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The recent shooting of two prominent Kenyan human-rights campaigners in broad daylight in Nairobi, the country’s capital, has darkened the national mood just when Kenya’s fragile coalition government is showing signs of stress and the global recession is beginning to batter the economy anew. The campaigners, Kamau King’ara and Paul Oulo, had been investigating death squads widely thought to be linked to senior politicians, so it was immediately assumed that the pair had been silenced by orders from on high.
Mr King’ara had said that at least 1,700 young Kenyans had been shot or tortured to death by death squads during President Mwai Kibaki’s first term in office between 2002 and 2007, while another 6,500-plus had disappeared, probably also at the hands of government goons. His was not an isolated allegation. Last month Philip Alston, a UN investigator, published a report documenting around 500 death-squad executions in the months leading up to the election of December 2007, whose disputed results led to 1,500 or so deaths and the displacement of at least 300,000 Kenyans in the subsequent violence. Mr Alston, an Australian, called for the chief of police, Hussein Ali, and the attorney-general, Amos Wako, to resign. They show no sign of doing so.Hours before the two campaigners were killed, the government’s spokesman accused Mr King’ara of raising funds for the feared Mungiki, a gang of thugs (mainly Kikuyus, members of Kenya’s largest and richest ethnic group) who have terrorised people in the area around Nairobi for several years. Human-rights groups say this is nonsense, and Mr Alston has called for an independent investigation into the killings. Raila Odinga, prime minister in Kenya’s increasingly shaky coalition government, said America’s FBI should be called in, a suggestion perhaps designed to embarrass security ministers in Mr Kibaki’s part of the coalition.
Speculation as to the killers’ motives abounds. Some suggest that policemen suspected of setting up and running the death squads were furious that they were being investigated, especially since the politicians who are presumed to have given the go-ahead have got off scot-free. A death-squad member had already been hunted down and killed after blowing the whistle. A local investigative journalist was beheaded, possibly by the police.Apologists for Kenya’s Criminal Investigation Department and other units say the police have been performing a patriotic duty. Most of the murdered men whose cases were documented by Mr Alston were suspected of having sworn an oath of allegiance to the Mungiki, who attract their young adherents with a blend of Kikuyu revivalism, nostalgia for anti-colonial Mau Mau rebels, Jamaican and American street culture, and community action. Some say the death squads were told to wipe out a generation of Mungiki leaders to ensure that poor young Kikuyus stay loyal to Mr Kibaki, who heads the old Kikuyu establishment. The police also wanted to curb the Mungiki’s crimes, particularly their habit of extorting money from bus drivers and passengers. Mr Alston’s findings have been well received by the Mungiki, who have since held marches in Nairobi and smaller Kikuyu-populated towns.
If they mutate from being tribal chauvinists into class warriors, the Mungiki may start to menace the old guard. The rising cost of food, soaring unemployment and the grimness of life in the huge slums abutting central Nairobi may open up space for a potent new movement that could cut across ethnic lines. “A thousand death squads won’t deal with all these angry young men,” says a local observer.In any event, the grand coalition government put together less than a year ago after the disputed elections may be buckling under the weight of its own inadequacy. Corruption and mismanagement are still rife. The government has created an “eat-and-let-eat” dispensation, with officials from both ends of the coalition pilfering the country’s resources. Even if it were being well governed, Kenya would have to sprint just to stand still, since the population is continuing to balloon; from less than 8m at independence in 1963, it now exceeds 37m. The infrastructure continues to fall to bits, health care and education are patchy. Land reform, a topic that stirs angry feelings, particularly between competing ethnic groups, has still not been addressed.
Some 4m Kenyans now rely on food aid. The number in absolute poverty is up. So is unemployment. The Kenyan shilling is overpriced and set to be sharply devalued. The government cannot meet its budget targets. Banks and mobile-phone firms enjoyed big profits in 2008 but manufacturing and tourism will dive as the global recession bites. Kenya’s exports of cut flowers, coffee, tea and fruit may shrink.If the economy were less grim, the shenanigans of the country’s politicians might be amusing. Instead, they are making Kenyans feel bitter. Mr Odinga’s Orange movement has threatened to leave the coalition; its leaders say it is stuck in a “marriage without conjugal rights”. Then off you go, say the allies of President Kibaki, whose Party of National Unity has the choicest ministries. Far from giving a lead when he recently held a rare press conference, Mr Kibaki merely took the opportunity to declare that he was no polygamist.
Messrs Odinga and Kibaki have both broken promises to deliver politicians and businessmen who stirred up violence after the elections of 2007 for trial in Kenya or the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Several detailed reports have named a slew of senior figures on both sides of the political divide. A growing fear is that the next crisis may see an escalation from machetes to machineguns. It is by no means certain that Kenya’s fragile political peace can last until the next general and presidential elections, due in 2012.