Political violence eroding gains in fighting extremism

In Summary

•Since the 1990s, political violence in Kenya has been a regular feature of election cycles.

•Politicians often resort to violence to intimidate opponents and voters.

AIPCA Church in Kenol on October 4, 2020.
AIPCA Church in Kenol on October 4, 2020.
Image: ALICE WAITHERA

Politically motivated violence is a recurrent challenge in many countries. Sadly, youth play a prominent role in perpetrating such violence. 

Throughout history, young people have been recruited into armies, militia and other organized fighting groups not to mention criminal gangs and extremist entities.  

According to UNICEF, while youth are often the perpetrators of violence, a majority of them choose not to get involved but still remain vulnerable to political incitement and extremist influences.

This was amply demonstrated in a 2011 report by humanitarian agency Mercy Corps which revealed that over 70 percent of the perpetrators of the 2007/8 post-election violence in Kenya were youth. And while only 5 percent of them were actually involved in the conflict, majority of the victims were young Kenyans.  

Since the 1990s, political violence in Kenya has been a regular feature of election cycles. Politicians often resort to violence to intimidate opponents and voters.

The recent incident where two young Kenyans lost their lives in politically instigated violence in Kenol area of Murang’a County is a case in point. Rival political factions are accused of mobilizing youth to cause mayhem. The shocking incident is a painful reminder that Kenyan youth remain susceptible to manipulation and incitement by irresponsible leaders.

While as expected the State responded swiftly by putting in place a raft of measures to curb cases of violent political activities in the country, there is  need to effectively deal with socio-economic grievances such as unemployment and poverty which predispose young people to extremism, and especially ‘youth empowerment’ as a political mobilization tool.

While there is nothing wrong with empowering youth to improve their lives and play their rightful role in society, this ought to be a well-structured process backed by appropriate policies and involving all stakeholders.

If left to politicians, the consequences will be disastrous, as they could exploit youth grievances to radicalize them with extreme political views that could lead to widespread violence.  

As the largest social demographic, youth have not been spared the devastating socio-economic impact of COVID-19. In fact, young people constitute a huge vulnerable group that could easily fall prey to political machinations seeking to exploit their situation as a result of the pandemic including lack or loss of jobs, reduced business opportunities, hunger and other challenges.

Of even greater concern is that extremist elements within and outside the country could capitalize on the surge in political violence to radicalize and recruit Kenyan youth into global terrorism networks.

By itself, the violence at Kenol is a manifestation of political extremism characterized by propagation of extreme views directed at certain groups and communities. When extrapolated into dangerous narratives pitting social classes against each other, this could worsen the situation.

Moreover, this increasingly toxic environment has potential to create widespread feeling of marginalization and disaffection among Kenyan youth.

As Aya Chebbi, the African Union Youth Envoy says, “It is important to acknowledge that the tendency toward violent extremism does not emerge in a vacuum. Socio-economic and political marginalization, and disaffection of youth on the African continent and around the world are catalysts for joining violent extremism.”

Experts warn that a sizeable population of idle and unemployed youth offers a perfect breeding ground for extremism. It should be noted, however, that while extremism may not always lead to violent outcomes, it could fuel political instability and mistrust among communities.

Radicalization of youth into violence could also lead to an increase in criminal gangs and militia. More significantly, the ongoing involvement of youth in political violence undermines the National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism.

The strategy includes a mechanism for engaging local communities at county level in preventing and countering extremism. When counties become the theater of politically motivated violence, local mechanisms to address radicalization begin to falter as youth are a critical constituency in preventing and countering violent extremism.

As mentioned, there is need to re-think youth empowerment programs to prevent them being abused by political elites to mobilize young people around violent ideologies. Any real conversation on youth empowerment must address their problems in a sustainable manner.

This calls for multi-stakeholder discussions around unemployment, crime, poverty, drug abuse and the myriad challenges affecting young Kenyans.

The Youth Enterprise Fund, Ajira and other policy-led initiatives are crucial in unlocking business and job opportunities for our young people. Of course, short-term interventions such as Kazi Mtaani will address COVID-related economic challenges facing our youth while constructively engaging them in rebuilding their communities.

The other notable pathway is the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) which seeks, among other things, an end to the vicious cycle of political violence during elections. Youth have an integral role to play in the implementation of BBI and ensuring lasting peace and political stability in the country.   

All said, violence negates democracy, constitutional rule and development. Those who plan, perpetrate and promote political violence reject the cherished values of pluralism, equality, human rights and rule of law. In doing so, they facilitate the fanatical ideologies that underpin violent extremism.

As such we must strive to uproot the insidious ideology of hate and violence before it consumes us all. We must learn from history that youth are at the greatest risk of falling victim to the merchants of political violence.

Mwachinga is an Advocate and Partner at Viva Africa Consulting Limited. [email protected]