the man and exhibited unwavering belief that Raila’s victory was imminent. I still remain somewhat scarred by the conversations I had with the three of them in the initial stages of the violent social upheaval in the aftermath of an election marred with irregularities and where Odinga is believed to have been robbed of the presidency. Needless to say Crystal was shattered.
Fast forward five years. We are now 23 year olds. You can imagine how much of a shock it was for me to hear that Crystal had relinquished her job with the EU in Nairobi to become campaign manager for a Muslim candidate from Northern Kenya. Say whattt???!!! This surprised me on so many different fronts, I had to get to the bottom of this what had changed about how the Christian Luo woman saw herself to make this unexpected turnabout. Had her “Luoness” waned??? A hundred more thoughts had come and gone in a matter of minutes. And, then we Skyped.
The course of that conversation made it clear that both of us had matured as political beings, no we had evolved. The naiveté, unbounded idealism, and the political views and attitudes inherited from our parents had in some ways evaporated or undergone some critical assessment and reworking. This bodes well for Kenya’s future. This is political maturation both at the micro and macro levels. During the conversation that ensued I told Crystal that Kenya and other countries that have to contend with social divisions and high levels of social inequalities and resulting outbursts of conflict such as election violence could learn from Jamaica.