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Calculated Rift

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September 15, 2011

Inflaming ethnic divisions, alleged war criminals in Kenya campaign for higher office.

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Photograph courtesy of J Carrier

Bernard Orinda Ndege, 54, lives outside the Kenyan town of Kisumu, on a small patch of land at the edge of Lake Victoria. He moved there over three years ago, after violence resulting from the December 2007 elections overtook his home in Naivasha, in the Rift Valley. The comparison is unfavorable: he knows few people in Kisumu, and hippopotami routinely squat on his land, which is less fertile than his old farm. But these are minor hardships compared to what prompted the move. At the height of the violence in the valley, in late January 2008, thugs burned down his home and killed his eight children and two wives, one of whom had been due to give birth any day.

On the morning of the attack, Ndege’s oldest son, 20-year-old Silas, went out to buy water and returned with the news that members of an outlawed gang were approaching Naivasha. Mwai Kibaki, the ethnic Kikuyu president, had been sworn in for a second term a month earlier, despite claims of voting irregularities from his principal challenger, Raila Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe. Over the following weeks, Odinga supporters throughout the valley targeted Kikuyus, who lost their homes if not their lives to machete-wielding mobs. According to Silas, a Nairobi-based Kikuyu gang known as the Mungiki was coming to retaliate.

Ndege, a Luo, discounted his son’s report. “I did not believe it. I thought it was a joke. I told my son, ‘There’s no way the Mungiki will attack us because there are no Mungiki here,’” he recalled recently. Police had also told him that they were guarding the homes of non-Kikuyus, just in case.

As night fell, a group of young men appeared outside Ndege’s two-room house. The police chased them away. Not long after, however, the police retreated to the local station, and the young men, more agitated now, returned and began lobbing stones onto the roof. “When I heard the stones, that’s when I realized it was serious,” Ndege said.

As lit matches hit the floor, they tried to take cover. Their screams were quickly drowned out by the cheers of the Mungiki.

He raced out to place a padlock on the gate leading into the compound, but the mob broke it apart with more stones and quickly surrounded the house. The family gathered in the bedroom, huddling together as windows were smashed in. Through one of the frames, Ndege locked eyes with the leader of the mob, who told him: “Old man, today you are dead, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We’re behind the house and we’re at the gate.” The leader then turned to someone and said, “Bring petrol.” Soon, members of the gang were reaching through the windows, emptying gasoline cans onto the floor.

“I told my family, ‘Now, it’s everybody for himself,’” Ndege remembers. As lit matches hit the floor, they tried to take cover. Their screams were quickly drowned out by the cheers of the Mungiki. “Nobody could discern between the sounds of the people asking for help and the sounds of people celebrating,” Ndege said. He woke up the next day at Naivasha district hospital, the only survivor.

The attack on Ndege’s family, occurring amid spasms of post-election violence, was distinctive only in terms of degree: in no other recorded incident did so many members of a single household perish. Other elements of the killing—the mob violence, the selection of victims based on ethnicity alone—held throughout the country. That same week, in a Rift Valley town northwest of Naivasha, a Luo woman I’ll call Caroline Anyango watched a Kikuyu mob chop off her Luo husband’s genitals and chase him into an abandoned quarry, where he drowned. In Kisumu, David Mugo, a mild-mannered Luo barber, recalls taking part in a seven-day “looting spree” in early January targeting Kikuyu and Kisii homes. In the expansive Nairobi slum of Kibera, Consolata Ngugi, a 49-year-old Kikuyu woman, was raped by at least three Luo men before losing consciousness. The violence ended only when Kibaki and Odinga signed a power-sharing deal on February 28. By that point, more than 1,200 Kenyans had died and more than 500,000 had been displaced.

Despite this widespread disorder, the magnitude of Ndege’s loss drew national attention. Odinga, who became prime minister in the power-sharing government, even called Ndege personally to express his condolences and offer to purchase coffins; several members of his political party attended the funeral.

Nonetheless, Ndege has little hope that Kenyan law enforcement will identify the organizers of the attack on his family and bring them to trial. Asked why, he gives not an explicit reason but a list of names: Tom Mboya, J.M. Kariuki, Robert Ouko: all prominent politicians, all assassinated, in 1969, 1975 and 1990, respectively. Because their killings—and those of men with similar standing—never led to high-level prosecutions, they remain unsolved in the minds of most Kenyans. And far away from Nairobi, in areas that seem wholly disconnected from the circles in which these power brokers operated, their names have become a handy form of shorthand for the impunity that is seen as keeping the country’s leaders in power today. Ndege is not the only farmer prone to mentioning them in discussions of the post-election violence.

“Kenya has failed the test of justice before,” Ndege said. “If until now we don’t know who killed Ouko, if until now we don’t know who killed J.M. Kariuki, if all of these people died and they were big people, how will we know who killed my family in Naivasha? I’m just a small man who nobody remembers.”

True to form, the government has made almost no progress in prosecuting post-election crimes, and this lack of accountability prompted the International Criminal Court to get involved. In November 2009, after efforts to establish a special tribunal foundered in parliament, ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested permission to launch an investigation—the only time he has ever moved to open a case on his own. (Cases are usually referred to the court, which began operating in 2002, either by national leaders or by the UN Security Council.)

In December 2010, Ocampo identified six crimes against humanity suspects from three ethnic groups: three cabinet ministers (two of whom have since lost their cabinet posts), the head of the civil service, the police commissioner during the violence (now the head of the postal service) and a radio journalist. Since the announcement, the Kibaki wing of the coalition government has tried to halt the ICC proceedings, first arguing that they could jeopardize “international peace and security,” then insisting, against ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, that the cases could be handled in Kenya, by Kenya.

This effort by the Kibaki wing is widely expected to fail. The ICC is holding hearings this month at its home in The Hague to determine whether to formally charge the so-called Ocampo Six. But in spending time trying to shield the suspects the government may have lost an opportunity to stave off violence next year, when parliamentary and the first round of presidential elections will likely be held.

Many of the factors that fueled the last crisis, notably the high level of national ethnic polarization, remain unaddressed. Again, Odinga is a frontrunner for the presidency, and he could very well be running against two of The Hague suspects, creating an even more combustible roster of candidates (Kibaki cannot run because of term limits). This time around, Kenyans could take steps to arm themselves in advance—if they haven’t done so already.

“The fear is that people will be much more prepared, and that the fighting will be carried out not with machetes but with guns,” Njonjo Mue, head of the International Center for Transitional Justice in Kenya, said. “And let’s not forget that Kenya has very porous borders with Somalia.”

Amid these predictions of unrest, Ndege supports himself with earnings from a few crops (cassava, onions) hardy enough to withstand the degraded soil and harassment from the hippos. Other victims of the violence are worse off: tens of thousands continue to languish in camps for internally displaced persons. Ndege’s apparent resignation—“I am just a small man”—reflects his profoundly low expectations for his nation and its politics. It would seem entirely appropriate to anyone who attended a political rally held in Nairobi on April 11, just days after the suspects’ first appearances at The Hague, and saw firsthand how the alleged perpetrators of the post-election violence so effortlessly co-opted the attention that might otherwise be directed to victims.

***

Beyond confirming that the suspects knew of the allegations facing them, these hearings offered little substance and even less drama.

The first thing to say about the spectators at the rally is that most were paid to be there; among the Kenyan journalists gathered in front of the dais that Monday morning, the estimates topped out at 500 shillings—between five and six dollars—per person. Upon being driven in from the slums, these spectators, who generally have their Mondays and most other days free, gathered on the grassy slope facing the dais, forming a crowd of well over a thousand by mid-morning. Then they waited. The rally organizers had said it would be over by lunch, but the cars carrying the most prominent politicians did not begin arriving until just after three.

Some spectators, most of whom were members of the Kikuyu or Kalenjin tribe, had received signs and banners, and they proceeded into Uhuru Park in waves, chanting, dancing, and singing along to the songs played over the loudspeakers. The recent alliance between two of the Ocampo Six—Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kikuyu finance minister and son of Kenya’s first president; and William Ruto, the Kalenjin former higher education minister (sacked last month in a cabinet reshuffle)—was remarkable, given that their tribes had engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of the post-election period. But the two leaders, along with their supporters, were united in their opposition to the ICC, and the most popular sign in the crowd featured Kenyatta’s face on one side and Ruto’s on the other, as well as the Kiswahili slogan tuko pamoja: “we are together.”

The politicians’ journey had begun the night before, on the red-eye from Amsterdam. A few days earlier the Ocampo Six had appeared before judges at The Hague for the first time. Beyond confirming that the suspects knew of the allegations facing them, these hearings offered little substance and even less drama: the suspects were voluntarily complying with summonses, and they have not yet been formally charged, so there was no chance they would be detained. (During the hearings taking place this month, Ocampo is trying to show there is enough evidence to send the suspects to trial; the defense teams are trying to have the cases thrown out). In Kenya, however, the papers had been hyping the hearings for weeks, and the suspects’ first face-off with Ocampo gripped the nation like a high-profile English Premier League clash, albeit with graver stakes. Restaurants and hotels with televisions were full-to-overflowing; in areas without electricity, as well as in cars, taxis and matatus (minibuses), radio broadcasts sufficed. The suspects themselves, perhaps bracing for confrontation, enlisted more than 40 MPs to travel with them to The Hague in a show of force. Though no confrontation materialized, and no victor emerged, some of the organizers had nonetheless dubbed the rally a “heroes’ welcome.”

When the big men arrived at the rally, standing through the open roof of an SUV, the relative order of the morning briefly gave way to mayhem: some of the more visibly intoxicated male spectators removed their shirts in what appeared to be euphoria, and the wooden photographers’ platforms shook and wobbled in the crush of the crowd. After perhaps five full minutes of waving and chanting, the police managed to create enough space for the leaders to find their chairs on the dais. The crowd settled, waiting to hear what they had to say.

First, dozens of MPs proclaimed their support for the new alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto. These lower-level figures embraced the Kenyan elite’s framing of the ICC as an imperialist impingement on Kenyan sovereignty. Days before the hearings, Ngina Kenyatta, Uhuru’s mother and the country’s former first lady (popularly known as “Mama Ngina”), presided over a “prayer ceremony” in which she compared her son’s legal troubles to her late husband’s fight for independence from the British. “The colonialists gave us problems and it is now clear they have never relented,” she said. In keeping with this theme, the rally’s early speeches were heavy on pleas for Kenyan solutions to Kenyan problems, arguing essentially that the country could right itself before the next vote even in the absence of tangible reforms. Odinga, the leading presidential candidate (who was not present), was roundly condemned, in no small part for his professed doubts about Kenya’s ability to investigate the post-election violence on its own.

As they stepped to the microphone, each speaker began with the same word: harambee, a Kikuyu word meaning “self-help.” Then the crowd repeated it back. That word revealed more about the nature of the relationship between politicians and electorate than anything else that was said. Harambee is a system whereby local communities raise money to cover start-up costs for schools and clinics and other development projects, and then the state covers running costs. Harambee long required MPs and other public figures to pledge large donations at public gatherings. (President Kibaki banned MPs from participating in harambee activity, though Kenya scholar Nic Cheeseman has noted that the arrangement persists via “alternative pathways.”) Through this process, voters assume the role of clients dependent on a political patron, with the understanding that well-treated clients repay their patrons with obedience. Because MPs typically represent constituents of the same ethnic group, this leaves little room for political movements that cut across tribal lines, reinforcing Kenya’s pervasive ethnic divisions. It is in part for this reason that, for all the recent talk of unity, most observers doubt the durability of the Kenyatta-Ruto alliance.

While ethnic political divisions are decreasing overall across Africa, Kenya is one of two countries where the opposite holds true—the other is Zimbabwe.

At the April rally, then, the call-and-response of harambee was “kind of a cultural reference point, like singing the national anthem,” Cheeseman said in an interview. “In the context of the ICC, the community is pulling together against what seems to be an imposition of external interference.”

More oblique references to harambee are coded into basically any talk from a Kenyan leader. Two days before the rally, Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka toured a stronghold of his Kamba tribe to mobilize support for a second presidential run. Attendees expecting grandiose campaign promises, however, instead received a dressing-down for not uniformly backing him the last time around. “Petty home grievances should not be allowed to derail my second quest for the top seat,” Musyoka declared, before going on to characterize voting patterns in the area as “very disturbing.” “We must demonstrate our force,” he said. “While other communities vote as a bloc, we must also avoid splitting our numerical strength.”

Data collected by Afrobarometer, a public survey project, indicates that while ethnic political divisions are decreasing overall across Africa, Kenya is one of two countries where the opposite holds true—the other is Zimbabwe. As Cheeseman and Robert Ford wrote in a 2007 paper, “For these countries ethnic cleavages are becoming entrenched, rather than diluted.” And since the election the trend in Kenya has only continued. “The next election may see the strongest ethnic ties and ethnic voting patterns that we’ve ever seen in Kenya,” Cheeseman said.

Ethnicity is a loaded concept, bound up with wealth, political representation and broader signifiers of social class. “People often treat ethnicity as something that’s imagined,” Cheeseman said. “Well, it is an imagined identity, but it also has very direct, practical consequences in Kenya. If you’re from the wrong ethnic group, you’re likely to die younger, you’re likely to be poorer, you’re likely to have less access to education.” So it is misleading to refer, as the New York Times did, to the violence that followed the 2007 election as “atavistic,” an expression of timeless tribal grievances. But it is similarly misleading to discount the ethnic dimension of the violence altogether. “Tribalism didn’t cause the violence, politics did,” Kenyans will sometimes remark. Or: “This wasn’t a conflict about ethnicity, it was a conflict about development.” Such statements obscure, perhaps willfully, an important aspect of longstanding divisions in modern Kenyan society.

In the weeks before the April ICC hearings, rumor and innuendo fueled the anticipation. One of the more alarming predictions was that the court would arrest all six suspects as soon as they reached The Hague—despite the absence of arrest warrants. During the hearings, this scenario became somewhat more realistic, as a judge warned the suspects not to make inflammatory statements or risk having warrants issued. Perhaps because of this, when Kenyatta and Ruto finally stepped to the microphone at the rally they were careful to promote peace and nonviolence. “Never again shall a Kenyan lose his life or his property due to political competition,” Ruto said. But instead of addressing the very real forces that underlay the last election’s violence, the leaders kept the focus on the threat facing them. “We want to thank God for having seen us through this,” Kenyatta said, in apparent reference to hearings that required them to board a plane to Europe, sit quietly in a courtroom and then fly home. “Many said that we shall go to The Hague and not come back. We have proved them wrong… the devil has been defeated.”

Residents lucky enough to come across officers from their own tribe were assisted; those who did not were met with hostility.

Pamela Akwede doesn’t need to attend a political rally to understand the patron-client relationship between politicians and voters. As head of the human rights office at Christ the King Church in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum and the second-largest slum in all of Africa, since the last elections she has spent her days watching clients recover, or not recover, from the battles that were fought on their politicians’ behalf.

This slum and others in Nairobi provide the paid crowds at rallies like the one thrown for Kenyatta and Ruto. “In 2012 we will see a lot of MPs coming to Kibera because they want to be voted for,” Akwede said. “But even after people fought for them in 2008, you didn’t see them anywhere on the ground after the vote.”

As for government services and resources, her expectations are even lower, in no small part because of the way security forces responded to the last crisis. An official inquiry pointed to evidence that the police were just as ethnically balkanized as the slum they were tasked with regulating: residents lucky enough to come across officers from their own tribe were assisted; those who did not were met with hostility. Reports have highlighted the security forces’ use of live ammunition to disperse demonstrators—a practice that all too frequently killed bystanders as bullets pierced the flimsy settlements of wood, mud and metal. Nearly four years later, Akwede said she still discourages those seeking help at Christ the King from reporting their cases or sitting for interviews with police—particularly sexual violence victims, some of whom have been told by investigators that they “must have enjoyed” being assaulted.

Meanwhile, the question of how to ensure a peaceful vote—national elections are tentatively scheduled for August 2012—goes unanswered. Akwede said: “What the people need now is for the government to come up with a new policy so that MPs will be removed from office if there are clashes. This will encourage them all to preach peace.” Besides being misguided (MPs, after all, are not directly responsible for violence in a lot of cases), this solution and others like it depend on the unlikely prospect of the government holding itself accountable.

While some argue that Kenyans will be reluctant to engage in violence so soon after the killings of 2007-08, Cheeseman, the Kenya scholar, said the opposite could prove true. “The only pattern we know that really holds is that violence and conflict become more likely the more violence and conflict you have,” he said.

Memories of the previous fighting, combined with a heightened sense that residents will be left on their own, could make otherwise reluctant combatants more proactive. “You basically get an arms race in which everyone is arming defensively against everybody else,” Cheeseman said.

The end result could again be thousands of ordinary Kenyans with little to gain fighting a war that originated with the Kenyan elites, and flourished because these same elites would not and could not contain it. Even Ndege, the farmer whose entire family perished in a Naivasha fire, finds it easy to imagine more destructive outcomes. “What we had in 2007 is not a storm in a teacup,” he said. “What happens next year will be worse.”

G

Robbie Corey-Boulet is a journalist who has covered international justice issues in East Africa and Cambodia, where he was news editor of The Phnom Penh Post. He is currently based in Monrovia, Liberia. His writing has been published by The Atlantic, Asia Literary Review, The Caravan and Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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One comment for Calculated Rift

  1. Comment by joe on September 15, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    The word ‘Harambee’ is not a Kigikuyu(kikuyu) word.It is the national motto of Kenya and appears on the coat of arms. The word is Hindi in origin, from Ambe,the Hindu god for work,hence Hare Ambe,which in swahili is Harambee

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