Political violence and its antidote

Pipe bombs in the US, politicians killed in South Africa, a candidate stabbed in Brazil. Democracies must find answers to political violence. One country, Kenya, is well down that path.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) greets opposition leader Raila Odinga at the Harambee house office in Nairobi, Kenya March 9, 2018.

Democracy, writes British scholar David Runciman in a new book about the topic, is simply “civil war without the fighting.” But, he adds, when something is not working in a democracy – such as when there is an uptick in political violence – the people usually change it.

Lately, a few democracies have witnessed a rise in political violence. In the United States, 10 pipe bombs were sent to critics of President Trump this week, with no facts yet about the motive. In Brazil last month, the leading presidential candidate was stabbed. Mexico recently experienced an average of 14.5 political murders a month. In South Africa, an increase in feuding within the ruling African National Congress has led to about 90 politicians killed since 2016.

The test in such cases of “civil wars with the fighting” is how people respond.

Do they reflect on how their own verbal attacks on political rivals might give license to violence? Do they renew society’s unwritten rules about civility and the need for a peaceful contest of ideas? Do they remind themselves of what binds a country more than bifurcates it?

One democracy that has erupted in violence over several election cycles is Kenya. In postelection upheaval in 2007 and 2008, more than 1,000 people were killed. In last year’s election, violence erupted again. The worst example was the killing of the official responsible for developing the country’s new voting system.

Each time, civic leaders came together, sometimes with foreign help, in an attempt to alter course. A new constitution in 2010, for example, distributed governmental power and established basic rights. A network of peace activists was set up to track potential violence in ethnic hot spots.

“Kenyans have stepped up time and again to make extraordinary sacrifices to ensure liberty, advance democracy, and win fundamental rights,” said Robert Godec, the US ambassador to Kenya, in a speech last month.

The most recent course correction was a historic handshake in March by the country’s two main political rivals. President Uhuru Kenyatta and a former prime minister, Raila Odinga, agreed to set up a 14-member task force called Building Bridges.

Made up of church leaders, civic activists, professionals, and others, it is charged with touring the country and coming up with proposals to reduce ethnic antagonism, curb corruption, and improve the national ethos. Sometime next year, Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga will travel together to popularize the task force’s ideas to create a “new Kenya.”

At the least, the task force’s work focuses attention on what can unite people in the African country. “We want Kenyans to have faith in the process we have started with President Kenyatta. People should not be jittery,” says Odinga.

The US and other democracies hit by political violence can learn from such attempts at political healing. Ambassador Godec says Kenya has the opportunity “to inspire and shape the future of Africa and the world.”

Kenya’s democracy is still a work in progress. But the response of Kenyans to political violence so far shows they welcome any progress.

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