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In Kenya, two protagonists and the conciliators

In January, one of Africa's most stable democracies was violently ripping itself apart. How was it saved? In Part 3 of a four-part special report, the key players tell what happened.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2008

‘All sides believed that they [won the election], therefore it was not possible for one candidate [President Kibaki] to announce that he won.’ – William Ruto, lead negotiator for opposition candidate Raila Odinga


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Nairobi, Kenya

William Ruto might seem an odd choice as a peace negotiator. He has the burly frame of a boxer, and a political reputation to match.

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In the weeks before he sat down at Kenya's peace table, he was known for his impassioned campaign speeches in his home district in the Rift Valley. Mr. Ruto's critics, including Human Rights Watch, accuse him of igniting ethnic violence in the region where some of the worst fighting occurred.

His campaign slogan was "majimbo!" It's a Swahili term that his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party interprets as merely "regionalism" – a devolution of power to the states or provinces.

"The majimbo wave is here and it is unstoppable," Ruto told a jubilant crowd in the town of Kiserian on Oct. 17, 2007. "It is the only way to ensure equitable distribution of resources."

But for many of Ruto's supporters, majimbo has an ominous connotation: giving control of key regions to tribal majorities. In the Rift Valley, that meant giving Ruto's own Kalenjins the right to make all local decisions, and expel ethnic minorities back to their own "jimbos" or homelands.

Today, Ruto says the violence after the Dec. 27 election was "spontaneous." The trouble, he says, was sparked by persistent irregularities, accusations of vote-tampering, and the swift swearing in of President Kibaki by his handpicked electoral commissioner just two days after the election.

"All that acrimony and pull and push was happening on TV cameras, and the whole country was engaged in that process," recalls Ruto, now ensconced in his offices as minister of agriculture. "As to who won the elections, all sides believed that they did, and therefore it was not possible for one candidate [President Kibaki] to announce that he won."

Organized or spontaneous, Ruto's ODM party supporters in the Rift Valley went on a deadly rampage, hunting down Kikuyus and others for their assumed support of President Kibaki. The death toll rose rapidly from 270 in the first week to at least 650 by Jan. 22. By mid-January, UNICEF estimated that 255,000 Kenyans had been displaced, 100,000 of them children.

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Holed up in the State House and watching the mayhem unleashed, President Mwai Kibaki had his own hard-liner: Martha Karua. Mrs. Karua built her reputation as a trial lawyer and crusader for women's rights in Kenya. She is tough, methodical, and unyielding. She is only the third woman ever elected to Kenya's parliament.

During the 2007 election campaign and the violence that followed, Karua emerged as the leading voice of President Kibaki's supporters. She accused the ODM, the party of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga, of "ethnic cleansing" in the aftermath of the elections.

Someone, she says today, had "to stand up to the perpetrators of the violence, violence had been legitimized as a means to power.... The violence was clearly premeditated. But the international community didn't want to hear of it."

During the bloody early days of January, it was antagonistic hard-liners like Ruto and Karua who drove these two political movements into almost daily confrontation, and nearly pulled their country apart.

By mid-January, Kenya's economy was losing $80 million a day as businesses shuttered and tourists deserted the beaches and safari lodges. Neighboring countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, southern Sudan, and Congo found their supplies of gasoline – trucked in from Kenya's seaports – suddenly cut off.

While the two presidential antagonists waited for each other to back down, the violence continued. But in the violence were the seeds of its own destruction, as it created an urgency for international intervention.