The Crisis in Kenya -- Searching for Understanding and Hope

BlogHer Original Post

Since Dec. 27, when Kenya's president Mwai Kibaki was pronounced the winner of a widely-disputed election, violent clashes have killed as many as 360 and displaced at 250,000 more, according to reported United Nations estimates. While the crisis has not claimed the kind of Western press attention given to the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Kenya's stability is important not only for African development, but for international security. Kenya is a pro-Western regional economic power that suffered attacks from al-Qaeda in 2002 and 1998.

I've been reading Kenyan and non-US newspapers and blogs in an effort to understand the tragic post-election violence that has erupted there in the past week. In so doing, I've been especially mindful of Amy Gahran's observation that , "[Most westerners] only tend to notice Africa when it erupts in bloodshed."

What I'm learning is that news coverage that emphasizes the ethnic dimensions of the conflict misses the point. While it's true that Kibaki is from the Kikuyu ethnic group, which dominates the country's power structure, and opposition leader Raila Odinga is from the Luo ethnic group, the conflict is over the violation of the country's political process. The Economist explains:

"THE decision to return Kenya's 76-year-old incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, to office was not made by the Kenyan people but by a small group of hardline leaders from Mr Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe. They made up their minds before the result was announced, perhaps even before the opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, had opened up a lead in early returns from the December 27th election. It was a civil coup."

The civil coup has generated atrocious acts of violence and created a humanitarian disaster. Marian Douglas was particularly grieved by a the torching of an Assemblies of God church in the town of Eldoret on Jan. 3 that killed 18. She remembered the town in happier times:

"Eldoret, that quaint, rather raw, frontier-like town in the Rift Valley hills. Where Phyllis and Kip Keino, the Olympic runner, had their children's home and a farm to feed them, and a running camp for world-class athletes. Dusty Eldoret. A town with its own home in my heart, my life and my memory. Where so many people from so many countries converged with hope and energy, in 2002-2003; with plans and schemes and no shortage of rumours; with a controlled confusion as Somali men and women leaders, and a few "pretenders", along with the ubiquitous envoys of "the international community", took up temporary residence in the Hotel Sirikwa as they tried to negotiate peace. It was there on my kencell, seated in the car, parked on the Sirikwa lot that I learned I would be a grandmother for the first time. Now carnage and terror are the shameful news from Eldoret and Kenya."

Joseph Karoki posted this photo of a survivor of fire. His blog, Insight Kenya, has more pictures of the daily life during the crisis, as well as information about how the problems in Kenya have created fuel shortages in Uganda.

Kenyan Pundit filed quick dispatches while :

Most of the police I saw today looked fatigued. A friend of mine who’s house was burned down in Olympic Estate says that the cops are just overwhelmed in Kibera and even the shoot to kill order, which has been heavily implemented, has failed to contain the violence in that area.

- Google Earth supposedly shows in great detail where the damage is being done on the ground. It occurs to me that it will be useful to keep a record of this, if one is thinking long-term. For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level the truth of what happened will first have to come out. Guys looking to do something - any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?

The frustration in Kenya is high partially because Kibaki was elected with broad support in 2002 on a strong anti-corruption platform after the failed 24-year regime of Daniel Arap Moi. As Ethan Zuckerman points out, Kenya had been considered one of Africa's most stable democracy, with a growing economy and, a free press. Kibaki has betrayed that progress, and his reported willingness to negotiate some sort of power sharing arrangement with the oposition has been rejected by Odinga. Joshua Wanyama at African Path understands why:

"If Odinga enters a "government of national unity" under Kibaki, as the African Union and the United States want, then he's back in the untenable situation that he was in until 2005, and Kibaki will run Kenya for another five years.

"If Odinga leaves it to Kenya's courts, the result will be the same: there have been no verdicts yet on disputed results that went to the courts after the 2002 election."

Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jendayi Frazier US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs have met with both Kibaki and Odinga to try to mediate the dispute.

Even in this disaster, Zuckerman points to Bankele's observations of the ways in which Kenyans are helping each other:

"Every day this week, I have heard & seen touching stories like these;
- Neighbors talking to one another about maintaining their many years of peace
- Neighbors setting up watch out groups and liaising with the local police
- Neighbors taking in and sheltering friends, relative and strangers
- Police officers talking down residents this morning who had hoped to march to Uhuru Park.
- Local leaders and MP's talking to their constituents – preaching non violence.
- Neighbors standing together and ignoring the sparks from outsiders

"I'd like to see the media highlight more of these, but such peaceful efforts may only put such proponents at risk. However today, all the media houses appear to have come out with a joint peace campaign message."

In that vein, Mentalacrobatics has video of Kenyans asking military officers why they aren't allowed to conduct a non-violent protest:

as well as reports on grassroots efforts at conflict resolution. Because of the efforts, Mentalacrobatic's "pride in my country, Kenya, is building up again!"


BBC backgrounder on Kenya's history and politics. (H.T. to JennTaFur for the pointer.) has links to Kenyan newspapers, and is a great source of ongoing news coverage.

Hat tip to Sokari Okine for pointers to some of the best blogs covering the crisis.

If you'd like to help alleviate the suffering, the Kenyan Red Cross is asking for donations.


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