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Postcard from Kenya #2: Tribal Divides and Post-election Violence

1 year ago

On our way through a town whose name I forget, a line of fancy cars approaches us on the right (British roadway-style here) with lights flashing and horns honking. The lead car was military or security of some sort and all of the male occupants were uniformed. The man sitting in the passenger seat had the window rolled down, shouting loudly and flailing at anyone who dared to come near with a kind of truncheon-whip combination, at times flagellating the vehicle as if it were an intransigent elephant in need of encouragement. Pedestrians and animals scattered accordingly. Sporting Ugandan licence plates, the occupants of the fourth car of five was likely President Museveni, one of our Kenyan colleagues opined, returning from the inauguration ceremonies the day before in Nairobi.

Eight heads of state had attended – hardly a resounding affirmation from the international community following not one but two iffy elections. While the inauguration happened at Kasarani stadium with the media focussing on the swearing in by the same be-wigged judge who declared the first election in August invalid presiding – the cameras stayed off the tear-gas thrown to keep some people out of Kasarini.

Post-Election Violence in Kenya

Across town, at the Jacaranda Grounds, not far from where I write, police used truncheons, tear gas and bullets to keep opposition supporters of NASA leader, Raila Odinga, out of the Grounds. As one respected social media outlet put it, ‘Startling images of towers of black smoke rising over the city’s largest working-class neighbourhood, while white plumes of tear gas scattered civilians hoping to attend the prayer rallies, circulated on these [social media] platforms, even while the mainstream media focused on the more inane details of the swearing-in ceremony. This dichotomy is symbolic of the deep damage – political, economic and social – that the 2017 general election has done to Kenya, leaving the country more divided today than it has been, perhaps, since the 1969 Kisumu massacre.

One part of the country celebrates what it sees as a political triumph; another part is reeling from a keen sense of disenfranchisement. And a third – the silent majority that doesn’t benefit directly from dominant ethno-nationalisms – witnesses both with palpable concern.’ Some say two were killed, including a seven year-old boy; other sources say there were eight people killed. More punitive killings in NASA neighbourhoods continued both in Nairobi and in the largely Luo Western Rift Valley.

Map of Kenya with Tribal Areas

I have had the privilege of working with people from a large variety of tribal and language groups in places like Mindanao and North East India and the Sudans, and was interested in the Kenyan distinctives. Today, a participant in a training says, ‘Kenyan politics is not tribal.’ Bernard tells a different story this evening. Urged for years to run for election, he decided to do so – and on the only shoestring available to him. Choosing the party he saw as most progressive – not the one for which his Luhya tribe perennially voted en bloc, he launched his campaign in June, just two months short of the national elections date, holding five community gatherings and attracting large crowds curious about a never-before-imagined election platform of justice and peace.

Invariably, after each gathering, people wanted their ‘tea’ – a payment from the aspirant, as they call them here. Bernard wanted to opt out but found it impossible to do so, offering 50 shillings (about 60 cents) per person. His competitor and member of his own tribe, however, handed out thousand-shilling notes to each person attending. When it came to election day, his competitor paid a squad of goons (his word) to harass Bernard’s supporters and bar them from casting their ballots. Police and electoral commission agents stood by and watched. Neither of the elections, I am told repeatedly here, was anything resembling free and fair. In the second kick at the can the end of October, 62% of the population boycotted the process.

The road to the Catholic guest house where I am staying takes me through the Embassy and High Commission district. Gated communities, arrogant in their opulence, speak to the untapped and undistributed wealth of this country. A highlight of the red-carpet celebrations of inauguration day was the lunch for 5,000 hosted by the President-again, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the ‘father of the nation’, Jomo Kenyatta. Standing out amidst the African strong men/heads-of-state guests – that as of this week will not include Robert Mugabe – is Benjamin Netanyahu. He has his eye on collaboration around agriculture. The Chinese, who are key amongst Africa’s neo-colonials, did not show.

Kenyatta greet Moi

The person given the responsibility to meet and greet the heads of state was Senator Gideon Moi, ‘rising star’ son of Daniel arap Moi, who ruled Kenya from 1978 to 2002. Moi was a fiercely anti-communist ally of the west, a regional bulwark against the socialist inclinations of Tanzania and Ethiopia. With the end of the Cold War, his former allies began to see the light, altering their presentation of him as now corrupt, selling off his country’s resources, a despot and a dictator, a violator of human rights. He cannily complied with the West’s demands for a multi-party system and managed to win elections in 1992 and 1997, expertly manipulating inter-tribal tensions and loyalties, winning with 30% or less of the vote against a divided opposition. (Wait! that sounds like Canada!) To see the new President paying a visit to and bowing to shake the hand of the elderly and ailing Moi on the front page of the Nation was troubling to many.

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