Archive for January, 2008

Surviving the Siege

January 22, 2008

It was the evening of December 28.  At the Lake Bogoria Hotel – a hot and dusty cinderblock edifice in such a barren stretch of desert that it is able to call itself a resort only because there is no nearby competition to claim otherwise – the guests were starting to feel the anxious disconnect that naturally comes from being too remote and too alone as traumatic events are unfolding in more consequential places.  Phones were dialed and answered, exclamations were made, and rumors were spread.

Mungiki gangs are wearing police uniforms and killing people at roadblocks!” said the large, angry man from Nairobi.

“The Luhya are fighting alongside the Kikuyu.  They are killing all the Luo!” said the Luo who drove the new, sporty, offroad Lexus.

“The Kalenjin are fighting alongside the Luo.  They are killing all the Kikuyu!” said the Kikuyu who was there with his wife but seemed to be flirting rather shamelessly with one or more of the young and pretty female hotel staff.

“Raila is crowning himself the President tomorrow at an illegal rally in Uhuru Park!” said a man who swore he got the news straight from the Pentagon, the name given by the opposition, without any sense of irony, to the six – not five – leaders of their party.

“Kibaki has arrested all the opposition!”  said another man who swore he got the news straight from the outgoing Vice President, who himself, like most of his party, was “trounced” and “floored,” in the words of the local media, in his bid to be reelected to Parliament.

“The police and the army are divided.  It’s war!” said the bartender.

It was the second night of tallying; only half the votes were counted; impatience was turning to anxiety throughout much of Kenya.  The countrywide reaction was similar to that caused by the occasional winter storm in midwest cities like Louisville, places that are hit by a debilitating snowfall every third or fourth year, often enough to expect inconveniences but not often enough, it would seem, to be prepared for those inconveniences.  People started to panic – supermarkets were emptied; gasoline and firewood were stockpiled; windows were shuttered.

At the Lake Bogoria Hotel, we started making our own plans for survival and, if necessary, escape.  We started with a car by car inventory of our supplies.  We had, between the four of us, approximately twenty litres of water.  Two of us had very little food left, having been on the road for almost a week, but the other two had enough to share, having just left home the day before.  We had staples like pasta and peanut butter, and we had luxuries like chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers.  We did not have bread, as twice we had been outsmarted by the local vervet monkeys.

Each car had about 500 kilometres worth of fuel, in the tank and in extra jerricans, more than enough to get us home, but in the meantime not enough to allow for any leisurely drives through the nearby national park, famous for its birds – like the lilac-breasted roller, the woodland kingfisher, the grey hornbill, and the hoopoe – and its greater kudu, a very large yet skittish antelope that is hard to see just about everywhere except Lake Bogoria National Park.

One by one, we took our phones and their chargers inside the hotel to recharge their batteries.  We asked the hotel staff to let us know whenever they had any new scratchcards – about the size and style of a lottery ticket, with a window that is scratched clean to reveal a code number which is then dialed into your phone to add minutes to your cellular account – which we then bought in bulk at every opportunity.  One day the hotel was without electricity so we were not able to keep our phones charged; otherwise, we managed to remain in constant communication with our families, and our informants, despite our remote and disconnected location.

On the first night and again on the second night, we asked the hotel staff to collect some firewood, ostensibly for our evening campfire but in reality for a stash we were building in case of any emergency need to drive for temporary safety or for permanent escape into the rocky desert which stretched from where we were camped all the way north into Sudan and Ethiopia.  The wood and other nonessential items too large to be carried on the run in an emergency, like camping equipment, were stored in the far backs of our cars.  In the midsections, we kept useful but dispensible items like clothes and toiletries that we needed or wanted to access regularly while camped at the hotel.  Also in this space were whatever items we had with us that could, if necessary, be used as weapons – a rungu, essentially a small club in the shape of a miniature golf driver, and a panga, or machete.  They were out of the way, but still accessible from the front seat, in an emergency.

IMGP3752In the front of our cars, always accessible, we kept what we called our “grab and go” bags.  These were light, and always ready, containing only our most essential items, those supplies and, crucially, documents we absolutely had to have on our person should we need, for instance at a violent roadblock, to abandon our cars and run for safety.  In these bags we each packed our passports and our money.  We made four copies, one for each of us, of a list that included our names, passport numbers, and telephone numbers in Kenya and in the United States.  We each packed a small one-litre bottle of water and some small snackfood, such as peanuts.  We carried, between us, pocket knives and tools, lighters and matches, iodine pills, headlamps, maps, compasses, a handheld gps unit, and spare batteries.  At all times, we wore light and flexible clothes of the sort you can live and move in for days, fully protected from the sun and wind and rain, yet fully mobile as well.  We were ready to run, if need be.

After provisioning and arranging ourselves, we convened around the camp fire, maps in hand, to discuss likely, and several unlikely, escape routes.

“If there’s a war, it’ll be coming from the south.  Nakuru is already burning.”

“We can’t go west.  They’re killing each other in Eldoret, and it’ll only get worse if Raila loses.”

“And we can’t go east.  Nyeri will explode if Kibaki doesn’t win.”

This left only north, deeper into the lawless desert sahel which Kenya shares with its unruly neighbors: Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.  These borders are so uncharted and theoretical that on many maps they are marked by dashed lines.  Indeed, along some of the more rugged and inaccessible frontiers, the administrative boundary and the geographic boundary do not coincide.  Many of the people who live in this empty hardscrabble land – the Turkana, the Molo, the Omo – have nothing to do with the governments which ostensibly rule them, if they know of these governments at all.  We decided this was a good thing – “if they don’t even know Kenya exists, they probably don’t give a shit who the president is.”

Our emergency plan, then, was to aim for Moyale, on the overland trucking route between Nairobi and Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia.  The planning done, we staked in and hunkered down to wait out the war.

In the end, and despite our melodramatic paranoia, the Lake Bogoria Hotel was not a bad place to outlast a siege.  We were lucky, as we had not planned to be there; angry roadblocks had diverted us turn by turn until late afternoon, at which point we simply aimed for the nearest safe, comfortable, and at least slightly vacationlike destination.  We had been planning to camp deep inside the national park, entirely removed from people and their politics, but, having stopped at the hotel to watch the news, we were swayed by the receptionist, who said, “Just camp here.  We have a pool.”

It was easy to get into a routine; wake with sun, swim, shower in the poolside changing rooms, then go inside for the buffet breakfast and the local and international news, by way of satellite television.  Kenya was the world’s top story, which, we quickly learned, meant that all the major news channels – CNN, BBC, Skynews, Al Jazeera – would be returning to the story at the top of every hour.  We became skilled, like lazy American children with their Nintendo and Playstation consoles, at rapidly surfing the complex remote control interface as we chased any mention of Kenya from one channel to the next.  Our days became a numbing and metronomic back and forth from the pool, for about 45 minutes every hour, to the television, for about 15 minutes.  Very occasionally, the local newschannels had something worthwhile to say, and then we would spend hours at a time immobile in front of the television, only to realize much later that we had not learned anything new at all.  Thankfully, the hotel had a deepfreezer full of ice cream, which we steadily consumed, despite our self-issued directive to save our money in case of an emergency.

On the morning of the fifth day, we decided it was time to try to drive back to Nairobi.  We left early, before sunrise, hoping to put as much road behind us as possible before drunken village mobs emerged to reignite the smoldering tires of yesterday’s roadblocks.  On the long drive out of the hotel’s fenced compound, we picked up the receptionist who had convinced us to camp there.  She was on her way to the nearest town, about 20 kilometres away, where she was planning to take a seat in a police convoy back to Nairobi.  She explained why:

“I am Kikuyu.  I cannot live here anymore.  I cannot work with these people.  The way they look at me, the way they speak to me – I can tell they hate me now.”

We gave her a ride to the junction.  It was our contribution to the ethnic cleansing of Kenya.

“The World Is With Kenya”

January 9, 2008


It is not only the citizens and politicians of Kenya who are fanning the flames of political frustration and ethnic tension throughout much of the country. The election observers, the diplomatic community, and the local and international press also have been complicit in the election fraud and postelection tribal violence that has divided Kenya. Each group has failed to prevent or even sufficiently condemn the rigged results which disenfranchised half the country’s voters.


The voting and tallying was observed by dozens of independent agents from Kenya, from the rest of Africa, from Europe, and from the United States. The European Union, who sent the largest contingent, was seen as the leader of the various observer missions. The head of the EU team, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, typically spoke to the press on behalf of the many missions. His comments were consistently flaccid and meaningless. When it became abundantly clear that the election was being stolen, and by whom and even how, Mr Lambsdorff managed only to say, in uselessly noncommittal language, that the alleged instances of fraud raise doubts about the credibility of the electoral process and that “the electoral process has fallen short of international standards.” Such fraud, he said, should be investigated at a later date by an independent body. Never did he say, firmly and unequivocally, in plain English, what was immediately clear to all: The election results are not credible.


The diplomatic community, in particular the Ambassador of the United States to Kenya Michael Rannenberger, has been equally noncommittal about its criticism of the electoral process. The closest Mr Rannenberger has come to any sort of public censure of the stolen election was when he rescinded his congratulations to the officially announced winner. He is recognizing Mr Mwai Kibaki as the elected President of Kenya, despite the manner in which the presidency was, literally, taken. At the same time, he is referring to Mr Raila Odinga as the opposition, despite the clear reality that the Orange Democratic Movement won all levels of the national election. To the disenfranchised citizens of Kenya, he has said: “No election is worth fighting over.”


Finally, the local and international press reports on the election tallying were so simple and cursory that they were little more than a regurgitation of the fraudulent statistics announced by the Electoral Commission of Kenya. It was pure description, without any sort of investigation or even analysis. Never did any journalist bother to investigate the documented instances of electoral fraud. Never did any reporter bother to interview any of the witnesses to that fraud. Never did any analyst state that there is something statistically unlikely and suspicious about the incumbent’s impossible comeback victory on the last day of tallying. By simply regurgitating the statistics presented by the ECK, the media gave immediate default credence to a falsified version of the election results. Even now, no one is bothering to uncover a more accurate version.


By tacitly allowing a falsified election, the international community is contributing to the disenfranchisement of millions of already frustrated and marginalized Kenyans. The world keeps telling these Kenyans that their grievances should be pursued in the electoral courts rather than on the streets of Nairobi, Kisumu, and Eldoret. This is either naïve or cruel. Surely the world understands that the courts are as biased and rigged as the electoral commission. Surely the world knows what the result of such an inquiry would be. If not, the world is naïve; if so, the world is cruel to refer an aggrieved people to an institution stacked against them.


Unwittingly, the international community is contributing to a devastating sense of powerlessness. Every time a supposedly independent observer stands on television to say that Kenya needs to pursue its grievances legally not violently, Kenya’s belief in justice and democracy diminishes a little more. At the same time, political frustration and ethnic hatred burn a little more from the social fabric of this previously stable and peaceful country. Sadly, and very problematically, it is likely that tomorrow’s battles are being planted in today’s hopelessness.


In 1959, much of the Tutsi population of independent Rwanda was expelled from the country. Many of them fled to neighboring Uganda, where, decades later, a second generation of refugees organized itself into the militarized Rwanda Patriotic Front. They invaded their home country in 1990. Four years later, in 1994, the Hutu majority responded with a genocide that killed nearly a million Tutsi. It may take time, maybe even decades, but ethnic frustration always resurfaces, often explosively.

Election Violence in Kenya

January 4, 2008

It is now one week after election day in Kenya. In that time, the issues, and the stakes, have changed dramatically. At first it was a story about the rare triumph of a peaceful democratic election in Africa. Then it became a scandal full of backroom fraud and political corruption. Now the focus is on the gory details of ethnic cleansing. A week ago, Kenya was considered a beacon of democracy and capitalism among the countries of Africa. Now, even here, people are comparing Kenya to what might be called the rest of Africa – there is talk of tyranny, and even genocide.

– – –

It is hard to dispute that the election was rigged. When the country went to sleep last Friday evening, a little more than 24 hours after the polls were closed, the main challenger Raila Odinga had a statistically insurmountable lead over the incumbent Mwai Kibaki. The following morning, the enormous margin had disappeared almost completely. Later that Saturday, it was announced by Samuel Kivuitu, the presidential appointee who heads the Electoral Commission of Kenya, that the two candidates were virtually tied. For another 24 hours, the counting seemed to stop and no new results were released.

A day later, on Sunday evening, Mr Kivuitu held a press conference at the Kenyatta International Conference Center in downtown Nairobi to announce the results of the presidential election. Immediately prior to his announcement, the opposition Orange Democratic Movement, the party of Mr Odinga, had held a press conference of its own at the same venue in order to call attention to several inconsistencies in the tallying process. In each of 48 constituencies, the opposition was able to provide both documents and witnesses to prove that results had been altered drastically in favor of Mr Kibaki. Particularly damning was the statement made by Mr Kipkemoi Kirui, one of the 21 agents of the ECK, all of whom were presidential appointees. Mr Kirui described multiple instances in which the ECK in Nairobi had altered the numbers which were reported to them from polling stations in the field, always in favor of Mr Kibaki.

Just a short while later, when Mr Kivuitu began his press conference to announce the winner of the presidential election, it became immediately apparent that he was using the inflated figures for Mr Kibaki. Members of ODM stood and forcefully reiterated their concerns about these numbers. An angry shouting and shoving match ensued, which ended only when the General Service Unit, a highly trained and militarized branch of the domestic police, escorted Mr Kivuitu from the conference hall to a smaller antechamber in the same building.

The GSU then physically removed all the press and all the international observers from the KICC. They surrounded the building, shoulder to shoulder, wearing riot gear and carrying rifles. It was under these conditions, after all independent eyes had been expelled from the premises and while the entire building was under siege by an armed and camouflaged police barricade, that Mr Kivuitu announced that Mr Kibaki had won the election. The announcement was made only on the parastatal Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, which cut almost immediately to State House where Mr Kibaki was already being sworn in for his second term as the President of Kenya.

– – –

The voting itself was conducted fairly and peacefully. It was only when the tallying became fraudulent that the country became violent. When the incumbent staged his remarkable comeback, angry but undirected rioting flared in several easily combustible areas. When, with the candidates officially locked in a tie, the ECK ceased releasing results, rumor and accusation became the national news and conversation. Anxiety and suspicion replaced the proud optimism of election day. Still, even at this point, most of the violence was between aimless rioters and the police trying to contain them, with the latter doing much more of the killing.

It was only after an official winner was declared that opportunistic looting spiraled into ethnic cleansing. Kenya is a mix of over 40 different tribes, none of which comprise a very substantial percentage of the population. Two of the more populous tribes are the Kikuyu and the Luo. The Kikuyu are Bantu migrants to the region who live only in the central highlands of Kenya. The Luo are Nilotic migrants, probably from Sudan, who live along the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Uganda, and, predominately, Kenya. Because they happened to live in the areas where the British settlers chose to live, the Kikuyu were more directly affected, both negatively and positively, by colonialism – their land was stolen from them, but they were also given greater access to government, education, and business. Because they happened to live along the hot and malarial shores of Lake Victoria where the British were less interested in settling, the Luo were less directly affected by colonialism – they retained much of their land, but their options for upward mobility within the administration were limited.

The map of Africa was drawn, absurdly and negligently, by colonialism. The border of Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, angles sharply and awkwardly around Mount Kilimanjaro – a gift from Queen Victoria of England, who had two mountains in Kenya, to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who had none in Tanzania. Thanks to this flippant cartography, the Kikuyu and most of the Luo, who had very little to do with each other before colonialism, one day found themselves drawn together in an independent state called Kenya, along with a few dozen other traditionally independent tribes. The Kikuyu, in the geographic center of the colonial administration and economy, fell quickly and easily into positions of wealth and power. The Luo, along the remote and rural shores of Lake Victoria, have remained relatively marginalized. Many Kikuyu have clear and tangible reasons to fight for the status quo, while the Luo, and many of the other tribes of Kenya, are more desperate for change. Mwai Kibaki is Kikuyu; Raila Odinga is Luo.

– – –

There has been a dangerous vacuum of leadership since the electoral process morphed into tribal turmoil. Mr Kibaki has been seen exactly once, in a recorded message wishing the country a happy New Year. Mr Odinga has been only slightly more visible, scheduling and canceling the occasional protest rally in Nairobi. In their absence, their followers have taken their battle to the streets. Many of the citizens of Kenya are attempting to ethnically cleanse several regions of the country. Currently, at least 75,000 persons are internally displaced. Several thousands of others have fled across the border to neighboring Uganda. Kenya, long the host of the region’s refugees, is now producing its own asylum seekers. Kikuyu from across the country are returning in masses to their traditional homeland in the central highlands. Luo are being expelled from the slums of Nairobi. While this is happening, no political progress is being made. The status quo seems to be settling firmly into place.

Yesterday’s edition of The Standard, a local newspaper, included several quotes, generally on the subject of democracy. One was from Woody Allen: “We stand today at a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to make the right choice.” Many Kenyans, it seems, are being forced to choose between the despair and utter hopelessness of a stolen election or the total extinction of ethnic warfare.

It’s surprisingly difficult to say which I believe is the right choice.