Kenya: land at issue in electoral tensions
Local musicians in conjunction with the Kenyan Red Cross held a concert for peace in Nairobi Feb. 28, ahead of presidential elections next week. Dubbed Chagua Amani, Kiswahili for "Choose Peace," the concert marked the fifth anniversary of the accord that ended post-election violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives in early 2008. A few thousand people attended the show at the city's Uhuru Park—but no presidential candidates showed.
The concert also came the day after release of a new report on attacks, hate speech and intimidation. The report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) said there were "many incidences of violence mainly involving supporters of rival candidates even within the main coalition parties." It especially noted: "The widespread use of social media especially Facebook to spew out hatred on the basis of ethnicity and political affiliation is appalling." And added: "Another major concern is the displacement of voters from some areas either because of intimidation or out of fear of recurrence of violence." (Ghafla, Kenya, March 1; BBC News, Feb. 28)
Kenyan presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta of the National Alliance Party, and his running mate, William Ruto, both won a reprieve from the International Criminal Court (ICC), postponing their trial and allowing them to run in the race. Kenyatta, a former finance minister and son of independence leader Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, argued that his defense team needed more time to respond to evidence submitted just as the trial was set to open. The trial is likely to proceed in August.
Kenyatta and his running mate Ruto are ironically accused of organizing attacks on each other's supporters after the previous election. Kenyatta is alleged to have hired members of the Mungiki, a Kikuyu ethnic militia, to attack members of the Luo community. Ruto, a prominent leader of the Kalenjin people, was indicted by the ICC for encouraging inter-ethnic violence. The two formed an unlikely alliance against Prime Minister Raila Odinga of the Coalition of Reforms and Democracy (CORD), making his third attempt at the presidency, and widely supported by the Luo people. Odinga's supporters call him Agwambo, which means "Act of God" in the Luo tongue. (Al Jazeera, BBC News, March 1; Al Jazeera, Jurist, Feb. 27; BBC News, Feb. 26)
Especially conentious is the heavily Muslim coastal region. (See map.) Omar Mwamnuadzi, leader of the region's banned separatist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), has declared the coast an independent republic and called for a boycott of the election. The more moderate Supreme Council of Kenyan Muslims (SUPKEM) has thrown its support behind Raila Odinga. The coastal peoples are mostly of the Mijikenda ethnicty, with a large Arab minority. (Financial Times, Feb. 28; The Star, Nairobi. Feb. 25)
The lead-up to elections has seen a wave of arrests of MRC followers. Under a slogan of "Pwani si Kenya"—Swahili for "the coast is not Kenya"—the MRC claims a membership of 1.5 million. It argues that the Coast province was illegally annexed to Kenya after independence from Britain in 1963; prior to that, it been leased to Britain by the Sultan of Muscat and Oman (which strictly speaking no longer exists, having been reorganized simply as Oman in 1970, with some territory lost to the United Arab Emirates). With the annexation, much land was distributed to new settlers in a corrupt patronage system, and many residents ended up as "squatters" on plots they considered theirs by birthright. Some 80% of the coastal population lacks title to the lands they live on.
The MRC claims to have a copy of a separate 1963 agreement under which the coastal strip was leased to—rather than incorporated into—the new republic for 50 years, after which it would be turned over to its inhabitants. 2013 of course marks the critical year. Many historians and all government officials, of course, claim the 50-year lease agreement is a forgery. (BBC News, Feb. 27; IRIN, Oct. 24; Al Jazeera, Aug. 30, 2012)
During the violence after the December 2007 elections, we warned that land tenure was the real issue behind oversimplified media portrayals of "tribalism." This issue continues to underlie episodic ethnic conflict in the region.