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Africa

Why are Kenyans protesting against the national electoral commission?

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A policeman hits a protestor during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Protests against Kenya’s electoral commission turned violent in several different cities Monday with one protestor reported dead. Why have Kenyans been out protesting for the past few weeks? And could these protests mean more chaos to come?

Every Monday for the past few weeks opposition demonstrators have met outside the offices of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in cities across Kenya.

The protests have seen clashes between protesters and police.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, who has already lost two bids for the presidency, has alleged that the commission is biased towards President Uhuru Kenyatta and should be dissolved. While Kenya’s next elections are not until August 2017, the political climate is already starting to heat up.

Kenyans have very different views on the protests.

“Kenya is very divided right now,” said Alex Dyzenhaus, a researcher at the British Institute in Eastern Africa. “The people on the side of the government think that Odinga, who lost two elections already, is stirring the pot so he can claim he was cheated out of a third victory, as well. They see it as divisive politics played by a divisive political figure who wants to destabilise things before the 2017 elections.

"The opposition camp, of course, sees it very differently. They see the current government as having failed to tackle corruption, the protests as legitimate and the crackdown as awful.”

Last week the United States condemned “excessive use of force” by Kenya’s security forces on protestors. There was also a large outcry on social media after photos and videos alleging to show police brutality during the protests went viral. Most Kenyans have been disturbed to see this violence.

“Our new constitution, which was approved by referendum in 2010, guarantees the right to peacefully demonstrate,” said Mwongela Kamencu, a Kenyan researcher and a musician who raps about social justice issues. “One would think after a number of decades of police brutality that we would have progressed to a level where violence was a thing of the past”.

In the past few months security experts have warned of heightening political temperatures building up to the 2017 election. In 2007 and 2008, more than 1,200 people died in post-election violence.

Abdullahi Boru, a political analyst and a researcher at Amnesty International based in Kenya, is in favour of dissolving the electoral committee, if only to avoid violence.

“At this stage, it is about unlocking this impasse to move to the next step,” Boru said. “A deal can be struck. There is a widespread feeling that the electoral commission isn’t up to the task and we don’t want to go into an election under these circumstances, especially considering our not very distant history. In Kenya elections are matters of death and life.”

Kenyan-based security firm Securex has already predicted the possibility of violence in 2017, yet head of communications Brian Sagala downplayed the worry about these protests.

“As it stands now, people are only demonstrating outside the IEDC offices,” he said. “If you look at the rest of Nairobi and the rest of Kenya, everything is going on as usual. Moreover, the protests are very carefully planned. They happen on Mondays, they aren’t going on for days. We cannot really say that it’s a precursor that it will be violent next year. For this time, we are on a watch-and-see approach."

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