Genocide in Kenya?

President Mwai Kibaki’s government accused rival Raila Odinga’s ODM party of unleashing “genocide” in Kenya Jan. 2, as the death toll from violence since the disputed Dec. 27 election passed 300. “It is becoming clear that these well-organized acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing were well-planned, financed and rehearsed by Orange Democratic Movement leaders prior to the general elections,” read the statement from Lands Minister Kivutha Kibwana.

Odinga’s supporters, drawn mainly from his Luo people, accuse Kibaki’s ruling Party of National Unity (PNU) of “stealing” the vote. Kibaki’s Kikuyu people was targeted in the initial violence, but revenge killings by Kikuyus are on the rise. A joint statement from the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights accuses Kenyan security forces of having “bloodily repressed” protests, thereby fueling the conflict. “As a reaction, some protesters are responsible for the assassination of Kikuyus.”

The notorious Mungiki cult is apparently among the Kikuyu militants who have engaged in revenge killings. In the most grisly incident, on Jan. 1, about 30 Kikuyus died when the church where they had taken sanctuary was put to the torch in the western town of Eldoret. Nearly 100,000 Kenyans are already displaced, many fleeing across the border to Uganda. (Reuters, Jan. 2)

The government has placed a curfew on Kenya’s third city of city of Kisumu, an ODM stronghold and epicenter of the violence. Local police have issued orders to shoot on sight anyone breaking the law. Kisumu has been almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country, with the national carrier Kenya Airways suspending all flights in and out. (AGI, Dec. 31)

Indian immigrants have been especially singled out for attack in Kisumu, with nearly all Indian-owned shops put to the torch. Many of Kisumu’s Indians—mostly Gujaratis—have been holed up in the town’s Hindu temples since the violence broke out, and are gradually running out of food. (Times of India, Jan. 2)

Kenya has more than 40 ethnic groups, the principle ones being Kikuyu (22%); Luhya (14%); Luo (13%); Kalenjin (12%); and Kamba (11%), by government statistics. The Kikuyu have been the politically and economically dominant group since independence, athough former President Daniel arap Moi comes from the Kalenjin people. (CSM, Jan. 3) A bitter joke among the Luo is that the Americans will elect a Luo president—a reference to Barack Obama’s father—before Kenya does. Odinga’s late father, Kenya’s first vice president Oginga Odinga, was imprisoned for two years for challenging the founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu. (The Economist, Nov. 1)

While the Christian Science Monitor reassuringly explains “Why Kenya is Not Another Rwanda” (a greater multiplicity of ethnicities, the violence on a “smaller scale,” the media shut down by the government rather than issuing orders to kill), the parallels are inevitable. In Rwanda, the Belgian colonial masters kept down the Hutu and expropriated their lands—then, on the very eve of independence, turned to Hutu ethno-nationalists as the guarantor of stability. The Brits seem to have used a similar strategy with the Kikuyu in Kenya. For those who want historical background, some is provided by the University of Pennsylvania’s East Africa Living Encyclopedia:

Two waves of Bantu migrants moving in a southward direction began arriving in Kenya 2,000 years ago, bringing with them techniques now associated with the Iron Age. The largest of these groups in Kenya today are the Kikuyu and the Kamba. Some of the coastal peoples, among them the Digo, Giriama and Pokomo, have affinities with the Bantu. Cushitic, Nilo-Hamatic and other peoples also settled in the region. The Nilotic peoples are also thought to have moved to this area from Sudan, and to have given rise to the Luo, among others. The largest Nilo-Hamatic group today are the Kalenjin…

Britain and Germany competed for control of Maasailand, leading to their 1890 agreement to divide the hinterland between them. Under the agreement, Britain took possession of the area north of the mouth of the Umba river, which is now located in modern Kenya and Uganda. The British Government gave the administration of the area to the Imperial British East Africa Company, which had been granted a royal charter to operate in East Africa. The administration of the country was taken over by the British Foreign Office in July, 1885, when it was declared a British protectorate…

When European employers attempted to cut the wages of their indigenous employees in 1921, workers staged mass protests and demonstrations. A workers’ meeting held in a Nairobi suburb condemned the wage cuts and the refusal on the part of European estate and factory owners to provide housing, food and medical services. This meeting gave rise to the Young Kikuyu Association, Kenya’s first all-African political organization. This association soon formed branches in many parts of the country to protest the allocation of most of the colony’s fertile land to Europeans. In March, 1922, Harry Thuku, leader of the Association, was arrested and subsequently deported for several years. The Association intensified its campaign against land alienation, and against tax and labor laws. In 1923 the British government announced that “the interests of the African natives” would forthwith be under their control. In 1925 local councils were organized to assist the colonial power in governing Africans; these councils operated through chiefs who, among the Kikuyu, had little or no traditional standing. In 1928, the Young Kikuyu Association was reorganized under the name of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA); Johnstone Kamau Ngengi (Jomo Kenyatta) was elected General Secretary. In 1929-1931 Kenyatta was sent twice to Great Britain in an unsuccessful effort to voice KCA views and African grievances before a parliamentary committee on the union of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda. Kenyatta was obliged to remain away from Kenya until 1946. During the 1930s the KCA became the voice of an emerging Kikuyu consciousness until it was officially banned in 1940. In the late 1930s the Kamba and Taita formed associations of their own that were similarly designed to serve tribal aims.

Kenya’s first genuine African nationalist organization, the Kenya African Union (KAU), was established in 1944. The Union promptly demanded access to the highlands, which were then largely owned by white settlers. In late 1946 Kenyatta returned to Kenya as the unrivaled leader of nationalist movement; in mid-1947 he was elected to the presidency of the KAU. It was Kenyatta’s ambition to bring together the country’s disparate political bodies into the KAU. To achieve this goal, Kenyatta proposed that the ethnic character of KAU leadership be broadened. In 1950, a leader of the Luo (the second largest ethnic group), Oginga Odinga, joined the KAU in 1950. By 1951 the KAU could count about 150,000 members throughout Kenya. It soon became the primary catalyst in a mass movement that led ultimately to political supremacy in little more than a decade. The Mau Mau, a secret society largely composed of Kikuyu, initiated a campaign of terror against highland settlers between 1952 and 1956. The campaign also resulted, however, in thousands of African causalities when Kikuyu factions turned on one another. In reprisal for these activities, the KAU was banned in 1953 by the British who imprisoned Kenyatta. The Mau Mau arose out of a complex set of political, social and economic circumstances. At the heart of Kikuyu grievances was the recovery of their land that was taken over by settlers. From the beginning of the century, white settlers had appropriated land for their plantations. Although the Masai lost more land than the Kikuyu, Kikuyu traditional life placed a high value on land ownership. A complex system of land ownership existed among the Kikuyu that white settlers ignored. The Mau Mau thorugh violence tried to achieve some of the same goals as the KAU, primarily land tenure security, representation in government and better wages and working conditions. Many Kikuyu were repatriated into reservations, and some escaped into the forest to avoid this. It was from these men that the Mau Mau recruited its fighters. Oath taking became an important component of Mau Mau participation. Oaths were a cultural tool that built solidarity and bound the Kikuyu men, women and children to oppose the colonial government. On October 7, 1952, the Mau Mau assassinated Senior Chief Warihiu. The British then declared martial law which led to the interrogation and detention of thousands of Kikuyu. The Mau Mau was composed of urban workers, peasants, the unemployed, World War II veterans, laborers, and unionists. They were supported by civilian noncombatants who supplied them food, medicine, arms and intelligence. From the protection of the forest, the Mau Mau trained and launched guerrilla attacks against colonial post offices, police stations, European settlements and farms as well as punishing Africans who supported the colonial government.

Despite these efforts to control African political activity, wider African representation quickly followed. In 1957 African members were elected to the Legislative Council through a restricted franchise… Kenya became a republic in December 1964, with Kenyatta as its first president. The entire KADU membership had earlier defected to KANU, rendering Kenya a de facto one-party state… Kenyatta was elected unopposed to a third presidential term in September, 1974. Kenyatta died in August, 1978, at the age of 82, and was replaced by Vice President Daniel Arap Moi. In November, 1979, Moi won national elections running as the sole candidate.

In August, 1990, Oginga Odinga and six prominent opposition leaders, formed the Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD) with extensive multi-ethnic support. The new movement immediately gained the public’s support and its popularity soared.

Under this intense pressure, President Moi finally relented at a special KANU conference on December 3, 1991 to demands for a multi-party state. KANU voted to allow only one of its candidates to run for any given seat, that candidate to be chosen by secret ballot. The National Assembly promptly amended the constitution to allow for multi-party elections. By the beginning of 1992, two clear opposition parties had emerged: Mwai Kibaki’s Democratic Party and Odinga’s FORD. Several smaller parties were also registered, including the Social Democratic Party, the Kenya National Democratic Alliance, the People’s Union of Justice and New Order and Islamic Party of Kenya.

Kenya’s political history saw several critical changes in 1992. The FORD party staged the country’s first legal opposition rally in 22 years. Civil unrest broke out near the tea-growing areas of Molo in the west central region. Kalenjin warriors armed with spears, bows and arrows attacked Kisii tea farmers, disrupting tea production. Outbreaks of violence continued to mount over the following two years, seeming to confirm the government’s predictions that multi-party politics would exacerbate ethnic tension and eventually splinter the country along tribal lines. Opposition parties claimed that the government had itself incited the violence, which left an estimated 2,300 people dead and 25,000 displaced. In March women protesters were attacked by police with tear gas and batons during a hunger strike in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park that had been aimed at liberating political prisoners. Other demonstrations took place in Kisumu, Odinga’s stronghold, and the western town of Homa Bay. New protests erupted in Nairobi where demonstrators led disruptions for two days, stoning cars and smashing windows. This civil unrest came at a time when the government was also dealing with the repercussions of the wars in Somalia and southern Sudan.

KANU seemed to take the opposition challenge seriously, particularly the challenge from FORD-Kenya. When multi-party elections for the presidency and the National Assembly were held on December 29, 1992, Moi retained his place in Kenyan politics with 36.35% of the presidential election votes, while Kenneth Matiba took 26%, Mwai Kibaki 19.45%, and Oginga Odinga 17.48%. The opposition protested the elections, calling them invalid on the grounds of gross procedural irregularities. Despite these efforts, President Moi was sworn in on January 4, 1993, for another five-year term.

Kenya now seems to be going through a reprise of this episode. Let’s hope it will again de-escalate—only this time, without the warning signs of genocide being swept under the rug, allowing resentments to fester and explode again…

See our last post on Kenya.

    Hi am Sheila from Kenya.I read your article and am humbled by your clear and intensive understanding of the Kenyan political history.Am a student of Anthropology in the main Kenyan University.

    In one of the paragraphs you have talked of Kisumu third Kneyan city being under curfew ordered by the government.I think I will brave any bullet and tell you this, am from Kisumu and we had no curfew.The curfew was in Nakuru because the outlawed Mungiki had started revenging on the other ethnic groups.They went as far as stripping women off their clothes, who had won mini-skirt, hipstar and tight trouser.They insisted that the women shoul wear long skirts as recommended in the bible.I will quote what one of them said “A woman shall wear clothes that are not of the same design as the males.”That was it.

    Incase of any problem you can just let me know.We can always share ideas about Kenya coz I think thats the area of my speciality.THANKS