Kenyan vote will tell if violence stays in the past

An extraordinary scene played out Monday night in Kenya. The seven men and one woman seeking the presidency came together for only the second time in the country’s history for a debate ahead of next Monday’s election. Most of their answers were thoughtful and respectful.

It will be the first presidential election since 2007 when the opposition, responding to allegations of vote rigging by President Mwai Kibaki’s party, began an orgy of violence that left more than 1,100 people dead and 250,000 displaced. It took former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan months to mediate an imperfect truce that nonetheless continues to hold.

Monday’s debate, illuminated by bright lights and TV cameras that beamed images around the world, could not have been more different from the last time the world looked in on Kenya amid the violence of 2007-08. The candidates disagreed, sometimes strongly, and their positions were tweeted by legions of followers. So much so that #kedebate2013 trended on Twitter.

But even more revealing — and this might give a better indication of what will likely happen next week — were the optics at the end of the debate. There they were on stage, smiling, hugging and even patting each other on the back. That, more than any of the words uttered over three hours, may have signaled that the dark days of 2007 will remain history.

There’s no denying that Kenya has made progress since the last election. Indeed, just the fact that the country is holding democratic elections at all is a major milestone. On my first reporting trip to the Kenya a little more than two decades ago, the East African country was under the tight grip of dictator Daniel arap Moi. He hunted down and crushed “like rats” those who dared to dissent. Still, a few brave voices spoke up.

Many were affiliated with the Law Society of Kenya. And despite being constantly shadowed, harassed and brutally beaten, its members were not deterred.

At a Law Society meeting I attended while there, I met up with Raila Odinga, son of the country’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginda Odinga. The younger Odinga was well-known as a human rights advocate and had been harassed, imprisoned and temporarily forced to leave the country because of it.

The half-dozen men who met in a downtown office building discussed how to push the country toward becoming a multi-party democracy as well as ways to fend off tactics, such as constant surveillance, that the government used to silence them. They also sought to continue publishing their law journal, one of the few places where Kenyans could find articles critical of the regime.

As the meeting ended, I said goodbye to Law Society President Paul Muite, who had defended countless members against bogus charges of sedition, and followed Odinga out to the hall. He offered to provide proof that plainclothes police were a constant presence. “Let’s take the stairs down,” he said, stopping me from pressing the elevator button.

Two flights later, we passed three men standing in the stairwell. Hunter and prey looked at each other with a familiar gaze. My spine tingled.

Outside, on a crowded Nairobi street, Odinga shook his head. “They’re always around,” he said.

Under intense international pressure, Moi finally agreed to retire and allow true multi-party elections in 2002. In the years that followed, Oginda has become the country’s prime minister and Muite, the former Law Society president, a respected parliamentarian.

On Monday, the two will be among the eight candidates seeking the presidency. Over the three-hour debate a few days ago, they talked about corruption, economic reform, land rights and the country’s huge potential. They have traveled a long way, indeed, from two decades ago. On Monday, we will know whether Kenya has as well.

John Yearwood is The Miami Herald’s world editor and North American chairman of the International Press Institute.

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