Election violence in Kenya – an explainer

Endebess IDP where  Kenyan's displaced by post election violence sought shelter.. (Brendan Bannon)

People forced from their homes by election violence in a temporary camp at Endebess, Cherengani. Photo: Brendan Bannon 2008

By Mike

Hope you’ve read our stuff about Robert Nagila at NTV reporting on the court appearances in Holland of three prominent Kenyans accused of orchestrating the post-election violence here in 2007/8. But what actually happened then? I was here at the time, and was working full-tilt throughout the eight weeks of the fighting. It was one of the worst times of my career from a personal point of view. This is my adopted home, after all, and to see bits of it in flames, and friends muttering nastiness about other friends just because of their tribe, was all pretty hard to stomach.

What’s the background to the violence?

The December 2007 presidential election was always going to be close. The incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, could boast strong economic growth, and carried with him a significant chunk of voters whose loyalty came because they were the same tribe as him, Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest. The opposition, a coalition led by Raila Odinga (now prime minister) had equally strong support, from across many tribes, gathered around a demand for change due to accusations of corruption during Kibaki’s previous four years in charge.

How and why did the fighting start?

The voting went peacefully, but the count was delayed and delayed. Three days after the election, the result was still not known. This raised suspicions of foul play – later borne out after investigators found evidence that votes had been tampered with. That evidence came to light weeks after – at the time, the suspicions were enough to raise tensions. Then, when Kibaki was hurriedly declared the winner late on December 30, those tensions immediately spilled into violence.

It started in opposition strong-holds in Western Kenya and the Rift Valley, north-west of Nairobi. In both areas, Raila’s supporters were incensed at the impression that Kibaki’s clique had rigged the vote, and went on the rampage targeting Kikuyus, who have settled all across Kenya. Their businesses were looted, their homes torched, and they were killed in their hundreds, or forced to flee to safe havens in churches or government compounds.

Within hours, Kenyans were on the move. Those whose tribes were originally from central Kenya returned there. Those from Western Kenya fled back there. The map of the country suddenly looked starkly divided on tribe lines.

How long did the fighting go on for?

Initially, roughly three weeks. During that time, the targets were largely the Kikuyu. But late in January, a Kikuyu fight-back started in Nakuru and Naivasha, towns two hours and an hour respectively west of Nairobi.

How did it stop?

International mediation – African leaders and then Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, all came to Nairobi to try to get the two opposing sides to talk. Eventually Annan and his team managed to bring the rivals to the negotiating table, and a peace deal leading to a coalition ‘government of national unity’ was signed, early in March.

A young Kenyan boy at endebess IDP camp in Kenya following post election violence in 2008.. (Brendan Bannon)

An infant whose family fled their homes during election violence in 2008, at Endebess IDP camp. Photo: Brendan Bannon 2008

What was the impact of the violence?

More than 1,200 people were killed, 350,000 were forced to flee their homes. The country’s cherished reputation for stability in a region plagued with problems was shattered. The economy was left punch-drunk, and the tourism industry, Kenya’s third-largest income earner, was shattered for months. Latent elements of tribal divisionism were aired in full view, making it hard for the country to pull back to a notion of ethnic harmony. The parliament and the government, despite supposedly being united in that coalition, is deeply divided and little legislative businesses has been enacted since 2008, aside from the adoption of a new constitution designed to neuter the threat of fresh violence.

Why the International Criminal Court case?

Because Kenya was giving little evidence that it would investigate and prosecute those responsible itself. The ICC’s mandate allows it to probe potential cases of war crimes or crimes against humanity if the country in which they allegedly took place refuses to do so itself, cannot do so itself, or appears unlikely to do so itself. After two years of gathering evidence, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told judges he had proof that six men “bore the most responsibility”. Across two cases, they are Uhuru Kenyatta, the finance minister and vice-president, Francis Muthaura, the head of the civil service, Maj Gen Hussein Ali, former head of the police, and then William Ruto, the former higher education minister, Henry Kosgey, former industrialization minister, and Joshua arap Sang, a radio presenter. They are variously accused of murder, rape, forcible transfer of people and persecution. Their first appearance in court was April 7.

Will there be more violence?

Kenya’s heading to the polls again late next year, either in August or December. There are always clashes at election time – although 2007/8 was by far the worst. It is hoped that by seeing their leaders in an international court, accused of grave crimes with stiff custodial sentences, those who would agitate for more disruption will be given pause before repeating the cycle. Whether that will happen or not is very difficult to judge. Elections give the winners vast power, and with that come vast opportunities for illicit kick-backs and earnings. The temptation might be too high not to play on the country’s deep-seated ethnic imbalances in order to secure a seat in Parliament.

However, a huge amount of work has been done, by local campaign groups, human rights organisations, international donors and – to a point – by Kenya’s government itself, to try to show how dangerous to everyone further violence will be.

Please do send me further questions in the comment box below – which I will try to answer myself, or pass on to contacts who will know better, and I can reply from them.

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