Why one young Kenyan decided to kill for an ethnic militia

One young Kenyan, an ethnic Kalenjin, tells why he helped recruit others for ethnic killings after the disputed December 2007 election. Now, he and many like him feel betrayed by politicians they say organized the violence.

Antony Njuguna/Reuters
Supporters of Orange Democratic Movement presidential candidate Raila Odinga cheer and wave his posters during a campaign rally in Dandora, Nairobi, in 2007.

Elijah doesn’t look like a killer. He has the small wiry frame of a marathon runner, which he is, and the intense stare of a man on the run, which he also is.

Elijah was once a fierce supporter of Kenya’s main opposition party, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), which in the 2007 election campaign promised to give ethnic Kalenjins a greater role in the political power structure in Nairobi, and more control of their ancestral lands. Some firebrand leaders of the Kalenjin community – who are the majority in the agriculturally rich Rift Valley – promised voters free land, land that would be made available because Kalenjins would push out the current ethnic Kikuyu owners who many Kalenjins view as foreign “invaders.”

For Elijah, these campaign promises were not horrifying; they were music to his ears. Soon after arriving back in Eldoret after living a few years abroad, he began organizing youths to attend rallies for ODM’s main candidate in Eldoret, William Ruto – and when the election results denied them the outright victory they expected, he helped organized youths for war.

These were heady times. ODM campaigners openly talked of pushing Kikuyus and other “foreigners” out of the Rift Valley, and Kalenjin-language radio stations whipped up anti-Kikuyu sentiment. Communities began to slaughter their animals, a common practice for Kalenjins who are preparing for war. Party agents gave Elijah a truck, and the money to buy weapons – mainly machetes, hatchets, and spears – to deliver those weapons to the same youths that he had recruited to the party cause.

“The whole thing was funded from Nairobi. The same people called up agents, and the agents called local people like me,” says Elijah, who spoke on condition that his real name not be used for fear of prosecution or retribution. “I could see people were giving money, big bills, and saying, ‘Let’s go,’ and I said, ‘OK, we can go.’ They know we do things by hard work, bit by bit. If you give someone even 50 shillings [65 cents], they can kill.”

And kill they did. The disputed Dec. 27, 2007, election exploded into ethnic violence that resulted in the deaths of some 1,200 Kenyans before the two top candidates agreed, under international pressure, to form a unity government.

Nearly three years later, prosecutors from the International Criminal Court (ICC) are expected Wednesday to indict Mr. Ruto and other Kenyan leaders for inciting the post-election violence.

As Ruto scrambles to proclaim his innocence, all that men like Elijah can feel is a deep sense of betrayal.

'Real change' deferred

For him, the promises of “real change” – pushing Kikuyus off the land – were abandoned because of the personal ambitions of Ruto and his core group of supporters.

Elijah lost faith in Ruto, he says, in late January 2008 -- the moment that Ruto called on youths to stop the violence in the Rift Valley, before those youths had “completed the job” of expelling Kikuyus.

While most of the frontline youths, including Elijah, believed in their cause – pushing Kikuyu settlers off what they viewed as Kalenjin lands – it was the men behind them, the supporters of Ruto, who benefited from the violence, Elijah says.

Used and betrayed

In 2008, Ruto and other politicians turned their backs on the youths they had helped mobilize for political expediency and to escape international prosecution, says Elijah.

Now many Kalenjin youths feel used and betrayed, as their lot remains unchanged, while Ruto and his close supporters are either serving in high government positions or maintaining close ties to those in power.

“They are the same people who are even now working for [Ruto],” says Elijah, noting that Kalenjin elders are once more recruiting young men to prepare to fight to defend Ruto. “The same agents are saying, 'we can fight.' ”


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