Kenya: Fury breaks out (The Africa Report n°39 – April 2012)

Frustrated by elite politicking in Nairobi, young activists at the local level are seizing the initiative to change the system from the bottom up – for better or for worse.

In early March, the Rift Valley was aflame again. Villagers had torched dozens of houses and set fire to hundreds of acres of sugarcane in a night of raiding. By morning on 26 February, five people lay dead. Some fear it may be a precursor to violence in elections due in early 2013. The Rift is Kenya’s key political and economic artery.

The clash was at the border of Nandi and Muhoroni districts, home to the Nandi, the biggest Kalenjin subgroup, and the Luo. Journalists, familiar with such clashes, faithfully traced its contours. They reported that the police « were investigating » and that meetings led by politicians had preceded the violence. There was an eerily familiar tone in the reports: unknown forces were orchestrating the violence. The fighting was around Miteitiei Farm. That’s near the area where a spate of ethnic clashes started in late 1991. Back then the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) had been pushed into reintroducing multiparty politics. Its leader at the time, President Daniel arap Moi, predicted that competitive party politics would prove ethnically divisive. Loyalists then set out to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fearing that non-Kalenjin groups would vote for opposition parties, party militants launched a spate of ethnic cleansing to force out the madoadoa – non-indigenous communities resident in the Rift Valley.

Ethnic clashes have cast a shadow over election-year politics ever since. The worst explosion was in 2007 and early 2008, when more than 1,500 people were killed across the country and 300,000 chased from their homes. Some of the bloodiest attacks were in the Rift: in one incident children were burned to death in a church.

This time, the clashes in Muhoroni touch on a complex of local interests and national political reform. One explanation is that the violence was triggered by plans to dispose of an Indian-owned farming estate on which squatters had long settled. When it proved difficult to parcel out the farms fairly, the dispute took an ethnic turn.

Another version has it that the estate had been acquired by an Indian entrepreneur who recently died intestate. Elders from the Nandi and Luo failed to reach a compromise, as did local MPs. Then the fighting started.

The battle for Muhoroni is an important warning for supporters of the devolution of powers under the new constitution. As the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission delineates new constituency boundaries, there is a growing focus on politics at the grassroots, and with it may come more violence.

Constitutional change. From the Tana Delta, where a low-intensity conflict rages between the agriculturalist Pokomo and the pastoralist Rendille ethnic groups, to Wajir County in North Eastern Province where Somali clans fight over grazing rights, the new battle for local control has become a defining feature of Kenyan politics since the new constitution was approved in August 2010.

The counties, which will control administration and resources, are the new political power centers. « The constitution has not taken root yet, but the expectations that have come with devolution mean that every county will have a burning issue to settle. We’re going to have an election devoid of national concerns, but one that will revolve around shifting local issues, » says Karuti Kanyinga, a political scientist at the University of Nairobi.

Devolution was central to the constitutional debate. Demands for local and ethnic self-determination clashed with the old fears of a majimbo federal system – that indigenous communities would force out ‘settler communities’ if the country decentralized.

The independence constitution was along federalist lines. Founding President Jomo Kenyatta’s nationalist KANU government preferred the centralization of control in Nairobi to assuaging ethnic minority fears.

Five decades later, devolution is back on the agenda. But now it is the people not the political elite that want change, says Kanyinga. « People are returning to the womb. Without a progressive agenda carried by dominant elites, we are likely to see a trend in which politics becomes deeply essentialised around local ethnic issues”

The two bastions of the majimbo idea were the Rift Valley and Coast Province. It is there that the central issues of Kenyan politics, land and ethnicity have been most contested. The Rift Valley faces a crisis of leadership. The election in2007 saw a younger generation take over the political leadership of the Kalenjin, the Rift’s largest ethnic group. But those leaders stand accused of fomenting the country’s worst-ever election violence.

William Ruto, the politician who wrested the leadership from former President Moi, faces charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for planning and organizing the killing and maiming of political opponents and their supporters in the Rift after December 2007 elections. For tactical reasons, Ruto has formed an improbable partnership with Kikuyu leader Uhuru Kenyatta, many of whose supporters were killed in the Rift. Kenyatta also faces charges at the ICC.

Strategic alliance. As the country’s two most senior politicians indicted at the Hague, Ruto and Kenyatta are jointly turning their fire on Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who they suspect secretly rejoices in their legal travails. Odinga is the frontrunner in the presidential race. Although he has unchallenged support from his Luo people, he must stitch together a complex patchwork of support from the rest of the country if he is going to win.

Ruto and Kenyatta are trying to persuade the Kalenjin to oppose Odinga, greatly eroding his chances of succeeding President Mwai Kibaki. In order to do so, they must sell the unlikely idea of a Kalenjin-Kikuyu partnership to their supporters.

The post-election violence in the Rift Valley mainly pitted Kalenjin indigenous people against Kikuyu migrants. And although the Uhuru-Ruto partnership is trumpeted, the politics on the ground suggests that reconciling their communities will be hugely problematic.

In Eldoret town, a flashpoint for election violence, the strains of Kikuyu music issue from traders’ stalls. It might seem that Kikuyu businesses, which dominated the town’s economy until 2007, are back. It is a false impression. « Most of the big Kikuyu businessmen packed up and left during the violence. The ones you are seeing in town have only come back after they were instructed to double the rates on their trade licenses to the municipal council. The traders who still operate here are often harassed by council askarisi” says Richard Amdany.

Amdany runs the District Business Solutions Centre that recently surveyed businesses in Eldoret. It found that 50% of the largest Kikuyu businesses had never returned after the violence. Instead they moved to Naivasha and Nakuru, predominantly Kikuyu towns in the central Rift Valley. « We train entrepreneurs. We have tried to reconcile Kalenjin and Kikuyu professionals who are members of our organization. They all refused to attend our meetings,” Amdany says.

Rift will not heal. Of the thousands of people made homeless during the violence, few have been brave enough to return. Of those who have, says Philip Barno, chairman of the Eldoret Conflict Resolution Centre, most have settled under heavy state protection. « Most of the ones who were living among the Kalenjin chose to sell their properties and move elsewhere, » says Bamo. Indeed, the predominantly Kikuyu settlement schemes such as Kiambaa, where a church was torched in the 2007 election dispute and 35 people died, have been renamed by the local Kalenjin. « Civil society has tried its best to begin a reconciliation process but there is no political will,” Barno adds.

In fact, attempts by the government to resettle displaced people elsewhere in the north Rift were met with open hostility. Government officials accompanying displaced people to their new homes were met with threats of violence. In one instance, 3,000 Nandi youth blockaded a newly subdivided settlement scheme when it emerged that the government was eyeing it for displaced people.

Local activists and politicians are trying to build a system that gives them effective local self-determination. This means they have to work with the new county constituencies and administrative units created under the new constitution. The problem is how the indigenous majority, who dominate the politics, will work with the migrant minority.

« People have no problem with [ethnic] mixing. It is okay for marriage, even for land ownership. But when it comes to leadership, you leave it to the indigenous community,” Bamo explains.

Four years after President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga signed the peace deal that brought Kenya back from the brink, the sense that it was little more than an elite has grown ever stronger.

The rhetoric of peace and reconciliation from Nairobi has little resonance on the ground. Despite the new constitution, fights over land rights remain largely unresolved. This is most apparent on the coast, where a sense of marginalization and historical grievance has fuelled a grassroots secessionist movement.

The Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), proscribed by the government, has become a powerful local movement. Using colonial treaties to back up its case, the MRC argues for the Coast to secede. Popular at the grassroots but viewed with suspicion among coastal elites, the MRC’s championing of secession threatens government.

« The grandchildren of the Kenyan project are now living with the reality of historical grievances. A generation has come of age and it is asking the old questions. This time around there’s a paper trail. In many ways, it is Lancaster House all over again,” says Mwalimu Mati, director of the anti-corruption lobby Mars Group Kenya and the chairman of Safina, a minority political party. The communal dispossessions under colonial rule have never been tackled; at the Coast, they have been exacerbated.

These demands for change are shaping a new balance between local and national politics. In some areas, activists are succeeding with reconciliation plans.

A land dispute in Mount Elgon, in the far west, had sparked a spate of communal killings led by a militia, the Sabaot Land Defense Force (SLDF). In 2006, the militia seized control of the district, taxing local businesses, conscripting young men into its units and abducting women. Scores were killed.

More horror was to follow. Kenya’s defense forces launched a search and destroy operation in the region. But its atrocities soon surpassed those of the Sabaot militia with killings, disappearances and rapes.

Today, there is a pall over Mount Elgon. As the community picks up the broken pieces of its old life, it is on its own.

« It would have never got to this if the government had reacted fast. Both the government and the SLDF used the girls. The old women and children were killed indiscriminately. There was no food. The women who survived were forced to tum to prostitution. We ask ourselves, which country we are living in? » says Mama Milcah Kemei, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation commission’s coordinator in Kapsiro Division, Mount Elgon.

Today, the community is slowly rebuilding and former militia members such as Abraham Chepkoi, 21, have repudiated violence and have enlisted in a peace and reconciliation initiative. « I don’t think in this coming election that youth will allow itself to be used by the politicians again. We have problems here, but there is peace. You can sleep with your door opened,” says Chepkoi.

Parselelo Kantai in Mombasa


Mombasa Republican Council: The Coast calls for freedom

A rapidly growing civil society movement is championing the disinherited indigenous people of the Coast and demanding secession.

A photo of a young man, his back to the camera, wearing a black T-shirt with the words Pwani si Kenya (The Coast is not Kenyan) launched the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) into the national political consciousness. Those words have become the rallying cry for a movement demanding a peaceful secession from Kenya.

« Our main issue is land. For the Kenyan state to correct past injustices will be a tall order. In our view, such a correction would cause bloodshed. We don’t want bloodshed, so we have chosen secession as the only alternative, » says MRC secretary-general Randu Nzai Ruwa.

Founded in 1999, the MRC aims to address political and economic discrimination against coastal peoples. The ethnic clashes in the Likoni area of Mombasa before the 1997 elections highlighted the marginalization and land disputes along the coast. President Daniel arap Moi’s government declared an amnesty but sent in troops who ransacked villages, raped women and rounded up youth from the Mijikenda community. « We started meeting. We wanted to take up arms and go to the bush. We realized the government was not going to address our problems,” says Ruwa.

They opted for dialogue after they discovered documents showing that the coast had been subject to an 1895 treaty between the British and the Sultan of Zanzibar. The treaty conferred protectorate status on a ten-mile coastal belt running from Witu in the north to Vanga in the south. Formally the dominion of the Zanzibari sultanate, it had been leased to Britain. Kenya’s President Jomo Kenyatta signed documents incorporating the coast into the newly independent republic, but only under specific conditions.

« We have written to the Queen, the President of Kenya and the Prime Minister telling them of our intentions and asking for an audience. Only the British High Commissioner in Nairobi has replied” says Ruwa.

Instead, the MRC found itself among a government list of banned groups in 2008. The MRC went to court to contest the ban in 2010, a case that has been adjourned on numerous occasions while the government continues to harass MRC supporters. The press often makes unfounded claims of the MRC’s links to Al-Shabaab and other militias.

Indigenous coastal people are among the worst off in Kenya: five of the 15 poorest districts (now counties) are in Coast Province. The coast lags behind in education, health, employment and industrialization, yet it contributes massively to public coffers through tourism and Mombasa’s Kilindini port.

Political Recognition. Starting with Kenyatta in the 1960s, the political elite have taken large tracts of beachfront land for on selling conversion into holiday homes or developments with foreign hoteliers. Kenya’s coast is the playground of rich, white jet-setters and their Kenyan counterparts, but it is also home to a deeply impoverished indigenous population.

Taking advantage of a legal lacuna the Kenyatta government refused to issue land titles to indigenous people and instead settled its own ethnic constituents as well as the new elites. Today more than 80% of Mijikenda and Swahili coastals are squatters on their ancestral lands.

Since registering as a civil society organization, the MRC claims to have recruited two million members in 18 months and to have more than 200 branches. Independent assessments say registered members are far fewer.

The MRC is now strong enough to prompt recognition from Prime Minister Raila Odinga and other mainstream politicians who promise to talk to its leadership. Any talks will be testing.

« The peaceful manner in which we’re proceeding doesn’t mean we’re cowards… if our claims are not addressed, we will use any means necessary to press our case,” says MRC spokesman Mohammed Rashid Mraja.

P. K.


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