Kenya: An Unfinished Reckoning

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On a clear, sunny afternoon this May, 16 months after the nation erupted in a tribal bloodbath, Kenya buried the last of its dead.

The violence in early 2008 claimed 1,133 lives and displaced 350,000. Its terrible climax came on New Year’s Day in the largely Kikuyu village of Kiambaa in the northern Rift Valley, when a Kalenjin mob surrounded a tiny village church where a few hundred people were sheltering, freed those who gave up cell phones or money or sex, closed the doors, heaped mattresses and dry maize leaves against them and set them alight. Thirty-eight people were burned alive. It took scientists at the morgue in nearby Eldoret more than a year to separate the remains. But while DNA tests could distinguish body parts and even piles of dust, they could not name them. At a mass burial on May 14 beside the scorched earth where the church once stood, 18 of the coffins were pasted with strips of white tape on which was written UN ELD – for Unknown, Eldoret – and a number to distinguish them from each other. Trinkets, scraps of clothes and, in one case, a wheelchair had identified the other 20 victims.

Kenya’s descent into something like tribal war last year followed a general election, and revived questions of whether democracy works in Africa. Kenya is the economic and political center of East Africa, and its success or failure is an indicator of the region’s political health. But within days of the vote, as counting continued, paramilitary police stormed the election-commission offices in Nairobi and forced them to declare for incumbent President Mwai Kibaki. The President is a member of the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe and a group widely resented for its dominance of government and business since independence in 1963. Opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo from western Kenya, accused the Kikuyus of trying to keep power for themselves. His supporters, mainly Luo and Kalenjin from around Eldoret, set the country on fire. The killing ended in March last year when former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered a national-unity government, with Kibaki as President and Odinga as Prime Minister. (See pictures of the post-election violence in Kenya.)

The union began falling apart almost immediately, as the old power struggle was simply transferred to inside the government. Nothing was done to address the simmering divide across the country. When Kibaki flew to Kiambaa for the funeral last month, he found himself without Odinga and addressing an almost exclusively Kikuyu crowd. The Kikuyus spoke of how Kalenjins were still plotting their slaughter. Hearing an account of 
 the funeral, Adams Oloo, a politics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, nods and says: “There is no healing.” That’s often the case in Africa. Kenyans want peace. But their leaders thrive instead on enduring enmities and division. “Political leaders use ethnicity as an instrument 
 to achieve power and their goals,” says Oloo. Which means, adds a Western diplomat in the city, “There is no good guy in this scenario.”

Kenya needs to find one. Despite an agreement to curb corruption and cut the sweeping powers of the President, nothing has been done. Neither side has shown the will or ability to rise above their power squabble. Nor have they called to account the killers in their ranks. Crippled by biased police investigations and prosecutors, Kenya’s courts have convicted no one for their part in the violence. A mystical and criminal cult called the Mungiki has replaced the government in many slums, providing water, housing and dispute-settlement along with drugs, prostitutes and protection. The police, endemically corrupt, fight the Mungiki for turf, and have executed nearly 500 in the last few years, according to a February report by Philip Alston, U.N. rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions. Days after his report was released, the police were accused of the murders of two human rights activists who assisted Alston’s research; they were shot dead as they sat in traffic during Nairobi‘s evening rush hour.

This all adds up to a sense of rising crisis. “Don’t lead us back to war,” beseeched the country’s biggest newspaper, The Nation, in a front-page editorial on April 10. The same month Annan warned of a dangerous “impasse.” On May 10, former U.S. ambassador to Kenya and new Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, made talks in Nairobi with Kibaki and Odinga the focus of his first trip to the continent since his appointment by President Barack Obama. His message: Washington was “deeply worried” about the possibility of more violence.

As always in Africa, there is another analysis. The contradictions of Kenya – where multiparty democracy competes with feudal tribalism – could be said to be precisely those you would expect in a country racing at breakneck speed towards modernity. Africa is trying to cover in a few decades what took Europe centuries. Chaos and contradiction – Kenyans are just as comfortable with cell-phone banking as they are with bartering – might be an indication of a country on the move. Kenya is changing. Last year’s violence hastened the emergence of a highly critical civil-society movement which has become a sobering force in Kenyan politics. And even a pessimist would have to admit that the unity government has disbanded the discredited election commission, set up a committee of experts to propose constitutional reform and begun work on reforming constituency boundaries and establishing a truth, justice and reconciliation commission.

Yet the funeral at Kiambaa – a ceremony of reconciliation that only one side attended – was not a source of hope. Among the mourners was John Chege, 38, and his partner Rosemary Chesang, 34. He is Kikuyu, she Kalenjin and the couple own a hut half a mile from the church, where Chege grew maize and potatoes and Chesang raised their six children. Chege never thought much about the divide that ran through their land yet somehow spared their home. But after 16 months in a refugee camp, being alternately called traitors by Kikuyus and Kalenjins, he realized “ours is a slightly special case.” When asked how Kenya’s future would turn out, Chege spoke about his children. “When they play,” he said, “they chase each other shouting ‘The Kalenjin are coming,’ ‘I’m going to burn down your house.’ This thing has entered into their minds. It’s with our children now.”

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