Letters To God: Kenyans appeal for peaceful election

Thousands of Kenyans are taking up pen and keyboars to write letters praying for a peaceful March presidential election. US President Obama's step-grandmother is joining the effort, aimed at avoiding the violence that followed the 2007 vote.

Five years after a disputed presidential election unleashed interethnic violence that scarred this East African nation, Kenyans are bracing for a new election amid fears of a fresh outbreak of bloodletting.

But a growing number of Kenyans are challenging that fear with hope, with thousands taking up the call to “Write to God” with prayers that upcoming March 4 elections will be peaceful.

One of the best known Kenyans to join the effort is Sarah Onyango Obama, the US president’s step-grandmother. From her home in the western village of Nyang’oma Kogelo, Mrs. Obama wrote that Kenya had to take a path much different than that of Rwanda and its horrific 1994 genocide.

"But when I see conflicts on TV, I keep wondering if Kenyans value peace," she said in her letter which was posted in English and a local dialect on a Facebook page created for the letter drive.

The participation of the 90-year-old Mrs. Obama, who is Muslim and is the third wife of President Obama’s grandfather, is seen as important for the effort, according to organizers, who include business leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and interfaith groups. Mrs. Obama is regarded as a minor celebrity in her home district for her relationship to the American president and for her charity work: a foundation to help children orphaned by AIDS has been started in her name.

As the elections approach, Kenyans face serious social and economic hardship. Unemployment in the country of 42 million is about 40 percent, up from 12.7 percent in 2006, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Prices for food and other staple commodities have skyrocketed: corn, for example, has doubled in price in recent years, rising to about 60 Kenyan shillings (about 70 cents) a kilogram.

As many as 55 percent of Kenyans are worried about the political environment and potential violence, according to a poll by Strategic Research and Communication Consultants for Africa. The Dec. 17-19 poll surveyed 1,500 Kenyans in face-to-face interviews. No margin of error was given.

Hence the letter-writing campaign.

“Social studies show that writing is therapeutic, and when one writes to a higher power, a natural sense of peace is created in the person,” said Sr. Brahma Kumaris Vedanti, the regional director of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, which is helping to organize the campaign. She spoke to reporters in Nairobi on Dec. 1 at a news conference to launch the initiative.

The campaign is considered unusual for Kenya, where about 82 percent of the country considers itself Christian, while about 11 percent are Muslim: most church-going Kenyans make their appeals to God in prayer, not in written form. But organizers say this is a peace initiative for all religions and ethnic groups.

Five years of reconciliation efforts

The election violence of five years ago was sparked after incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the victor in 2007 and his challenger, Raila Odinga, now prime minister, rejected the results, saying they were rigged. The dispute triggered riots and clashes that resulted in more than 1,000 people being killed and tens of thousands displaced. The brutality dented Kenya’s image as a stable nation in East Africa and set back its economy.

Since that time, Kenyan and international organizations have undertaken numerous peace and reconciliation efforts, particularly in the Rift Valley and the Nyanza, Western, and Central provinces, which were the sites of the worst spasms of violence. More than 600,000 people who were displaced have returned, and for many villages, there is little outward sign of violence or strife.

Many of the initiatives have been led by the Roman Catholic Church in Kenya, as well as the Protestant National Council of Churches, especially in the Rift Valley. Church groups have helped to organize “peace committees,” getting people who stole property or burned houses during the violence to come forward and confess to their crimes, and offer repayment or compensation.

The government also set up a Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to investigate not only the violence, but larger, historical injustices and human rights violations. The TJRC, which has yet to give its final report, has been criticized as lacking credibility, due to a leadership struggle involving its chairman, Bethuel Kiplagat. He has been accused of being a member of a government team whose orders led to the notorious 1984 Wagalla Massacre, when Army and police troops rounded up members of the Somali community protesting against the government. Thousands were tortured and are believed to have died, according to human rights groups.  

There have also been several criminal prosecutions stemming directly from the post-2007 election violence. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has charged four Kenyans, including Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, with crimes against humanity, and local prosecutors have charged several others for involvement in the violence. Many, however, believe that the main perpetrators and organizers have so far gone unpunished.

Serious tensions remain in other provinces. At least 39 people were killed when farmers raided a village of herders in southeastern part of the country early Friday in renewed fighting between two communities with a history of violent animosity, according to The Associated Press.

The tit-for-tat cycle of killings may be related to a redrawing of political boundaries and next year's general elections, the US humanitarian coordinator for Kenya, Aeneas C. Chuma, said in late August. On the surface, however, the violence seems driven by competition for water, pasture, and other resources, according to the Associated Press.

With fears of renewed violence, many citizens have welcomed efforts that can help sustain peace. By Friday, more than 6,000 letters had been written, with some coming from senior politicians, the clergy, and local businessmen. In addition to mailing them, participants are being encouraged to post them on Facebook or Twitter.

More than 14 million people have registered to vote, of an anticipated 18 million. President Kibaki, who is not standing for reelection, has tried to assure Kenyans that the March vote will be free, fair, and peaceful, as has Odinga, who is a front-runner in a growing field of at least four other candidates.

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