Kenya: Healing the Nation

By Katie Meyer

Cars on fire, young men wielding machetes, women crying out in agony, politicians posing -- these were the images used by mainstream media to capture the violence and political crisis in Kenya that erupted in the wake of the presidential and parliamentary election held in December 2007.

But there were other stories to be told: supermarket collections of food for the displaced, grassroots dialogues and trauma healing, media campaigns for peace, and nonviolent marches.

"Many people have been working for peace at the community level in Kenya, and also in surrounding countries affected by the violence and political unrest in the country, including Uganda and Rwanda," says Anne Goodman, president of the Toronto-based organization InterChange: International Institute for Community-Based Peacebuilding.

"These efforts are greatly needed, both for the short-term processes of establishing peace and restoring governance, and the long-term work of reconciliation and healing."

Kenyans were rejoicing in the streets as a peace agreement was announced on February 29, 2008 - two months after flawed elections triggered violence and unrest and sent crippling shock waves through the country's economy. In one of Africa's most stable and economically prosperous countries, 1,000 people died, and over 300,000 were displaced, as ethnic and social fault lines were laid bare. Now, citizens of the republic are facing the challenge of confronting what happened and how to go about "healing the nation."

Background To The Political Crisis And Root Causes Of The Violence

Voters went to the polls on 27 December, 2007 in a monumental election preceded by months of campaigning fanfare in a tight race between incumbent Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) and Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement Party (ODM). Despite high hopes and a strong electoral turnout, the mood quickly turned sour as Kibaki declared victory and evidence of "serious irregularities" in the electoral process came to light.

Anger and frustration over the results prompted violent responses, particularly in the slums of Nairobi and in the Rift Valley -- opposition ODM strongholds. Beyond despair over poverty and the desperation for political change in the face of a fraudulent election, this violence also revealed tensions between ethnic groups that had been exacerbated by the presidential campaign.

This election had significantly different undertones than the country's first multiparty election, which took place in 2002. Then, Odinga was actually campaigning for Kibaki as part of a coalition of three political parties under the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). At that time, Kenyans were excited by promises of change and Kibaki's stated commitment to address systemic poverty and the nepotism and corruption that had been fixtures of the previous one-party state government of Daniel Arap Moi.

But in the five years since then, Kenya experienced a divisive and lengthy process to reform the constitution, which ultimately failed in a referendum. After the break-up of the NARC, the ODM, led by Odinga, campaigned against the government's constitutional reforms, on the premise that they were attempts to concentrate power at the top.

Despite economic indicators of growth, poverty and a widening gap between rich and poor are acutely felt by the 60 per cent of Kenya's population of 37 million who live on less than a US$1 a day.

Critics say President Kibaki did not distinguish himself from his predecessors and that members of his Kikuyu tribe, one of Kenya's 42 ethnic groups, are widely seen as favored for jobs and economic opportunities at the expense of other ethnic groups, and corruption is still rampant. Odinga -- a member of the Luo ethnic group from the city of Kisumu in western Kenya -- emerged as a strong oppositional force in the presidential elections. He campaigned on a platform of change, denouncing these perceived failures of government, calling for a national reconciliation process to address land conflict and ethnic tensions that have been plaguing the country.

Land conflicts - some dating back to colonial days, particularly in Rift Valley - meant that communities there were living under a fragile peace, explains Scott Matter, a Canadian Anthropology PhD student who spent 10 months living in the region last year.

"While there was friendship and intermarriage across ethnic groups, many Kenyans felt that historical injustices had not been addressed and felt resentment over land deals and resettlement schemes that dated back to Kenya's first president after independence, Jomo Kenyatta, who was a Kikuyu," says Matter. "But efforts aimed at dealing with all the many grievances related to land were ignored by government, who took the position that truth and reconciliation processes would tear the country apart, and thus weren't necessary."

Other land conflicts in the Kenya's Rift Valley have been on-going between farmers and pastoralists, and also as a result of cattle raiding between pastoralist groups.

With Odinga seemingly campaigning for those who have not benefited under the leadership of Kibaki (i.e. non-Kikuyus), and given the historical roots of perceived injustice and frustration over these on-going land disputes, the election took on ethnic undertones.

This in part is what analysts say triggered the violent response to the announcement by the Kenyan Electoral Commission that Kibaki beat by Odinga by 230,000 votes in the presidential race, even though Odinga's ODM won twice as many seats as Kibaki's PNU in the parliamentary vote. With documented malpractices in the election, and such a slim margin, many of Kenya's 10 million voters reacted in rage.

The villages and homes of Kikuyus were looted. The horrible killing of 30 people taking refuge in a church in Eldoret, a town in Western Kenya, on January 1 caused many analysts and political leaders to depict this violence as "ethnic cleansing," comparable to the genocide in Rwanda.

Hundreds of thousands fled their homes and villages to other towns as the Kenyan Red Cross hastily prepared camps, and others crossed the borders to Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania as refugees. In response, many Kikuyus organized counter-attacks against their Kalengin and Luo neighbors, as the violence escalated in a context of fear and distrust.

Human Rights Watch investigated the violence and released a report on January 24, stating that there was evidence that ODM politicians and local leaders had actively planned and organized some of the post-election violence in the Rift Valley. The human rights group called for intervention by authorities and party officials.

"Opposition leaders are right to challenge Kenya's rigged presidential poll, but they can't use it as an excuse for targeting ethnic groups," said Georgette Gagnon, acting Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Ethnic tensions were also behind some of the violence in Nairobi's downtown slums. In Kibera -- Africa's largest slum, located in Nairobi -- upon hearing of the flawed elections, people took to the streets in a wave of outrage and destruction that spilled into the city's downtown core. Thousands demonstrated in the streets; though many protested nonviolently, many also took up arms and looted stores and homes. Whole sections of the Kibera and Mathare slums were lost to fire. And again, rioters burned the homes of ethnic Kikuyus in their anger, which lead to organized retaliation by individuals and criminal gangs, such as "The Mungiki." This group is described as a Kikuyu-based religio-political sect, who analysts say used the opportunity to recruit members and demonstrate their strength to authorities.

In response to the violence and demonstrations, the government made public gatherings illegal. Many reports indicated that police used live bullets, with permission to ´shoot to kill' as they tried to break up demonstrations.

Human Rights Watch has called for an investigation into the deaths of "scores of Kenyans shot by police officers in circumstances that were generally unjustifiable and in some cases amounted to extra-judicial killings."

Community-Based Efforts For Peace

But even at the peak of fear and violence, Kenyans were also reaching out to one another.

Matter describes how the major supermarket chains in Kenya -- Nakumatt, Tusky's and Uchumi -- coordinated relief efforts and became drop-off points for non-perishable food items, blankets, clothing and other goods.

"People within Kenya were saying they wanted to help their fellow Kenyans who were suffering," said Matter. "It was a beautiful thing to see."

On January 3, Kenya's media outlets demonstrated a unique sense of unity, as they all ran similar headlines and editorials appealing to political leaders to "Save Our Beloved Country." TV and radio stations read out the editorials on air, and also had call-in shows.

"KISS 100 [radio] had people calling in to say what they were doing to help Kenya today," says Matter. "Some people were phoning in to say they were returning to work so they would not harm the country's economy."

This call-in show actually defied a live broadcasting ban that the government had imposed immediately following President Kibaki's swearing in on December 30, claiming "some people are using the media to call for violence and to incite members of the public to engage in violence."

This ban actually lasted until February 5 - the day of the first hearing scheduled in a lawsuit filed by the Kenyan Editor's Guild and Media Institute, a press freedom advocacy group -- over the illegality of the ban.

While Kenyan media did rally to call for peace, a February mission to the country by international freedom of expression groups ARTICLE 19, Reporters Without Borders, and International Media Support stated that journalists had failed in their obligation to investigate and report on aspects of the political crisis, including the election fraud, for fear of inflaming ethnic divisions or fueling the violence.

Chilling Effect

The ban also had a chilling effect on the media, explains David Makali, Director of Media Institute. "The papers should have set up investigative teams to find out who had won or lost the election, but they did not for fear of being physically attacked the government or opposition. So the media had failed by keeping the truth from the people," he said.

Makali also reasoned that Kenya's journalists and editors, with no experience of covering such violent domestic events, were easy prey for the government, which exerted heavy pressure on them to relay messages of peace and reconciliation, he is quoted as saying in the mission's report.

While media professionals appear torn in assessing how they might have better handled coverage of the crisis, peace activists did try to make use of various media to get their messages across.

A group of concerned Kenyans, mainly from the United States diaspora, started an initiative called VUMA Kenya. This group has been given airtime by Nairobi-based EASY FM to collect and air messages of peace from within and outside the country's borders.

As member Inbal Alon explains, "One of our many initiatives is to get radio stations in Kenya to play a key role in national peace and healing. Our mission is to mobilize all Kenyans and global citizens to uungana pamoja (come together as one) and harambee (pool) our resources together to bring an end to the post-election violence and engage all participants in productive peace-centred initiatives."

Other Kenyan peace activists, like Hezron Masitsa, also used the media to put out messages of peace at the height of the crisis. He explains how one message of peace filled him with hope at the height of intense violence.

"While walking in Kibera, I saw a young man painting on a shop, ´Want Peace Alive.' At first I thought this was only a single act but I have walked many places in Kibera and seen many similar calls, with different wording. He is a small, unnoticed voice crying for peace and I know there are many others like him," says Masita. "My hope and prayer is that the ordinary person understands and cherishes peace."

Masita has been vocally advocating for peace and facilitating training workshops for fellow Kenyans, in nonviolent methods of resolving conflict through the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). In February, Masita and fellow AVP colleagues also conducted trauma-healing workshops with staff at a medical institution who were suffering post-traumatic stress from treating many of the victims of post-election violence.

Other local peacebuilders also stepped up their efforts when the crisis broke out. Rev. Felicien Nemeyimana, Executive Director of Peacebuilding, Healing and Reconciliation Program -- Kenya (PHARP) has been organizing and facilitating community-based dialogues, bringing together people from affected areas and different ethnicities "to come up with strategies to end violence in Kenya and begin the process of healing," he explains.

Possible Strategies For Peace

When asked what Kenya would need to ensure a lasting peace, Rev. Nemeyimana proposes a series of efforts:

1. Conducting grassroots workshops on healing and reconciliation, which encourage and provide space for repentance and forgiveness;

2. Urgently establishing a program to resettle internally displaced people;

3. Offering professional counseling for the affected people;

4. Continuing on-going civic education and dialogue efforts, and also encouraging intermarriage across ethnicities.

"We need resources to carry out our work and we have been making appeals so that we can respond by way of immediate humanitarian relief as well as the need to support trauma healing and peacebuilding," he says.

Over the course of six weeks, a team of international mediators, led by the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, worked with both parties to broker a peace agreement, which was realized on February 28.

The agreement has created provisions to end the political crisis through a power-sharing agreement -- first, by creating an office of the prime minister, a position which has now been assumed by Odinga. There are also clauses that will see both the PNU and the ODM sharing roughly equal numbers of seats in the parliament and jointly oversee a constitutional review within the year.

Both parties have also agreed to support the resettlement of displaced Kenyans and to set up a truth and reconciliation process that will address land conflicts and the violence and human rights violations that followed the elections.

This will be Kenya's next challenge, according to Kenyan journalist and peace activist Sally Malinda.

"The future lies in our attitude and efforts to preach and build peace with our neighbors as Kenyans, and to formulate ways of addressing the historical injustices that haunt us from time to time," she says.

Kate Meyer is an associate editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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