Kenya has failed at healing ethnic divisions

A power-sharing agreement between the opposition Orange Democratic Movement and the Party of National Unity in Kenya has failed at healing ethnic divisions in the one-time politically-troubled East African nation, according to a new report by Minority Rights Group International (MRG).

“Tens of thousands of Kenyans remain displaced, living in miserable conditions in transit camps, while ethnic tensions fester, following the country’s worst outbreak of violence,” says the London-based organisation. The clashes, which broke out after disputed election results early this year, left Kenya with its biggest crisis ever in terms of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Over 400,000 were driven from their homes, and 1,500 were killed.

MRG found peace-building efforts were “patchy, poorly funded and lacked major government backing.”

MRG’s head of policy and communications, Ishbel Matheson, says that from the outset, the new government seemed more interested in breaking up the highly visible IDP camps in major towns, rather than facilitating the sustainable return of these people. Without a serious commitment to build bridges between these communities, violence could easily erupt again, she warned.

According to the report, titled “Kenya Six Months on: A New Beginning or Business as Usual?”, the biggest difficulties are in the Northern Rift Valley, where the violence carried out by Kalenjin ethnic militia, against the Kikuyus, was worse.

But small communities, like the indigenous Ogiek hunter-gatherer group living close to the Rift Valley town of Nakuru, were also hard-hit.

Asked for his comments, Salim Lone, a former senior U.N. official and currently spokesman for Prime Minister Raila Odinga, told IPS: “The report correctly points to the complexity of the healing process that is underway in Kenya, since the underlying factors for the terrible violence are decades old.”

But it is far too early, he said, to characterise the exercise in such negative terms. “Some other independent observers have in fact described the government’s efforts as encouraging.”

“A key part of our reconstruction and healing revolves around resettling displaced people,” Lone pointed out. “That process must ensure that the marginalisation of some ethnic groups over the last 45 years is quickly reversed if we are to avoid further instability.”

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Lone, who is based in Nairobi, said the prime minister is doing everything within his powers to ensure that the government does not end up paying the most attention to the IDPs of the largest and most influential communities.

“That is why the prime minister, who draws a lot of support from the Rift Valley, where many killings occurred, boldly associated himself with the resettlement drive in that province,” he said.

Lone said it is important to point out, however, that it is not only small and remote groups that have suffered marginalisation, “which is severe and a threat to our stability, (but also others). We are determined to end it.”

Unfortunately, he said, the report portrays the killings as being primarily ethnic in nature. “This is false,” Lone asserted.

“The killings were triggered by a very controversial outcome of the presidential election, and the political revolt to this did take on heavily ethnic overtones in some areas. But a large number of killings were actually the result of police shootings,” he added.

Asked whether the United Nations has done enough to ensure the continuation of the peace process, Matheson told IPS that it was ultimately an African Union-sponsored peace process, which former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan presided over, that helped broker the agreement.

But the visit of Ban Ki-moon, the current secretary-general, at a crucial time in the process back in February 2008 was undoubtedly vital, because it brought pressure to bear on the two parties to reach a power-sharing agreement, while the violence threatened to tear the country apart, she added.

“It is vital that that diplomatic vigour does not fade, as the coalition government becomes more established,” Matheson said.

She said that high-level U.N. pressure should be brought to bear, for example, to ensure that the vital reform processes — the constitutional review, a new land policy, and a truth, justice and reconciliation commission — be kept on track.

“If it looks like it is faltering, Ban Ki-moon should appoint a special U.N. representative to Kenya, to flag up the immense importance of the success of these reform processes,” Matheson said.

In addition, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), conducted a fact-finding mission to the country at the height of the violence, and made a number of key recommendations in relation to the reform processes and the treatment of IDPs.

The OHCHR must return before the end of the year, to chart progress on its recommendations, and establish whether Kenya is meeting its obligations to its people under international human rights norms, she added.

The findings of that report should be made public, and again, will help to reinforce to Kenya’s politicians that there can be no backsliding when it comes to reform.

“The relief at seeing Kenya return to peace, and attempt to rebuild its shattered economy, should not deflect from the fact that fundamental problems remain in the governance of the country, and that this is probably the best chance in a generation to put them right,” Matheson said.

The United Nations has a massive engagement with Kenya. The country — and Nairobi, in particular — is the host to the headquarters of several major agencies.

“It is greatly in the interests of the U.N.’s political wing — as well as its humanitarian agencies — to secure true reform in Kenya, so that a truly modern inclusive society can be forged,” she declared.

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