Victims of Kenya violence shrug at ICC effort

Putting four senior leaders on trial at the Hague is not enough, say victims of the 2007-2008 wave of murder and arson in Kenya. The machete-swinging thugs who carried out the murders still walk free.

Kenyan Presidential Press Services/AP
President Mwai Kibaki, third left, with members of his cabinet ministers delivers a statement to the Nation, Monday, following the decision by the International Criminal Court Pre-Trial Chamber at his Harambee House Office Nairobi, Kenya. ICC judges on Monday ordered four prominent Kenyans, to stand trial for allegedly orchestrating a deadly wave of violence after their country's disputed 2007 presidential election.

By the time the men with the machetes marched onto Joyce Muhito’s farm on New Year’s Day four years ago, she had already fled. 

Given less than an hour’s notice that the gang was coming, she grabbed what she could carry and ran, with her two youngest children, to sanctuary at a church a terrifying two hours away. 

Today, Ms. Muhito squats under a tent of white plastic sheeting on land donated by a wellwisher, in a camp close to Nakuru town, where some of the worst violence took place. She is one of more than 600,000 people forced to flee as Kenya’s post-election violence swept some of its most fertile areas following its presidential polls in December 2007. More than 1,200 died. 

Until yesterday, when four leading Kenyans including its deputy prime minister and the head of its civil service learned they would face the International Criminal Court, no one had been called to account for what happened.

In fact, no senior figure has ever faced trial for election-linked violence in Kenya, whether in 2007-08 or at any of the four previous polls stretching back to the end of one-partyism in 1992. 

“This ruling will bring justice, it will bring justice where Kenya’s own system could not,” said Muhito, her head shaded from the fierce noonday sun by a simple brown headscarf. 

Justice for the poorest

As news of yesterday’s ICC ruling sank in, there was much talk of an end to the era of impunity for Kenya’s powerful political elite, regularly accused of corrupting the judicial system to shield them from ever appearing in a dock. 

“What we saw yesterday is hugely significant,” says George Kegoro, executive director of the International Commission of Jurists’ Kenya section “It has brought a realization that there’s a process that is above the highest political leadership, a process that can give justice to the poorest, and upon which no amount of political influence will ever have any bearing.” 

For Mwalimu Mati, director of Mars Kenya, an anti-corruption watchdog, it was “a shock.”

“I’m in my mid-40s and I have never seen or heard of anything like this happening in Kenya in my life,” he says. “This really is the first time that such major figures have been committed to trial for political violence. “It’s been going on since the 1980s, cycles of political violence that went unpunished. Seeing them told they are going to trial was a shock, we had got used to these people getting away with all sorts of things.” 

But for Muhito, and thousands of others who felt the full force of the violence, who ran from its frontlines and still struggle to cope with its fallout, sending four men to trial in a far-away country is not enough. 

“This is not an end to impunity,” she says. “The ones who really engaged in the fighting are not the ones charged by the ICC. 

“If it is possible, Kenya should form its own tribunal so the people who were on the ground, who really caused the trouble, they can also face justice. Only that will show that it is not only high men who should be afraid.” 

Ibrahim Kamuria, whose plastic-sheet tent is pitched close to Muhito’s at the camp, agrees. “It is fair that these men are taken to trial, they were the ones we believe started all the troubles,” he says.

Today, he lives alone after his wife left with his children to find work elsewhere. 

“But this is not the end of impunity. Kenyans are still divided in their tribal lines. One man at the Hague is a Kikuyu, and the Kikuyus are already shouting about ‘their man.' Another is a Kalenjin, and his supporters are crying," says Mr. Kamuria. 

“As long as that tribal division continues in Kenya, people will fight to support their political leaders, and there will be no end to impunity. We need people here in Kenya to face justice,” he says. 

Passing the buck

The reason that Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, opened a case on the post-election violence here was because Kenya was giving no sign that it would prosecute anyone. Attempts to create a local tribunal were shot down twice in Parliament. 

Reforms to the judiciary, which the government has consistently claimed means trials can now take place in-country, are proceeding too slowly for international justice to wait. 

But the world’s war crimes court cannot take on cases against the alleged 4,000 people who actually carried out the killings, the beatings and the house burnings. 

On Tuesday, Kenya’s Attorney-General Githu Muigai said that it was time again for the domestic legal process to “be energized.” He announced that fresh impetus would be given to setting up a special division within the nation’s High Court to try post-election violence suspects. He has, he said, more than 5,000 files related to the clashes. 

Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a conflict researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi, commended both the ICC and the attorney general. But, he says, impunity is a “systemic phenomenon” in Kenya. 

“We are seeing the beginning of the end of the long battle against it, but no matter what announcements we have seen over the last couple of days, it will take time before it’s dealt with totally.”

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