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What's violence chasing in Kenya?

By Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra Allegation of poll rigging in last month’s presidential election started the spate of violence in Kenya….

By Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra , in Blogs Global Perspective on Politics , on January 30, 2008

By Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra

Allegation of poll rigging in last month’s presidential election started the spate of violence in Kenya. The clashes between members of Luos and Kikuyus tribes in Kenya’s Rift Valley have claimed lives of close to a thousand people.

Opposition and some independent observers say that elections were rigged to ensure that President Mwai Kibaki is re-elected to the office. Kikuyus are loyal to Kibaki and are now being chased by the Luos.

But there was something about the images coming from the violence-hit areas that struck me. Not the images of burning property or men wielding weapons in hands or people running to shelters, but an image of a mother bathing her toddler in a place of refuge.

The mother’s face was weary. But she went on to perform life’s daily routine with the same duty and devotion, as any mother, in any part of the world, in normal circumstances would do.

For a woman trapped in violence, life’s most mundane things are perhaps the most difficult to get by. The next most difficult task would be to feed herself and the toddler till the government finds a way to restore peace and order to the nation.


  • I was to Kenya twice last year. The first visit was in June – I hadn’t been there for a while and was returning with the intention of registering as a voter. One of the first things I noticed, returning to the country of my birth was that the country was more polarised along ethnic lines than ever before.

    It must be said that both sides were going at it, the one side blaming the other for the hogging of public wealth and resources, and the other alleging subversion, sloth and a hate campaign inspired by the other. Since I’ve had some experience of (and written against) anti-black racism, I had absolutely no desire to even remotely cooperate with either side. I decided not to vote, and so didn’t register.

    I returned in December, as a sort of one-man observation team. I’m familiar with the conduct of the campaign in parts of the Rift Valley (both North and South). It was clear that preparations for serious violence were in place: the hate speech now flowed freely (especially, and surprisingly, in the South Rift); it was clear that substantial numbers of children were no longer at school (especially in the North Rift); and people were beginning to get serious and detailed warnings – a friend of mine in an interethnic marriage moved his immediate family out and warned some of the others (he’s now in very serious trouble for not warning all of them). I’m in an interethnic relationship; friends of mine arranged for me to talk to a woman who was also in one. She was extremely perceptive about the nature and likely sources of the violence; talking to her convinced me that there was going to be serious fighting, even in Nairobi, whatever the outcome of the election. Quite simply, neither side would accept defeat. For these reasons, I, like perhaps many other Kenyans, expected the post-violence.

    What has surprised me has been the intensity of the violence, the clear evidence of long planning, and the fact that nominally progressive people have been willing to excuse it. Especially in parts of Kisumu, parts of Kibera, and in the North Rift, the intensity of the violence is unprecedented in our history. It is now clear that quite a lot of the violence was planned in advance and that some ethnic groups were selected at the planning stage (see below). Before the election, I was alarmed by the rhetoric of the politicians, and even more so by that of the activists. I too received the vile texts. But I was very sympathetic with the ODM’s case for redistribution, and discounted at least some of the anti-GEMA rhetoric as the price of getting progressive politics a niche, however small in Kenya.

    I was stupid. But I’m surprised that progressive or leftish people, who – now that the deliberately ethnic nature of much of the violence is clear – should know better, are quite willing to continue to excuse, ignore, minimise, or downplay just what is going on; that this is not at all about the liberation of the poor or an effort at bridging the welath gap, that something insidious and malevolent has taken over this political campaign.

    It is true that violent thought and action this time extend far beyond the usual bounds of the extremely poor, or the rural. However, we must be careful not to draw the wrong conclusion from this, viz. that it is a spontaneous consequence of a flawed election. There was recently a good interview with some of the Kibera militia leaders on the BBC. They were well-dressed and spoke reasonably good English, not your average enraged, easily manipulable slum-dweller. The BBC reporter asked them why they were targeting Kikuyus; they responded that they couldn’t get Kibaki, and confessed that it was a deliberate strategy to cause a crisis serious enough to get international attention. (In that, they have definitely succeeded – the BBC interview is proof.) I have to admit I found it quite surprising that they didn’t bother to deny that they were targeting Kikuyus. It was also obvious that the Kibera militias had good logistical support: they were able to identify patrolling plain-clothes police officers.

    Two conclusions ought to be drawn: the violence, even in Kibera, has been planned for some time; and that even at the planning and strategy stage, Kikuyus – and, as subsequent experience has shown, other ethnicities suspected of voting PNU – were deliberately selected for violence on the basis of their ethnicity.

    In the North Rift, as I’ve written elsewhere , there is no room for doubt about the organised nature of the violence. Bishop Cornelius Korir has confirmed that the attacks were well coordinated and planned, and Human Rights Watch has issued a report that corroborates the distinguished bishop’s opinion. Interviews with the refugees make it clear that the militias that destroyed their lives have clear and precise information about the homes and property of the target groups: the destruction of property, especially in and about Eldoret, has been so carefully targeted that the attackers must have possessed information about ownership – so, for example, houses owned by Kisiis or Kikuyus but rented by Kalenjins have been torched, but several houses owned by Kalenjins and rented by Kikuyus or Kisiis remain undisturbed. The UK Telegraph reported that at least one of the militias that besieged Baraton had lists of Kikuyu students. That report has been confirmed to me by a non-Kikuyu relative of one of the besieged; they also mentioned that the militia seemed to have partial lists of students and staff from other communities. At least some of the militias received training before the elections: training camps – at least one of which is known to the KNHRC (see here, and note too the evidence that the militias are being paid for the killing and arson) – were opened some time ago; they have obvious knowledge of basic military stuff, such as marching in formation (remember the Nziwa group?), and attacking strategic points (power and water supplies); they also have clear chains of command, information, and supply. Interviews with victims and refugees confirm that some of the militias include quite young teenagers: it requires time and a clear structure of authority to train children to wield pangas and to overcome their natural reluctance – especially in Kenya – to attack their elders.

    It’s interesting to note some contrasts with 1992. According to the Akiwumi report (Rift Valley Section, Chapter One, p. 2 and following), the attacks were relatively indiscriminate, targeting any resident non-Kalenjins; this time, reports indicate that the assailants include Luos and Luhyas. In 1992, the attacks were often carried out by what appeared to be government forces, often backed by militia auxiliaries; this time, the communal militias have led the attacks. In 1992, there was very little violence in and around Eldoret, and relatively little in Uasin Gishu district; this time, Eldoret has been one of the foci of the fighting.

    None of this is to overlook the situation in Central, especially before the election, where there was genuine hate speech, as well as leafleting, but quite clearly the level of organisation and intent in the Rift Valley is far beyond the usual tribal electioneering in Kenya.

    No doubt it is a matter for careful judgement whether spontaneous, ethnically-directed violence after the announcement is justified. But all the evidence now shows that a great part of the violence after the announcement of the election results was deliberately planned, and that it was ethnically-directed at the planning and strategy stage. I can’t see that deliberately procuring the murder and ethnic cleansing of your neighbours is an appropriate response to election rigging

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