Turning up the volume: Voice and accountability in Kenya

Fletcher Tembo
15 February 2008
Comment
What began as a dispute over election results in Kenya has escalated into something much worse in recent weeks. More than 1,000 people have now been killed and around 600,000 have been forced to leave their homes. Though Kofi Annan, who is currently leading mediation talks, hopes to broker a solution to the crisis this week, it is unlikely that things will return to normal as quickly as they began. Community cohesion has been shaken, as rifts over land and power that have existed since the colonial era continue to fuel conflict and insecurity. Almost overnight, Kenya’s image as one of Africa’s most prosperous and politically stable has been shattered. The strong foundations that everyone thought were there crumbled away in less than a week.

But it’s not just an image that has been shattered. It’s the trust in governing systems and, more importantly, the ability for the voices of ordinary citizens to be heard. The violence that erupted over President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed re-election didn’t come from nowhere; it came because those who had voted for the opposition candidate felt that their right to input into the political process had been violated.

Of course, Kenya is not an isolated example. Similar situations are found in different forms all over the world. Take Georgia, for instance, where elections were also disputed, or Pakistan where the justice system was undermined by decisions of an overzealous leader. These examples show that despite decades of effort to get constitutions, elections and participation in decision-making right, at present, millions of people are still vulnerable to the powers that govern them. Moreover, there are few mechanisms in place to receive and defend people’s voices when their governments fail them.

Technological advances have helped. The birth of blogs and other kinds of citizen journalism have played a big part in allowing people to express their views across national boundaries. Using today’s technology, almost anyone with basic computer knowledge can capture news and distribute it globally. But we cannot rely on more widespread use of ICTs alone, since many parts of the world still lack access to a computer, let alone the internet.  We need to find other, more inclusive, ways to support people’s voices.

One way is to identify champions and defenders of people’s voices that work in tandem with constitutional systems. Like CIVICUS, a world alliance for citizen participation, or Inter Press Service, which helps facilitate civil society participation in governance through increased media exposure and training for communication.

Another is to establish strong watchdog agencies at community, national and international levels to ensure that the right to free speech is upheld everywhere. Either way, the current situation in Kenya should remind us of the importance of safeguarding this right. It is, after all, fundamental to a well-functioning democratic system that delivers benefits for all.

Fletcher Tembo