Kenya six months on: A new beginning or business as usual?


By Ishbel Matheson


At the start of 2008, Kenya was in the grip of its worst crisis since independence. The violence following the December 2007 election was unprecedented. It continued for weeks and posed a real threat to the unity of the nation. The initial spark was the contested presidential result, where the incumbent Mwai Kibaki - candidate of the Party of National Unity (PNU) - claimed victory, and was swiftly sworn in, amid claims of widespread poll-rigging. But the unrest quickly took on an ethnic dimension.

The Kikuyus - the group which has dominated Kenya economically since independence in 1963 - bore the brunt of the violence. They were perceived to be the backers of Mwai Kibaki - a Kikuyu - and his Kikuyu-dominated PNU alliance. The worst unrest was around the Northern Rift Valley town of Eldoret where Kalenjins mobilised against Kikuyu, driving them away and burning their property. But there was also serious violence in the Southern Rift, with Kalenjin attacks on Kisii communities over land ownership issues, and in Western Kenya, particularly in the town of Kisumu, where Luo supporters of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) were shot by the Kenyan police. In the Rift Valley towns of Naivasha, Molo and Nakuru, the Mungiki, a Kikuyu outlawed militia, attacked ODM supporters. Families from the minority Ogiek hunter-gatherer community close to Nakuru had their houses burnt down and their property destroyed by Kikuyu villagers. By the time Kenya's Grand Coalition government had been sworn in on 28 February 2008, bringing together the ODM and the PNU, approximately 1,500 Kenyans had been killed, over 400,000 displaced and an unknown number of women had been raped.

Six months on, the Grand Coalition has survived - despite initial scepticism over its prospects - and peace has returned to the Kenyan countryside. But it is a fragile peace and dependent on strong leadership with a will to reform. When the Grand Coalition was formed, its leaders vowed to tackle the deeply rooted problems that led to the violence in the first place. They promised a new inclusive approach to governing Kenya's multi-ethnic society - instead of the 'winner takes all' mentality of the past. But a key test of the pledge is how the Coalition reaches out to the country's most marginalized and impoverished communities. The experience of Kenya's smaller minority and indigenous peoples (see page 3) shows that thus far, this promise has yet to be fulfilled.

Members of the Ogiek hunter-gatherer group caught up in the violence have yet to receive any government assistance, while internally displaced peoples (IDPs) from larger communities have received shelter, seeds and fertilizers, as well as the promise of compensation to rebuild houses. Moreover, despite the important reforms set in motion by the Kofi Annan-brokered deal, there has been no commitment to involve minority and indigenous peoples in these processes and it remains unclear how these communities will realise their right to participate in them.

Secondly, Kenya's new prime minister has pledged to tackle what he termed the 'scourge of ethnicity' in Kenya. His meaning however remains unclear and potentially poses difficulties for minorities. If it entails a more hostile approach to minorities' rights to express their separate culture and identity, then it will undercut the very point of the inclusive process that the reforms are supposed to achieve.

However, if the prime minister means to tackle the politicization of ethnicity which has disfigured Kenya's governance since independence, then the commitment is a welcome one. But here again there are doubts about the political will to follow through on this promise. Reconciliation efforts in the countryside have been largely NGO and church-led. The government's main priority seems to have been to disperse the large IDP camps, rather than heal ethnic divisions. Moreover, the ODM's calls for an amnesty for their supporters arrested during the election violence puts a question mark over the party's commitment to tackle the culture of impunity which surrounds ethnic violence in Kenya.

The first part of this paper will examine in greater detail how the government has dealt with the issue of ethnicity and fall-out from the violence six months ago. The second part of the paper will look at the prospects for reform through the lens of minority and indigenous rights.