Commentators say it is too early to stop funding work to build lasting peace at community level.
By Mathews Ndanyi –
As international funding for peace and reconciliation efforts in Kenya’s Rift Valley dwindles, commentators say the work is far from done.
Just a few weeks after the Kenyan general election, some donors have shifted their funding to new areas like governance and a process of devolution which is transferring powers from the centre to county level.
That inevitably means less money is available to fund projects designed to reduce the inter-communal tensions that still exist five years after Kenya was swept by a wave of ethnic violence.
The Rift Valley region was the worst hit by the unrest that followed the disputed presidential election of December 2007. The two largest groups here, the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, found themselves on opposing sides in a conflict in which hundreds died and thousands fled their homes.
Since calm was restored in early 2008, organisations like the United States government aid agency USAID and the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, have been funding a range of peace efforts, resettlement and reintegration programmes, inter-communal dialogue, and youth projects.
Some of this work is now set to end. USAID and IOM are the principal funders of community peace groups in the Rift Valley. On June 1, USAID will end its funding for more than 20 community-based organisations in the region. One of the key programmes affected is the North Rift Youth Peace Initiative, which over the last three years has trained young people and created business opportunities for them, across ethnic divides.
A second programme, Rift Valley Local Empowerment for Peace, LEAP, funded by USAID and run by Mercy Corps, is due to end in July. According to USAID’s website, this programme has worked to “strengthen local mechanisms and skills for conflict management, and promote social connections among youth across ethnic and other lines of division”.
The March election saw Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and William Ruto, a Kalenjin, elected president and deputy president of Kenya. Their alliance is meant to draw a line under old divisions, and for the moment it does seem to have calmed things down. But grievances remain at grassroots level, some dating from the 2007-8 violence and others of longer standing, around issues like access to land and other resources. At this point, it is too early to assume the risk of renewed violence has gone away. (See Old Tensions Persist in Kenya’s Rift Valley.)
Ken Wafula, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret, is concerned that the withdrawal of funding for peace efforts could leave “gaps that can be exploited” when it comes to contentious issues like land ownership.
Wafula believes internationally-backed peace and reconciliation efforts should continue until key problems have been addressed.
“Issues to do with land have been the main cause of conflicts in the Rift Valley, and although we now have the National Land Commission in place, it has not done anything in its mandate, and land is still a potential source of problems in this region,” he said.
Wafula doubts reconciliation initiatives can be sustained locally if external funding for them falls away.
Seline Kiptanui of the Women for Peace Initiatives group agrees that it is too early to say that the problems have disappeared, so peacebuilding can safely be halted. She said it was a “wrong assumption” to argue that the largely trouble-free March elections mean that formerly antagonistic communities were now at peace.
“If anything, this is the time the organisations should set up camp to build on what has been achieved so far,” she added. “Peace, reconciliation, cohesion and integration cannot be short-term events, and have to be continuous.”
CAN GOVERNMENT FILL THE GAP?
Representatives of some of the organisations that have worked in the Rift Valley since 2008 insist their projects will not suffer when the funding falls away.
Jane Githuka, a communications officer with the USAID-funded Mercy Corps, said the initiatives started by her organisation had now been taken over by the local community.
“Some of the peace projects we initiated in areas hit by the violence are now self-sustaining and the communities are not willing to let them die out even with the withdrawal of funding from Mercy Corps,” Githuka told IWPR.
The United States ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, confirmed that the focus of American aid was shifting.
“We are exploring other ways to cooperate and even increase funding in key areas,” Godec said on a recent visit to the Rift Valley to assess some of the projects funded by USAID.
The Kenyan government insists it will pick up where the international groups leave off. It has set up “district peace committees” which will work with community groups that until now had international funding.
The National Cohesion and Integration Commission, NCIC, which the government set up in 2008 after the conflict, recognises that support for these local groups needs to continue.
“We may have some challenges related to funding of some of the initiatives, but we want to ensure that the district peace committees and elders, youth and women forums are sustained so that they continue the work on peace,’’ Fatuma Muhammed, an NCIC commissioner, said. “In fact, we are identifying new structures and systems like the use of strong elders’ groups to deal with dialogue and conflict resolution mechanisms so that we have permanent local initiatives to continue with the activities on peace.”
Abdi Mohammed is county commissioner for Uasin Gishu, an area of the Rift Valley that saw some of the worst violence in 2007-08. Mohammed says local government will continue focusing on peacebuilding even without international support.
“Through the last elections we have proved that we are not a hot spot,” Mohammed said. “We cannot, however, sit back and claim to have achieved lasting peace. We have to continually address peace issues and deal with causes of conflicts through the systems we have put in place.”
Mohammed believes that the district peace committees, councils of elders and local non-governmental organisations can drive efforts for sustained peace without international backing.
“Such groups have already played a critical role to bring about the peace that we are enjoying now and I am sure they will only need to cultivate the peace initiatives and team up to be stronger in moving forward with support from the communities and local stakeholders,” Mohammed said.
Catholic clerics have come out in support of locally-run mechanisms to help reduce tensions.
“The best solutions to conflicts are always home-grown,” The bishop of Eldoret, Cornelius Korir, said. “I have worked with communities, and I know if we keep dialogue going on issues which cause problems, then we will always have home-grown solutions.”
Bishop Geoffrey Songok of the Reformed Church of East Africa echoed Korir’s views.
“It’s the people themselves who have been working out their own ways to live harmoniously,” he said. “You may have the support from other groups, but if people cannot dialogue between themselves, you will not succeed.”
Not everyone, however, is wholly convinced of the value of community-based mechanisms.
“Some of the groups of elders which the government considers as the alternatives [to existing peace programmes] are not effective, as they failed to contain past situations,” Nick Omito, a peace activist in the Rift Valley, said.
According to Omito, some community elders lost the respect and authority they once enjoyed because they sided with one or another political party or candidate during the 2007 elections.
“If the elders system was working, then we wouldn’t have had the 2007-08 violence in the first place,” he said. “They would have stopped it by prevailing on the youth not to fight.”
Wafula argues that before they shut up shop, the donor-funded peace programmes should establish more robust systems both for preempting conflicts and for resolving them when they arise.
“Once they quit, even the dialogue forums – mainly between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin – will greatly weaken,” Wafula said. “The government usually acts on impulse, and no one will care until the situation gets out of hand again.”
DEVOLUTION AS MIXED BLESSING
In this uncertain environment, some activists are worried at the impact the ongoing process of devolving government might have. Instead of empowering whole communities, it might increase the scope for patronage and ethnic bias.
“The county system creates a situation where tribes with a majority in particular counties will dominate others in terms of jobs, resources and other benefits, causing tribal animosity and threatening peace and stability,” said Kiptanui of the Women for Peace Initiatives organisation.
She pointed out that competition among different ethnic groups was already apparent in some counties.
“If we do not ensure the counties give equal opportunity to everyone, then the minorities – or marginalised or other groups – will have to demand their rights, and this will endanger peace,” she said.
Mathews Ndanyi is a reporter for ReportingKenya.net and The Star newspaper in Eldoret.
This article was produced as part of a media development programme by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation in partnership with The Star.