Kenyans fear fresh cycle of violence as ethnic reconciliation falters

Many feel tribal and political divides are pushing Kenya to the edge. Millions of dollars from Kenyan and international donors have been spent trying to reconcile groups that have traditionally clashed over political spoils.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
A woman walks past riot policemen as they stand guard next to the State House after a political rally by Kenya's opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD), to demand dialogue with the government at the Uhuru park grounds in the capital Nairobi July 7, 2014.

In Kenya’s usually traffic-clogged capital yesterday, thousands of extra armed police in heavy riot gear patrolled near-empty streets or stood guard before shuttered shops.

They were brought in not because of a terror threat, nor because a VIP was visiting. They were on hand to stop an opposition rally from turning into a riot, which could have sparked wider violence across this country that is, again, dangerously divided on political lines.

The last time supporters of rival politicians were this far apart, and made their hostility for one another as plain, was after the 2007 presidential elections, when six weeks of violence left more than 1,100 people dead.

Since then, millions of dollars from Kenyan and international donors have been spent trying to reconcile different corners of the country that have traditionally clashed over political spoils. The money, activists say, has been wasted.

“Reconciliation has not stalled, it’s completely collapsed,” says Ken Wafula, director of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Eldoret, a town in western Kenya that saw some of the worst poll violence six years ago.

“Issues that divided people, on land, on marginalization, on jobs and lack of development, they are all still there, and political leaders do nothing. Only a small spark can ignite things again,” he adds.

'You're not listening'

The rally was called to protest soaring costs of living, a lack of promised policies to create jobs, and rising insecurity. In the end, it passed peacefully. But its stark underlying message is that opposition interests are being ignored by the government, which, having won the March 2013 elections, is focused on looking after its own, and not the whole country. 

Kenya’s two politically dominant tribes are the Kikuyu, from the country’s center, and the Luo, from the west. Kikuyus have supplied three of the four presidents since independence from colonial Britain in 1963, and the tribe is heavily invested in business and political patronage.

The Luo, always the understudies, resent this, and share that acrimony with other allied tribes also angered at apparent Kikuyu hegemony, which has robbed Kenya’s outlying regions of state funds, they say.

These are the basic ingredients that have fed cycles of political violence for close to 25 years. They were the issues that political and legal reforms introduced after the 2007 clashes, including a new Constitution, were supposed to fix.

“People are impatient,” says Njonjo Mue a human rights lawyer and member of Kenyans for Peace, Truth, and Justice, a Kenyan campaign group.  “Promises to deal with youth unemployment, perceptions or realities of regional development imbalances, feelings of marginalization far from the center, it’s too early for these policy reforms to deliver yet.” 

However, Mr. Mue adds, political leaders are doing little to calm popular impatience, and that “is a dangerous path,” he says.

Raila Odinga, the veteran opposition leader who called Monday’s rally, has toured Kenya in recent weeks alluding in speeches to “coming storms” and other euphemisms interpreted as thinly veiled warnings of looming violence.

His rival, Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, has vilified Mr. Odinga’s Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, and even alleged that terror attacks were the work of disgruntled opposition politicians, not regional or global jihadis like Al Shabab, which has claimed some recent killings. 

“It’s quite worrying that the president himself is stirring things up, but both sides share blame for driving up the temperature,” says Gladwell Otieno of the African Centre for Open Governance.

“It is a dangerous game to play. It might refresh their support from their base, but things can spill into violence and get out of hand.” 

Deep hostility easily disseminated

There is certainly evidence that each man’s supporters harbor deep hostility for those who back the rival. In Kenya, that means that significant elements of each tribe make no bones about rehashing blatant ethnic stereotypes about others that inflame things further.

Social media, reaching more Kenyans daily through ever-cheaper smart phones, helps speed the dissemination of hate.

Even the International Criminal Court now appears weak. During Kenya's constitutional referendum in 2010 and its last elections in March 2013, the court’s active pursuit of people suspected of masterminding the 2007 election violence was credited with keeping a lid on fresh incitement.

Today, cases against three of the six people originally accused have been thrown out. Two cases have proceeded, one against Mr. Kenyatta and the other against his deputy president, William Ruto, and a radio presenter, Joshua arap Sang. In recent months, Kenyatta’s case has seemed close to collapse.

“People have given up on international justice, and they have no trust in local justice,” Mr. Wafula says. “That leaves them ready to take things into their own hands. It’s very dangerous.”

In Odinga’s stronghold in the western city of Kisumu, in Luo heartland, Audi Ogada, an activist working with unemployed young men, has a different take. It seems to offer hope, but then turns darker.

“There is a kind of reconciliation between people,” he says. “They are reconciled to the fact that no political leader listens to their concerns, no matter what their affiliation.

“These leaders need to stop playing the old politics of the elite and show us they are bringing jobs, that’s all that people care about," Mr. Ogada says. "If they fail, the youth will take things into their own hands, and no politician even from their own side will be able to stop them.” 

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