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Elections in Kenya present chance for forgotten to speak

Kenya's general election is about a new future, but whether this future is prosperous or not depends on how it will affect marginalised members of society.

Along a dry riverbed in Kenya's northern desert, about a 100 Samburu pastoralists are spread out in the shade of acacia trees, watching their cattle graze. Some carry spears, others automatic weapons, illustrating the reality of life in these arid rangelands where conflicts over land and water occasionally erupt along ethnic lines.

Today, however, the afternoon is calm, and the herders mill about as they wait for a buyer for their livestock. Unlike recent years, when drought decimated herds and livelihoods across the northern pastoral region of Kenya and caused widespread humanitarian crises, the rains last season were good. The cattle look healthy, and the herders anticipate a fair price.

With Kenya's general elections tomorrow, these arid landscapes that form 70 per cent of the country feel worlds away from the campaign rallies and streets of the larger towns. Part of the reason for this is because Kenya's north, as one Borana elder and community organiser told me, is "not only been ignored, but also misunderstood".

With Kenya's development priorities historically focused on the more productive, arable areas of the country, the dry north has borne the brunt of inequalities in the distribution of national wealth, and many communities have become tied to donor funding and humanitarian assistance.

As the candidates for local and national governments made their last campaign pushes before voting, they seem to have taken more notice of the pastoralists dispersed across the region. Many of the Samburu herders gathered along the river bed wear hats and cloths of different political parties, the faces of candidates contrasting with their beaded necklaces and braided hair coloured with ochre.

Some dismiss this election as just another case of political rhetoric, where after the elections the candidates will recede to the cities and towns and forget their promises. Others are more hopeful, and see this election not only as a big step for Kenya, but also one in which they will be able to become more respected participants.

Fear is mounting that tomorrow's elections could lead to a repeat of five years ago. Post-election violence in 2007-2008 left over 1,000 dead, displaced 600,000 from their homes and forced the two leading presidential candidates into a power-sharing agreement to avoid spiralling into further ethnic violence.

But in this election, stakes are even higher. Kenyans will not only choose new leaders, they will also usher in a new form of government.

Kenya's new constitution, passed in 2010, focuses on the devolution of power by forming stronger local governments and limiting the power of the presidency. Within this framework, voters tomorrow will choose candidates to fill a host of new positions, many of them at the local level, meant to strengthen accountability and participation.

How this will be realised over the next few years remains to be seen, but for the pastoralists of northern Kenya, it could have far reaching implications. With 80 per cent of Kenya's population living in fertile, productive land that covers 20 per cent of the country, new pressures are being placed on the north for the future of development in Kenya.

Oil has been discovered in the Turkana region in the north-west, and an economic corridor - including a motorway, railway and oil pipeline - is planned to cross the northern part of the country linking South Sudan and Ethiopia to the Kenyan coast. Meanwhile, a new airport has been opened in Isiolo, the epicentre of development activities in the north that is planned to become a Las Vegas-type resort city meant to attract international visitors and investors.

Managing all of this will be the leaders elected tomorrow.

This land is the same that pastoral communities depend on for their livelihoods, many of them holding traditional tenure rights that are not recognised formally by government. Those who understand the implications of what is happening are raising a pertinent question: how are people in the poorest constituencies of Kenya, in which upwards of 90 per cent of the people live below the poverty line, meant to assert themselves amid this steam roller of development?

"What is important," says one community leader, "is not who we choose for president, but to choose a new government that respects our traditions and ideas." The wider region, too, is aware that something vital is happening in Kenya; Richard Sezibera, the secretary general of the East African Community, recently wrote that these elections are a "time for new beginnings".

In the final hours before voters go to the polls, the country is full of anticipation and hope. Messages of peace dominate the airwaves and newspapers. Peace concerts are being held and candidates are appealing to their supporters for calm.

But there is also an underlying uncertainty, a memory of what happened last time; these fears are fuelled by the fact that one of the leading presidential candidates, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged complicity in crimes against humanity committed in the aftermath of the 2007 campaign.

For Kenya, this election is a step in the shaping of a new future. Whether this future is prosperous or not depends on how it will affect the members of society who have most often been ignored.

 

Brendan Buzzard is a freelance writer and Africa analyst based in Kenya

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