Election Violence in Kenya

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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