Murder of Kenyan election official raises fears of another outbreak of violence

Kenya, which has seen all too much Dangerous Speech before elections, and violence after them, has been relatively free of both in period leading to its next presidential vote on August 8. This has just changed. The tortured corpse of Chris Msando, the Kenyan elections official in charge of electronic voting machines, was found in a forest outside Nairobi on Saturday.

Msando’s death has sparked concern that the integrity of those machines could be compromised during the vote on Tuesday. He was scheduled to oversee a public audit of the machines on Monday, but it has been canceled. In the last presidential elections in 2013, the electronic voting equipment malfunctioned, so that the result was not announced until five days after the election, and Raila Odinga, the losing presidential candidate, claimed this was evidence that they were rigged against him. Now Odinga, who lost both of the last two elections and is running again, is pointing to Msando’s death as evidence that the government will steal this one. Odinga’s claim is all the more inflammatory since polls indicate that this election is likely to be close, as the 2013 one was.

Widespread distrust of the election process will create an environment ripe for inflammatory rumors on both sides, of which there is a long history in Kenya. By far the worst case was the 2007 election, which followed months of inflammatory rhetoric by politicians representing the two largest ethnic groups – Kikuyus and Luos. The incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, had himself abruptly sworn in as president on television, and then shut down all television broadcasting. In the bloody riots that immediately followed, at least 1,000 people died and 600,000 more were displaced from their homes.

Before the next presidential election in March 2013, Kenyans were so worried about another outbreak of violence that people from many walks of life –  clerics, football stars, soldiers, artists, a paint manufacturing company, even TV and newspapers journalists – called on Kenyans to forsake hateful speech and violence. The election was completed with only one episode of serious violence, and although several people were killed, the violence did not spread.

This time around, the clamor about inflammatory speech more than a year ago, in June 2016 when prosecutors indicted eight members of the Kenyan Parliament from both major parties, for statements “laced with ethnic hatred.” Also one of them allegedly called for Odinga’s assassination. In January 2017, Governor William Kabogo of Kiambu County was also charged with ethnic incitement for hateful remarks made about Odinga. In the end, all of these charges were dropped, allegedly for a lack of evidence.