The ‘New’ Kenya: A return to the normal state of denial

Six months after post election clashes brought this country to its knees, life in Kenya appears back to normal — for better and for worse.

Ethnic fighting that killed more than 1,000 people has subsided. Political enemies are working together in a coalition government. Kenyans have returned to work and school “We’re slipping back into trivia while the central issues are not being addressed,” said Richard Leakey, chairman of the Kenya branch of Transparency International, a government watchdog group. “We have not gone very far in addressing the fundamental problems. The government isn’t showing any realism.”A fragile coalition government, cobbled together by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has inspired little confidence. The bloated 93-member Cabinet is the most expensive in Kenyan history, and critics accuse parliament members of being more concerned with preserving their tax-free $10,000-a-month pay packages than the plight of their constituents.

Frosty ties

Relations between President Mwai Kibaki and his rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, are sometimes so frosty that their security guards nearly came to blows at a government rally in June. Meanwhile, Odinga and the vice president are fighting over which man comes second to Kibaki in the pecking order, resulting in tiffs over who should speak first in public and whose motorcade gets right of way.Hopes that the painful clashes might usher in overdue reforms and encourage Kenyans to tackle long-standing historical grievances and tribal tensions are fading.

“It would seem, then, that these politicians had finally got what they wanted: power, or, to be precise, a share of it,” read a recent front-page editorial in the Standard newspaper. “Other matters were quickly relegated to the bottom of their priorities agenda.”Even the controversial electoral commission, which was widely criticized by local and international observers for failing to prevent vote fraud, remains intact and recently oversaw another round of polling for parliament members.The government’s first test was coping with an estimated 350,000 displaced people living in squalid camps after postelection violence drove them from their homes. Riots engulfed much of the country after the electoral commission, handpicked by Kibaki, ignored evidence of tallying fraud after the election and hastily declared him the victor. Violence quickly turned into ethnic warfare as Kenya’s tribes vented long-standing frustrations over competition for land, jobs and political power. Entire villages were burned to the ground.

In May, the government announced a campaign to resettle Kenyans, sometimes by force, in their villages. Government officials say nearly 200,000 people returned home.But in reality, very few have returned to the homes they fled, aid workers say. Most have simply shifted to new, smaller camps, moved in with relatives, returned to ancestral homelands or are squatting on empty land or church grounds.”It wasn’t really a resettlement — it was just a transfer,” said Charles Kariuki, who leads a group of displaced people in central Kenya.Critics say the government not only failed to provide the promised monetary compensation to help victims rebuild homes, but it also ignored the most crucial component: reconciliation. Legislation to create a national reconciliation commission is tied up in parliament.

As a result, many displaced people say they remain too afraid or too angry to go home.Virginia Wangari, 62, a divorced mother of eight, said she was persuaded by government officials to leave a displacement camp in May and return to her Rift Valley village. She said she was promised tents, food and other supplies, and told that local officials would be waiting to welcome her.Instead, she and other returnees found no one to greet them and spent their first night on a bus by the side of the road. In the morning, local officials told her she was on her own, suggesting that she pitch a tent on the charred remains of her house.She quickly learned that going home was not an option. The same rival tribe members who had chased her away six months earlier were attacking and raping women who attempted to return. Not far away, returnees were greeted with threatening leaflets, making it clear they were not welcome.

“I’m not going to take my neck to the butcher,” Wangari said. “If I went home now, I’d be killed.” She returned to the displacement camp.Humanitarian aid experts say the government needs to lay the groundwork for resettlement by bringing tribes together to vent their frustrations and forgive one another.”You have to have reconciliation before resettlement,” said Daniel Were, a peace activist in the city of Eldoret. “The government wants to be seen as doing something, but they are only doing part of the job.”U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger expressed optimism that the new government would produce results in coming months, saying Kibaki and Odinga are committed to the process.”People need to keep their eye on the president and prime minister, and listen to what they are saying,” Ranneberger said. “They realize they need each other to fulfill their agendas.”But others say Kenya’s leaders may be reluctant to tackle the most controversial issues, such as land reform and constitutional review, because they worry that a debate could rekindle tensions, possibly leading to a collapse of the coalition or renewed fighting.

Perils for politicians

Many politicians now serving in top posts also may find themselves implicated in investigations of corruption, election fraud and post-election violence, creating another disincentive, experts said.Most of the people in this government are the product of 40 years of corruption, violence and impunity,” said Ben Rawlence, a Kenya researcher for Human Rights Watch.“They are all involved. The coalition government itself is what needs to be brought to book.”

He expressed pessimism that government officials would push for reforms or prosecutions that might curtail their powers, hit their pocketbooks or implicate their supporters.Odinga, for example, recently called for amnesty for jailed supporters accused of participating in riots. Kibaki is insisting that they be tried in court.”If this is the face of the ‘new’ Kenya,” Rawlence said, “it’s worrying.”


2 thoughts on “The ‘New’ Kenya: A return to the normal state of denial

  1. Hi,

    I am staying in Kisumu right now, working with an NGO called Kenya Medical and Education Trust (KMET). I’m working on KMET’s home based care program. Could you add me to your blog roll? I’d love to expand my audience, especially to people interested in Kenya.



  2. “Most of the people in this government are the product of 40 years of corruption, violence and impunity”

    Very true! At last, someone who has hit the nail on the head (forgive the cliche). If only more Kenyans realize this; if only people understand that the other tribe has nothing to do with your problems. Unless something is done, the next 40 years will be a replica of the past. Aren’t we seeing our so-called leaders grooming their kids, their wives, brothers and sisters for power?

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