Are peace messages undermining real democracy?

Media shuns uncomfortable truths for fear of provoking violence

In Summary

• Over-cautiousness risks creating a 'peaceocracy' instead of a democracy

A peace activist carries a banner with peace messages in Eldoret after the August 9 elections
A peace activist carries a banner with peace messages in Eldoret after the August 9 elections

Fears of widespread violence in the 2022 elections have turned out to be nothing more than hot air in an election many saw as an intense, high-stakes contest between Deputy President William Ruto and former PM Raila Odinga.

The elections have concluded without a major crisis so far. Fifteen years of peace-building efforts following the 2007-08 post-election violence seem to be yielding fruit.

Every election held since that dark chapter of Kenya's history is accompanied by peace messages from politicians, religious institutions, government and NGOs. Peace messages encourage Kenyans to vote peacefully and accept the results emerging from the electoral process.

Critics, however, say the constant appeals to peace may be downplaying crucial matters, such as electoral malpractices. There's a real risk of creating what has been labelled as a "peaceocracy". This is a system of governance that emphasises stability and order at the expense of true democracy.

The 2022 election was almost trouble-free, but some notable cases of violence deserve mentioning. Daniel Musyoka, the returning officer of Embakasi East constituency, was found murdered in Kajiado county five days after he went missing from his workplace. As of the writing of this article, police are investigating the circumstances leading to his death.

In Bungoma county, an aide to a parliamentary aspirant was shot dead in a fracas involving Kimilili MP Didymus Barasa. The MP faces murder charges over the incident. In Eldaas, Wajir county, a presiding officer lost a leg in election-related fighting. Three people were arrested in connection with that violence.

Eunice Nyambane, a pastor's wife, died on Nairobi's Juja Road on August 15, when the results of the presidential election were officially declared. Her husband, who was driving, attempted to evade stone-throwing rioters, but the car crashed into an electricity pole, killing Eunice. The husband and the couple's son suffered serious injuries that got them hospitalised.


Violence has been a key feature of Kenya's elections since the colonial era. Prof Justin Willis, who studies East African history, says electoral violence is itself a contradiction because elections are supposed to represent a peaceful means of choosing leaders.

"The contrast between violent disruption and the peaceful order of the election was echoed in the bouts of self-congratulation following each of the six national elections held in Kenya between 1957 and 1974," Willis wrote in the International Journal of African Historical Studies.

Pre- and post-election comments from those years treated peace as evidence of electoral success. Newspapers had headlines such as, "Poll Thuggery Will Not Be Tolerated" and "Peaceful Elections".

The 2013 elections saw possibly the greatest amount of peace messaging in Kenya's history. That year's elections were unique because they were the first to be held after the 2008 post-election violence and the first elections under the 2010 Constitution.

The 2013 elections represented a transition of power as President Mwai Kibaki was not eligible for re-election. Furthermore, violence was simmering at the Coast, where the Mombasa Republican Council was fighting for secession of the coastal strip.

The African Affairs journal confirms that peace messaging peaked around the 2013 election. That’s when the newly formed National Cohesion and Integration Commission began working with provincial administrators, organisations and networks to monitor hate speech. Media houses and international organisations trained journalists in conflict-sensitive reporting and peace journalism.

Theatre groups and musicians went throughout the country, calling on Kenyans to vote peacefully. Politicians, some of whom were implicated in the 2007 election violence, competed to display their peace-loving credentials. A lot of the peace messaging was sponsored by foreign-funded organisations.

Peace messaging has continued right up to the 2022 election, with media houses, religious leaders, aspirants and civil society groups persuading Kenyans to accept the outcome of the election. NCIC began implementing a new set of guidelines called, "Elections Bila Noma" (violence-free elections) to guide the realisation of peaceful elections.

Even the United Nations weighed in with calls for peace. In July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on everyone involved in the electoral process to commit themselves to peaceful conduct before, during and after elections. "Candidates and political parties must refrain from using inflammatory language, which may lead to violence and human rights abuses, particularly against women, persons with disabilities or ethnic groups," the world body said in a statement.


Peace messaging has, therefore, played a big role in convincing Kenyans that violence is not the right way to solve political problems. As stated in the African Affairs journal, the emphasis on peace at all costs has been criticised as a "peaceocracy." The fear of conflict is used to prioritize stability and order to the detriment of democracy. The fear of violence becomes a justification to repress individuals and groups that might cause disorder disregarding the genuineness of their grievances.

The media, of course, has an important role to play in inculcating a culture of peaceful elections. Heavily criticised for their role in the 2007 violence, the media seems to have adopted an over-cautious role in their coverage of the 2013 and 2017 elections. Media outlets were accused of ignoring electoral malpractices and focusing on trivial matters, such as Githeri Man.

Critics ignore the media's role in disseminating news about the 2017 violence between protestors and the police. Baby Samantha Pendo, who died when her family was attacked by riot police in Kisumu, became an icon representing victims of police brutality.

In the weeks prior to the 2017 elections, the media provided widespread coverage of the murder of Chris Msando, who was then head of ICT at the IEBC. The merits of Raila Odinga's successful presidential petition in 2017 were covered extensively in the media.

It may be too early for local media to congratulate itself for a job well done this year, but the largely peaceful environment in Kenya owes a lot to peace journalism. Since the unfortunate events of 2008, journalists have benefited from numerous training sessions aimed at inculcating peace journalism.

The International Centre for Journalists (ICJ) describes peace journalism as a style of reporting through which editors and reporters make choices that improve the prospects for peace. These choices include how to frame stories and carefully choosing the words to be used. Peace journalism creates an atmosphere which supports peacemakers without compromising the basic principles of good journalism.

Peace journalism avoids "Us versus Them," "Good guy versus Bad guy," narratives. It does not let politicians get away with making false or inciting statements. Instead, journalists seek the opinions of those promoting non-violent means of solving problems in society. Peace journalism encourages the media to get views from the grassroots, instead of just reporting about elites and those in power.

Peace journalism should not prevent journalists from reporting uncomfortable truths for fear of provoking violence. Doing so risks creating a "peaceocracy" instead of a democracy.

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