How can Kenya avoid ethnic war?

Former UN chief Kofi Annan launched formal peace talks Tuesday as a fresh round of reprisal killings swept the country.

By , Staff writer

  • close
    Charred: Nelly Chepchumba (l.) inspected the remains of her school last week after it was burned down in ethnic violence that has now claimed more than 850 lives.
    View Caption
  • close
    On the run: Two Kikuyu men fled Sunday with their livestock from an area under attack near Nakuru. Recent clashes in western Kenya have pushed the postelection death toll up past 850.
    View Caption
  • close
    Progress: Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki (c.) shook hands with opposition leader Raila Odinga (r.) last week during an ongoing peace effort by former UN chief Kofi Annan (l.).
    View Caption
1 of 3

Amid the postelection violence that has rocked Kenya, the town of Athi River has been an oasis of calm. Kikuyus, Luos, and other ethnic groups work together, determined not to let the outside chaos come in.

The secret to Athi River's peace, says restaurant owner Simon Kilonzo Kyatha, is that the majority of the population are Kikuyus and Kambas, two ethnic groups that supported the reelection of President Mwai Kibaki. Thanks to safety in numbers, they can avoid the fate of their tribesmen who are being killed or displaced in many other parts of Kenya.

It is peace – backed up by threat. And as a new wave of reprisal attacks begins across the country– more than 150 people were killed in the past few days – Kenya may be at the brink of a spiral of violence unless peace talks produce results soon.

Recommended: How the world is reacting to Obama's reelection

"We don't want our place to be affected by the people of Kibera and Mathare," says Mr. Kyatha, referring to two of Nairobi's most strife-ridden slums. "If a Luo or a Kalenjin comes back here to stir up trouble, we will skin him alive. Let them fight there, but not here."

This scenario – in which ethnic communities keep the peace by separately defending their interests – may bring temporary calm, but some observers worry that it could spell the end of Kenya as a stable, multiethnic nation. Kenyans who once spoke of their nation as a peaceful democracy now speak of the country's Balkanization. As several international efforts to mediate this crisis have failed, Kenyans now realize that to avoid the fate of other African disaster zones, politicians, civil activists, and international mediators must move fast to build trust and find common ground.

"This crisis can be an opportunity," says Waiganjo Kamotho, a Nairobi attorney and political commentator, "because it forces us as a country to resolve problems we have refused, and the government has refused, to consider as priorities."

Long-hidden ethnic tensions ignited

Kenya hid its problems from the world very well. Usually the top African destination for tourists, Kenya cultivated an image abroad of moderate politics and ethnic tolerance. Having a one-party state run by strongman President Daniel arap Moi from 1978 to 2002 contributed to this sense of peacefulness, since dissent and protest were illegal and quickly swept out of public sight.

Today, Kenya's two top political figures – President Mwai Kibaki and populist opposition leader Raila Odinga – both continue to claim to have won the Dec. 27 presidential elections. Their intransigence has helped ignite bitter ethnic clashes that have left more than 850 people dead since the vote. Even so, a large and growing chorus of Kenyan and international experts agrees that Kenya's road map to peace is both clear and achievable.

"We don't expect the deal to come in one week," says François Grignon, Africa director for the International Crisis Group. "What we do expect is a breakthrough to allow a process to address the long-term issues."

The risks of a prolonged impasse were made plain Tuesday when an opposition parliamentarian was gunned down outside his home in Nairobi in what Mr. Odinga called a "planned political assassination." Ethnic fighting quickly broke out in slums throughout the capital as news of the killing spread. The unrest came as police and military forces tried to quell a fresh wave of reprisal killings in Rift Valley towns where the president's ethnic group, the Kikuyus, are dominant.

International mediation efforts run into snags

At least half a dozen high-level mediators – from Archibishop Desmond Tutu to African Union chief John Kufuor – have come to Kenya in the past four weeks. Each of these efforts failed to end the crisis, although former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's current visit achieved a meeting and handshake between Mr. Kibaki and Odinga last week.

Annan launched formal talks Tuesday saying he hoped immediate political issues could be resolved within four weeks and the broader, underlying issues within a year.

Odinga claims that the election was stolen from him through massive rigging of the voter tallies. Kibaki calls himself the "duly elected" president, and calls on Odinga to take his complaints to court.

Observers close to the negotiations say that both sides came close to agreeing to a settlement two weeks ago during Mr. Kufuor's visit. During that mediation effort, both sides contributed to a document that spelled out a powersharing agreement. But insiders say that hard-liners in Kibaki's camp persuaded the president to reject the document in the final hours.

Previous mediation efforts haven't provided breakthroughs, but they contributed to the process of softening the two sides, Mr. Grignon adds. "Both parties are revising their options of what they are ready to accept," says Grignon, adding that there is still a long way to go. "Right now, the government says to the opposition, 'Go to the courts and shut up.' And [Odinga's party] says, 'Step down, or we're burning the country.' "

Such hardened stands, meant to project strength ahead of negotiations, may not convey the degree to which Kibaki and Odinga are willing to compromise, Grignon and others say. And while an actual agreement may not come in the current round of negotiations, the very fact that the two sides have met in person, and are continuing to talk, is itself a sign of progress.

But a political settlement is just one of many steps required for Kenya to return to the stability it once enjoyed.

Hate-speech investigations?

Even before an actual agreement, Kenya's political leaders need to send a signal to their people that the violence must end, says Jacqueline Klopp, an Africa expert at Columbia University in New York. Both parties must then agree to an independent investigation, carried out by international or Kenyan human rights agencies, of which parties and which individuals broke election laws, and who prompted the violence. The social impact of such an investigation would be immense, says Ms. Klopp, adding that evidence of vote-rigging or hate speech, by either or both sides, would help end the culture of impunity in Kenyan politics.

"Stabilization has to be the next step," says Klopp. "You have to end the fear of violence, so people can think clearly." An independent investigation into hate speech and the use of political rallies and news media to fan the flames of ethnic hatred will help to "refocus minds of the victims of different communities that they are all victims of this violence," says Klopp. "We have to make people realize there is culpability across the board."

Whether because of disenchantment with their political leaders, fear of police brutality, or simple fatigue with the political impasse, the crowds who used to join political marches for the opposition have been diminishing noticeably in recent days. Protests that once numbered in the thousands have dropped to a few hundred and are generally dispersed in a matter of minutes with a few canisters of tear gas.

With fewer supporters to call into the streets, political leaders may be more ready to compromise at the negotiation table. Many observers say the next step is for the major parties to agree to some form of caretaker government, with a limited mandate, for a set period of perhaps two years.

Grignon says that Kibaki and Odinga must realize that they cannot stand alone. While Kibaki has the powers of the presidency, he adds, "the opposition is strong in parliament, and it is difficult for a government to rule the country when they don't have majority in parliament. You need a caretaker government for the interim."

Little chance for a recount

Early calls for a retallying of the Dec. 27 vote have been dropped, as many of the original tally sheets have been destroyed. Also destroyed is the reputation of the one Kenyan agency that is charged with carrying out any such retally, the Election Commission of Kenya.

Just days after declaring Kibaki the winner, chief election commissioner Samuel Kivuitu admitted that he had come under pressure to announce Kibaki had won. Mr. Kivuitu now says that he has no idea if Kibaki was elected president or not.

Lacking legitimacy, Kibaki will have to agree to fresh elections, says Mr. Kamotho, the Nairobi attorney, although given the current environment, he says it would be advisable to put off elections for at least two years. The political class may reach an "accommodation, whether their members are ready or not," he adds.

"But even if these guys make up today, it will not address the problems in Burnt Forest," he says, referring to one of the towns most affected by ethnic violence in Kenya. If violence crops up every time that Kenya holds an election, he says, then "it would be better to postpone it" until tempers have cooled.

But elections are crucial, Kamotho says. "How do you give hope to the 70 percent of Kenyans who are young and who can't see their stake in Kenya's future? These are the fellows who burn buildings. If we can take that opportunity, this election will be a blip. If we don't, then the government will have lost the moment."

Considering a new Constitution

The next step, human rights activists say, is for the newly elected government to rewrite the Constitution. Human rights and the freedom of expression need to be strengthened, and the power of the presidency – a legacy of the 24-year dictatorship of President Moi – must be reduced.

"We can't afford a winner-take-all mentality; it's not healthy," says Kamotho. "We need to reduce the power of the presidency. If that is the only position that matters, people will be ready to kill for it."

The new Constitution, experts say, must also address Kenya's most contentious issue: land.

"We need new laws to deal with the distribution of wealth – and in an agricultural society like Kenya, wealth is primarily locked up in land," says Njeri Kabeberi, director of the Center for Multiparty Democracy. "If the people of Kibera [a Nairobi slum] were in the middle class, they wouldn't be fighting each other. If they have their own house, they know the pain of losing a house and therefore they won't burn yours."

Ms. Kabeberi and others say that the only way to tackle tribalism is by creating a Constitution that gives a place to each community. Ethnic identity has always been a factor in Kenya's culture – and indeed in developed countries of the West. But the influence of ethnicity will diminish over time, they argue, when Kenyans see that their nation's laws are more fair, that economic opportunities are evenly distributed, that their government is more even-handed and responsive, and that those who commit crimes at election time are prosecuted, no matter what tribe they belong to.

As ethnic attacks continue across Kenya – signs of the pent-up anger over issues of land, and ethnic favoritism, irresponsible hate speech, and the abuse of power – it is clear that Kenyans have a long way to go before reconciliation between ethnic communities and economic classes can begin.

"Some people have created these problems for Kenya in just a matter of days," says Kabeberi. "We Kenyans have to take the next two to five years to clean up. And we must force our leaders to listen."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...