Kenya: Tribal Tensions & Shattered Democracy

by Robin Forman

So, you wanna earn a quick $8? Or maybe a quick $16?

Well, you’ll be receiving those payments in Kenyan shillings (about 62 shillings to the dollar.)

And you’ll get those payments for burning down a home in Kenya or the big $16 payment is the reward for hacking someone to death.

The leading Kenyan human rights group, the Kenyan Human Rights Commission says that some of the worst violence connected to the country's deadly disputed presidential election is the work of militias paid and directed by politicians.

The government of President Mwai Kibaki and the opposition have traded blame for the killing and arson that followed the re-election of Kibaki on Dec. 27. Some international observers say the election was rigged and the victory false.

Some of the attacks have taken an ugly ethnic twist, with different tribes turning on Kibaki's Kikuyu people. But the Kenyan Human Rights Commission says that the violence appears to involve payments from politicians on both sides of the dispute.

The executive director of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, Muthoni Wanyeki, said that the violence has been “portrayed as some primal irate rising of (ethnic) communities against each other…. But our investigations indicate it seems to be very organized militia activity...(the violence) very much seems to be directed and well organized."

As an example, Wanyeki cites the church that was burned while dozens of people were trapped inside, unsuccessfully hiding from the violence. She said that there was one group watching the church, then another took over. The Kenyan Human Rights Commission thinks that this upsurge of violence is organized because those responsible seem to be working in groups of 10 to 15 people and in shifts.

Information about training areas and the prices for the burnings and the killings has been collected by about 100 monitors and a network including prominent individuals and community-based organizations who were given pre-election training in researching human rights violations.

Victims have identified their attackers as ethnic Kalenjin and members of opposition leader Raila Odinga's Luo tribe. Odinga's spokesman, Salim Lone, said the charges of payment were "wild propaganda” and Odinga says Kibaki has to take the blame because the violence was ignited by election irregularities.

Ah, systematic killing as organized by politicians….Now, haven’t we heard of this before in Africa? Remember how many had to die last time before the West took action?

(Photo of a protest at the United Nations against President Mwai Kibaki's re-election in Kenya by Afrofuturist of New York City via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Anonymous said...

I don't know what the answers are in Africa but I do know that the Western world probably understands less about African cultures than they do about cultures in nearly any other part of the world. This lack of understanding often leads us to do things to make situations even worse than they already are.

One suggestion I would encourage anyone who wishes to have a more sophisticated understanding of African cultures, is to take a few hours and read Chinua Achebe's classic book "Things fall apart". Certainly one reasons that the west often fails to penetrate and make progress on problems is the fact that we often fail to understand those in power and the cultural framework they operate in which leads us to choose the wrong partners and fail even when we choose the right ones.

Anonymous said...

Writers must sometimes feel like the Greek prophetess Cassandra, gifted to see the future but fated not to be believed. What is unfolding in Kenya could as well have been lifted from the novel Wizard of the Crow where the ruling party and the opposition parities engaged in Western-sponsored democracy become mirror images of one another in their absurdity and indifference to the poor. The picture of men and women burnt down in a church where they had gone for refuge still haunts my mind. A child running away from the fire was caught and hurled back into the flames. One of the few survivors was quoted as saying: "But they knew me; we were neighbours. I thought Peter was a friend - a good neighbour. How could Peter do this to me?" I had heard the same puzzled cry from Bosnia.

I had heard the same cry from Iraq. I had heard the same, same words from Rwanda: "We were neighbours; we'd married into each other. How could this happen?" And now I hear the same cry from Eldoret North in my beloved Kenya. For me this burning of men, women and children in a church is a defining single instant of the current political impasse in Kenya. And this must be separated from accusations and counter-accusations of rigged elections by the contending parties. Rigged elections is one thing - it can be righted by any mutually agreed political measures - but ethnic cleansing is another matter altogether. What is disturbing is that this instant seems to have been part of a co-ordinated programme with similar acts occurring in several other places at about the same time against ordinary members of the same community. Ordinary people do not wake up one morning and suddenly decide to kill their neighbours. Ethnic cleansing is often instigated by the political elite of one community against another community. It is premeditated - often an order from political warlords. Or it may be the outcome of an elitist ideology of demonising and isolating another community. Either way the aim is to drive members of the targeted community from the region. Premeditated Frantz Fanon, the intellectual visionary of the Third World, had long ago warned us of the dangers of the ideology of regionalism preached by an elite whose money can buy them safe residence in any part of a country.

A single instance of premeditated ethnic cleansing can lead to an unstoppable cycle of vendettas - a poor-on-poor violence - while those who tele-guided them to war through the ideology of hate and demonisation are clinking glasses in middle-class peace at cocktail parties with the elite or the supposed enemy community.This crime should be investigated by the United Nations. If it is found that a political organisation has run a campaign on a programme that consciously seeks to isolate another community as a community, then they ought to be held fully accountable for the consequences of their ideology and actions. It is often easier to blame a government when it is involved in massacres. This is as it should be. A government must always be held to higher standards, for its very legitimacy lies in its capacity to ensure peace and security for all communities. But what about if such a massacre is inspired by a programme of an opposition movement? This ought to receive equally severe condemnation from all and sundry, for being in opposition does not give an organisation the right to run on an ideology of isolation and hate targeted at another community. An opposition movement is potentially a government of tomorrow.

A programme that such a political organisation draws while in opposition would obviously be the programme they'll try to implement when in power.That's why such acts must be condemned even when they are clothed in progressive, democratic-sounding words and phrases. I therefore call upon the United Nations to act and investigate the massacres in Kenya as crimes against humanity and let the chips fall where they may. For the sake of justice, healing and peace now and in the future I urge all progressive forces not to be so engrossed with the political wrongs of election tampering that they forget the crimes of hate and ethnic cleansing - crimes that have led to untimely deaths and the displacement of thousands. The world does not need another Bosnia; Africa certainly does not need another Rwanda.

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