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Kenyan police must take bold action to curb electoral violence

Via ISS, Nairobi
Kenyans go to the polls on 4 March 2013 to elect their leaders at national and local level. This election is expected to turn the page on the bloodshed that followed the last national polls in 2007–2008. Notwithstanding the reforms that were instituted to address the flaws of the previous polls and the determination of the majority of Kenyans to avoid a repeat of the violence, many believe that the likelihood of conflict during the next election is still high. A Human Rights Watch report released early this month, ‘High Stakes: Political Violence and the 2013 Elections in Kenya’, warns of the unacceptably high risk of violence. The country’s security institutions, particularly the police, which has the primary responsibility for election security, must take bold action to curb the risk of violence.

A proper understanding of the police’s role in electoral processes, as well as the principles of policing elections, is key to providing effective electoral security. Police duties during elections include protecting electoral stakeholders such as candidates, voters and observers; safeguarding election materials and facilities such as polling stations and counting centres; ensuring the lawfulness and orderliness of electoral events such as debates, public appearances and polling; and investigating allegations of criminal wrongdoing by candidates, government officials and other electoral stakeholders.

Success in maintaining election security depends upon the political neutrality and professionalism of the security personnel. Police officers should not belong to any political party or promote partisan views. They should do their job without any bias towards any of the contesting parties. The professionalism of the police is demonstrated by the extent to which the police institutions are organised, resourced and managed, as well as the extent to which officers are trained and disciplined. The police should also promote transparency and accountability by enhancing consultation mechanisms with electoral stakeholders such as political groups, civil society and other organisations.

The provision of effective electoral security starts with a proper assessment and understanding of both the security risks and the corresponding security measures. This assessment must clarify the forms, sources and locations of potential conflicts and violence at different phases of the electoral process, i.e. problems associated with campaigning, balloting, announcement of the results, and representation. At the broadest level, the electoral security risk assessment should comprise contextual, historical and stakeholder analysis. Specifically, the assessment must consider the relationship between the contesting parties, key political figures representing the parties, and the people or groups they represent. The behaviour and implicit intentions of the leading political figures, as well as the contesting strategies of the parties and candidates, need to be scrutinised and interpreted.

A key part of the electoral security plan is assessing the preparedness of the police in relation to the potential risk for conflict and violence. The electoral security plan should specify police intervention strategies and standards, deployment arrangements, coordination and control mechanisms, and resource and training needs. The security response plan should detail the police roles and responsibilities during the election, including rules of engagement, codes of conduct and use of force standards.

The electoral security plan should also clearly define the operational boundaries, chain of command, and coordination arrangements between different police institutions or units, such as the Kenyan National Police (KNP), General Service Units (GSUs), and the Administration Police, as well as the army and national intelligence service. Communication and coordination mechanisms with other agencies responsible for the administration of the election should also be included in the plan. In this regard, joint operation arrangements will need to be set up between the election and security authorities.

A deployment arrangement will need to be developed in response to the potential security risks. Police deployment may need to include static (e.g. protection of storage facilities of electoral materials, polling stations and electoral offices), mobile (e.g. protection of high-level candidates and campaign rally sites), and reserve deployment (e.g. contingency forces to support either static or mobile forces as required). The plan should also aim to ensure enhanced communication systems, and that sufficient resources are available in the specific locations at the times required. As part of the preparation process, police officers at all levels need to undergo specialised training. The contents of the training should primarily be based on identified threats and security requirements as well as: electoral principles; rules and processes relevant to the police; police roles, rules of engagement and code of conduct; electoral security threats and corresponding strategies; command and communication structures and mechanisms; and management of major types of incidents. 

The coming election gives the Kenyan police a chance to rectify the flaws of the 2007-8 polls and renew its image. The police will face great pressure to maintain security during the elections, given the high risk of violence. To minimise this risk, police officers should be deployed in adequate numbers to areas of potential conflict and should perform their duties impartially and with full respect for the law. The officers will need to make sure that they stay clear of the common mistakes: intimidation, unlawful arrest and detention, refusal to provide protection, obstruction of the exercise of election rights, systematic influence on voters, use of excessive force, a breach of the conventional procedures of law enforcement, and inattentiveness to and unjustness in dealing with complaints.

Tsegaye D. Baffa, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peace Building Division, ISS Nairobi

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