Kenya: What went wrong in 2007?

Dismissing the violence that followed Kenya’s previous election as mere ‘tribalism’ is too simplistic an explanation.

Rioting Erupts Again In Kenya
As many as 1,400 people died in violence after Kenya's last presidential elections in 2007 [Getty Images]

Nairobi, Kenya – Naivasha is a small town in the Rift Valley, on the shores of a beautiful lake named after the settlement. It is popular with tourists, who visit the nearby Hell’s Gate national park, where baboons frolic under the watchful eye of cheetahs and leopards as they laze along tree branches.

But it has not always been this peaceful.

In the evening of Friday 24 January [2008], I saw them coming to my neighbourhood, a big group of Kikuyu men,” a flower farmer told Amnesty International.

I saw this when I was at the chief’s area. There were about eight of us who went to the chief’s house. While we were seeking refuge, we saw it happening, I saw people being chopped with machetes, and I told the police and they also saw. 

“These people, they cut off [someone’s] head and talked to the police at the same time, it was that open. It was about 100 metres from where we were. I saw three teachers from the Marera primary school participating in the killing. 

“There were three people who were burnt while we were there. There was a house belonging to a Luo… The mob burnt three people inside the house. We were there, we saw it. People didn’t come out, they died in the house. They broke the door, stood there, poured petrol, and stood there until the house collapsed.”

The disputed election

 Security preparations underway ahead of Kenyan vote


Just a few months earlier, in October 2007, Kenyan records were smashed as 50,000 people packed into Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, screaming and chanting with adulation as then-opposition leader Raila Odinga launched his election campaign.

In all but one of the opinion polls that followed, Odinga was placed ahead of the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki – though many surveys had them within a few percentage points of each other.

Kenyans made their decisions at the ballot box on December 27. In the counting that followed, Odinga appeared to have a strong lead, and his Orange Democratic Movement declared victory on December 29.

Yet as the counting continued, Kibaki’s results became stronger and the gap between the rivals narrowed. On the night of December 30, behind closed doors, the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya declared Kibaki the winner by some 230,000 votes – though a few days later, he admitted he “did not know” who had won.

Within minutes of the announcement of Kibaki’s victory, protests in the street alleging Kibaki had “stolen” the election turned violent. The protests were banned and police moved to quash the unrest.

It remains unclear exactly what happened next – that is, whether or not politicians ordered the targeting of tribal rivals – but the violence was quickly drawn along tribal lines.

Kibaki, of the majority Kikuyu tribe, and Odinga, of the Luo tribe, each claimed the other was responsible for the bloodbaths which followed. The upcoming trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague will attempt to determine whether Kibaki supporter, and 2013 presidential candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta ordered an armed gang known as the Mungiki to target Luo communities.

Then justice minister, and 2013 presidential candidate, Martha Karua, claimed that Odinga had planned “ethnic cleansing” – a charge dismissed by Odinga as “outrageous”.

As many as 1,400 people died in the span of 59 days, while 600,000 people were displaced from their homes, as Kenya slipped dangerously close to outright civil war.

In 2007, gun ownership in the country remained at a low level, and many of those fatalities occurred as victims were hacked to death with machetes.

Gangs of youths roamed through many of Kenya’s slums, torching homes, as riots spread across the country. Adding fuel to the fire of unrest, news reports emerged showing police officers shooting unarmed protesters amid the chaos.

On January 1, 2008, a church in the northern Eldoret district was burned to the ground. It was packed with women and children, mostly Kikuyu, who had fled there after an attack on their village the previous night.

The Waki Commission reported: “According to reports, including witness testimony, mattresses and blankets were set ablaze with petrol and thrown into the building, while mothers and babies who were trying to flee the inferno were pushed back into the church. Kikuyu men attempting to defend their church and loved ones were hacked to death with machetes, shot with arrows, or pursued and killed. The death toll for this horrific incident was 17 burned alive in the church, 11 dying in or on the way to the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, and 54 others injured who were treated and discharged.” 

The Waki report also noted: “The Commission knew that while women normally are the main victims of sexual violence when order breaks down, men too had experienced horrid types of sexual violence after the Kenyan election. These included sodomy, forced circumcision, and even mutilation of their penises. Between hearing of women who had been gang raped and mutilated, the accounts of ethnically driven sexual violence against certain men was also horrifying.”

Asking the questions

“There was a realisation among people that the leaders were not any different [from one another] and wanted … to benefit from controlling the nation’s resources.”

– Kiama Kaara, political analyst

On February 28, a deal brokered by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was signed by both Kibaki and Odinga, allowing Kibaki to remain in power, and appointing Odinga to the newly created position of prime minister.

How did this happen? How was such desperation allowed to fester until it exploded across what had been dubbed “the anchor state” of East Africa?

There is no one single answer. Blaming the violence merely on blind tribalism is too simple. True, the historic social and economic divides between ethnic groups in this country did contribute to the brutality, but long-running frustration and disenchantment with political leadership undeniably played its part as well.

Between independence in the 1960s and the 2007 election, Kenya’s constitution was amended around 30 times, each time bolstering the power of the presidency at the expense of the judicial and legislative branches of government, and, ultimately, at the expense of the Kenyan people.

By the mid-2000s, the national police force was widely viewed as corrupt, committing abuses with apparent impunity, journalists were frequently harassed, as were rights activists. Opposition rallies were banned – and extrajudicial killings appeared to be official policy when dealing with the feared Mungiki group.

The country’s leaders appeared unwilling or unable to deal with corruption, and many lined their pockets while Nairobi’s slums swelled with the desperately impoverished.

“By this time, there was a great resentment and dissatisfaction among the people about having a leadership underwritten by corruption and corrupt networks,” Kiama Kaara, a political analyst with Kenya’s Debt Relief Network, told Al Jazeera.

“There was a realisation among people that the leaders were not any different [from one another] and wanted to control, and to benefit from controlling the nation’s resources for their personal benefit and their personal gratification. This built frustration for Kenyans across the board.”

But what about the land?

During the British military occupation of much of east Africa, which began in the late 19th century, white settlers sought to restrict tribes who resisted their colonisation attempts.

The Nandi – who united with other communities of similar language dialects in the 1950s to form the Kalenjin – were among the first to be corralled by the British. As more settlers arrived, more tribal groups were dispossessed. As the Mau Mau rebellion gained traction in the 1950s, sweeping land reforms brought in by the colonialist government rewarded those who were loyal to the British, and enforced the landlessness of the rebels.

The ensuing isolation and marginalisation of entire communities was never fully dealt with after independence; indeed, Kikuyu tribespeople are still referred to as privileged land-grabbers. At the final televised debate, presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta was asked repeatedly to reveal his assets. His family reportedly own huge swathes of land – perhaps more than 500,000 acres.

The economic disparities continue to this day, and help fuel mistrust as such divisions are exploited for political gain. And as anti-corruption activist John Githongo said: “What can be ethnicised and politicised can easily be militarised.”

International justice

 The Stream – Kenya’s post-election peril

In the coming months – the exact date is currently subject to a judge’s decision – Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto will face trial at The Hague, charged with crimes against humanity. Radio journalist Joshua arap Sang will also stand trial. A fourth accused, former head of public service Francis Muthaura, looks set to see charges against him dropped after a key witness retracted testimony.

That witness was bribed by allies of Kenyatta and Ruto to back out of the trial, said ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.

“Witness Four revealed in an interview in May 2012 that he had been offered and accepted money from individuals holding themselves out as representatives of the accused to withdraw his testimony, and provided emails and records that confirmed the bribery scheme,” she told reporters on Wednesday.

“Witness Four,” reported to be a former leader of the Mungiki armed group, had previously said he was present at meetings where Kenyatta and Muthaura planned violence.

Other Mungiki figures due to testify against Kenyatta have reportedly “disappeared” and are presumed dead.

“The ICC charges are especially important in terms of addressing accountability and responsibility,” human rights lawyer Anne Njogu told Al Jazeera.

“The politicians who have found themselves charged have politicised these charges… I would have expected to see them visit the IDPs, still living in camps five years after the violence, to demonstrate this sense of forgiveness.

“As a nation, we need to move forward with real healing through reconciliation and justice.”

With reports of machete sales again on the rise, Kenya is a nation praying for peace.

Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell

Source: Al Jazeera