Many people and forces are feeding Kenya’s current crisis: politicians and their informal militias, intellectuals disseminating hate on the internet, police shooting at innocents, young men at roadblocks killing people with machetes. Who will move the country back towards the rule of reason, institutions and a civil national society?
This is a key question as Kenya faces a “tipping-point”. The daily toll of the dead has not let up; it has come to exceed 1,000, and there may be many more uncounted. Whole regions of the country are off-limits to people with certain names on their identity-cards. Arms continue to circulate and revenge-killings persist. If weapons continue to flow and are obtained by informal militias, if the police continue to take sides and the military fractures, if politicians fail to stop their orchestration or exploitation of violence, then maybe much more horror is yet to come. Kenya could even degenerate into civil war.
Jacqueline M Klopp is an assistant professor of international and public affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. She is currently working on a project on democratisation, civil society and the internally displaced in Kenya
A torn fabric
A political agreement bringing resolution to the disputed presidential election held on 27 December 2007 will be key to averting this frightful prospect. But in itself it is not enough. Angry youth need to lay down their weapons. They need calming and diversion into constructive activities. Agents of violence must be brought to book. The tens of thousands of displaced people, often bewildered and traumatised as well as dispossessed, need immediate assistance and counselling and a plan for a future life. Moreover, deep divisions created by the current violence require healing through measured and empathetic dialogue, national mourning for all the dead and creative conflict-resolution and peacebuilding.
This demands not just national but local action and a strong network of peacemakers. The potential for such a network is visible in the many Kenyans, alone or as part of community groups, who have sheltered and protected their fellow citizens regardless of the name on their ID card. It is visible in the tireless advocates for the multi-ethnic collection of victims of current and past violence such as the national Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) network and its supporters. If Kenya is to move forward and beyond the current cycles of violence - backed by deep angers linked to past wrongs, real or imagined - these voices of reason and compassion must grow stronger and ultimately prevail. Rather than counting on politicians to lead the way, initiatives from below need support now.
Besides a complete investigation into the violence and an end to impunity, dampening and eventually ending the cycles of violence is absolutely necessary to avoid a civil-war dynamic. Yet ending the killing and displacement is no simple task. As people are forced to flee their homes to some imaginary “homeland” they take their trauma and tales of terror. They also create stresses on existing services and scarce resources in many local communities. This generates new tensions and feelings of rage, which translate into revenge-attacks that push more people out to new areas - and so the devastating sequence gets repeated. This must stop.
Fortunately, despite the current propensity to blame and hate whole cultural communities for election-rigging or economic “domination” or violence, many Kenyans refuse to indulge in this pernicious discourse. Stories of human decency are little lights in Kenya’s dark times. A friend tells me of how his brother, a Kisii schoolteacher, and his Kikuyu colleague were courageously sheltered by their Kalenjin friend and fellow teacher in Eldoret as youths with machetes threatened him. Another friend tells me of a kind Kalenjin teacher who had adopted a “Kikuyu” child as his own son. With heavy heart, he had to send the child on a truck convoy out of Eldoret with written instructions to some unknown kind soul to take care of him. One displaced Kikuyu woman entrusted her precious children to a Kisii neighbour who was lucky enough to get space on a truck out to her “homeland”. Another story tells of a Kikuyu bus-driver who was a passenger in a bus that hit s a roadblock. Even though he was not the target of the youth, he calmly replaced the terrified driver and drove everyone back to Nairobi, saving many people in the process.
As Simiyu Barasa, who has written his own moving obituary, points out, Kenyans also do not fall into any neatly bound and defined communities. Rather, they are woven together into a rich social fabric through love, friendship, professional relationships and common interest. Although this fabric is under enormous stress and is torn apart in many places, it is worth emphasising that during this time of troubles many Kenyans have reached out to each other with great humanity. The idea of Kenya has not yet unravelled.
Also in openDemocracy on Kenya’s crisis of 2007-08:
Peter Kimani, “A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil” (2 January 2008)
Michael Holman, “Kenya: chaos and responsibility” (3 January 2008)
Gérard Prunier, “Kenya: roots of crisis” (7 January 2008)
Roger Southall, “South African lessons for Kenya” (8 January 2008)
Wanyama Masinde, “Kenya’s trauma, and how to end it” (9 January 2008)
John Lonsdale, “Ethnicity, tribe, and state in Kenya” (17 January 2008)
Angelique Haugerud, “Kenya: spaces of hope” (23 January 2008)
Anna Husarska, “Kenya’s displaced people: a photo-essay” (5 February 2008)
The work of healing
At a more systematic level, many organisations and their leaders - Keffa Magenyi Karuoya (IDP Network), Father Feiliyx Otieno Atinda (Koru Catholic Mission), and Aggrey Omondi (Ugenya Community Resource Centre) to name only a few I have professional knowledge of - are working to protect and assist citizens regardless of their ethnic affiliation. Under enormous stress, these remarkable people engage aggressors in dialogue, help protect and tend to the displaced (often while the aggressors hover around) as well as assist the displaced from other parts of the country coming into their locations with tenuous historical links but no real families or friends. These overworked peace activists are facing deep and multiple problems: among them where to put the newly-arrived, how to collect information on them, how to prevent even more conflict between newcomers and the community, how to feed everyone as a food crisis looms, how to fit displaced children into local schools, how to promote peace and reconciliation.
“Non-violent peace forces” as they are called in Ugenya are found everywhere in the country. Mwamko in Central Province, Upendo Peace Committee in the Coast, the IDP Network and the National Council of Churches of Kenya in the Rift Valley, the Civil Societies Coalition for Peace, the Jamii Bora Emergency Fund and Ecosandal’s “Kicks for Peace” in Nairobi’s slums all represent important efforts to bring people back together to solve the difficult problems faced by communities affected by violence and the impacts of forced migration.
Kenya’s local peace groups need to be encouraged and supplied with moral and material support. Donors could help here rather than simply cut off aid. Father Feiliyx and Aggrey Omondi both emphasise the importance of support for programmes targeting unemployed and angry youth, helping them get involved in constructive ways in their communities. Further, a role exists for Kenya’s diaspora - to stop hate speech circulating on the internet, to avoid lending resources to destructive politics and instead support the internally displaced and peace activities. As Aggrey Omondi points out: “The Kenyan community abroad raised large sums of money for political campaigns. Now, we need all their effort to help communities in Kenya manage this crisis”.
These local peace groups need help to get coordinated, to share information and strategies and raise broader awareness of all the victims of Kenya’s current humanitarian crisis and their continuing plight. As a network they can also more effectively pressure politicians to negotiate and do all they can to stop the violence.
Finally, the way forward will involve puncturing the impunity of perpetrators of violence through painstaking investigations into the violence; a commission for truth, justice and reconciliation; institutional reforms that strengthen transparency, accountability and the rule of law; a meticulous strategy for the internally displaced that reflects their voices and priorities; and conflict resolution efforts in the worst hit areas.
This is the path to lasting peace and for Kenya to move in this direction, many more of us will need to join Kenya’s peacemakers. It is just too important to wait, as Kenyans say, for “orders from above”.