By Zahra Ismail, IPJ Program Officer
“I’ve never been in the same room as a police officer — and it’s terrifying,” confided a youth participant as our police-youth forum began.
The moment had finally arrived for bringing the young people involved in our electoral violence prevention project together with police, two key groups who fought pitched battles following the 2007 elections. The IPJ, in partnership with Cissta Kenya and Chemchemi Ya Ukweli, organized the forum on November 20 and 21. Youth from Korogocho, Kibera and Mathare had the opportunity to build bridges and collaborate with civil society organizations, high-level government officials and, most importantly, the police.
My arrival in Kenya was accompanied by an explosion of violence and escalating tensions between citizens and the police. The gruesome extrajudicial killing of a young man in one of Nairobi’s slum communities by two police officers came on the heels of a massacre of 42 police officers in the northwest of the country during a raid on a gang of cattle rustlers. In the same week, the vetting of officers for the top two posts in the Kenyan police force commenced, with recommendations heading to the president and prime minister’s offices for a final decision. Commentators on all fronts noted the importance of this selection, pointing to the dysfunction of the national police force in countering violence in recent months. The press was full of allegations of corruption, human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, failed inquiries and lost public trust.
Our forum opened with inspirational words from 2012 IPJ Woman PeaceMaker Alice Nderitu, a commissioner in Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC). “As the politicians build their alliances, we need to build ours,” she noted, urging the youth to come together and organize rather than antagonize. “We must not get caught up in messages of hate but speak up for each other and organize for a peaceful future together.”
This message carried on throughout the two days as participants voiced their fears, anger and frustration, while also being asked to challenge their views and think about their own biases.
“Heal the Nation,” a documentary developed by the group Picha Mtaani (whose curated photography exhibit is currently on display at the IPJ), was screened during the forum, providing an eyewitness account of the violence that erupted after the December 2007 elections. Participants reflected on where they were at the time — and what they were doing. Many spoke of the fear they felt, while others shared how they had participated in the violence. Others voiced the need to be prepared for the upcoming elections.
Asked by Picha Mtaani facilitator Peter Mudamba how many of them thought there would be violence on March 4, 2013, the date of the next elections, more than half raised their hands. In the silence that followed, Mudamba quietly asked, “Who suffers if we engage in violence amongst ourselves? Who pays the price?”
The day continued with a panel, including Administrative Police Officer Richard Ngumo, who explained in detail the community policing process designed to respond to the tensions of the prior polls. He later replied to some of the issues raised by youth participants, promising to speak with others to address the specific challenges they identified. “This is really good by the way, what we have started here today,” he noted. “Young people must find ways to work with the police. We need to do much more of this.”His sentiments were echoed by speaker after speaker, including Tom Kagwe from the Independent Police Oversight Authority, Caleb Wauga from Usalama Reforms Forum, and Guyo Liban from the NCIC. Liban appealed to youth to get involved in ensuring free and fair elections — but moreover, peaceful elections. “No single institution can prevent violence in 2013,” he shared. “It is a collaborative work, and it is up to each and every Kenyan — including those of you in this room — to take action for peaceful elections.”
As is typical for such events, there was much sharing of what the other side should be doing. However, at this forum, each speaker acknowledged the faults and challenges of its own side. “It is not enough to point fingers,” Wauga told those gathered. “We must recognize that we don’t always understand the appropriate processes, and what is going on for the other.”
As the forum came to a close, one of the youth participants rose to share his thoughts from the two days. “We need more opportunities to interact with the people we fear,” he said. “This forum was very unique in providing such an opportunity, and we need to take that and build on it.”
Coming together was only the beginning. Plans for further collaboration between police and youth at the local level were developed during the two days, with a commitment and request from the youth to implement them over the next few months. Intended activities include police-youth soccer matches, trainings by youth for the police on nonviolence, joint peace walks and facilitated dialogue sessions between the youth and police.
As we move toward the March 2013 elections, the commitment and resolve of those willing to come together and take action will be tested. But only by communities and security agencies working with one another can attitudes change, behaviors shift and violence be prevented.
Update: Zahra Ismail, program officer, is in Kenya from February 28 to March 7 as a short-term election observer with the Carter Center’s International Election Observation Mission. Ismail heads the IPJ’s Kenya Violence Prevention Project, which builds community capacity in violence prevention in three vulnerable communities in Nairobi. Elections take place on March 4.