Kenya Violence: ‘We Waited, Now We’ll Chop Them to Bits’

Jon Swain, London Times, February 3, 2008

THE tragedy of Kenya’s violence was etched on the face of James Kamau, a softly spoken 43-year-old biology teacher, as he steeled himself to search Nakuru city mortuary for his murdered brother-in-law this weekend.

“We are glimpsing an enormity of evil in Kenya larger than any of us imagined,” he said. “Look how they have destroyed our people.”

He flinched in a moment of shock as he spotted a familiar pair of brown shoes on the feet of a man burnt beyond recognition who was lying on the floor. “It is Eliud,” he said, turning away in sorrow and comforting his sister.

At least Eliud, 40, could now be buried. Kamau had feared when he could not find him that his brother-in-law had been thrown—like other victims of the violence—into the 1,600ft-deep crater of the dormant Menengai volcano five miles from the city centre. There he would have been devoured by wild animals.

Local legend has it that the steam rising from the bottom consists of the souls of Masai warriors who were hurled into the crater after a battle over land and are now trying to reach heaven. The volcano was a top tourist attraction in the Rift Valley until 10 days ago, when the violence that began over a disputed presidential election on December 27 spread to the streets of Nakuru.

Chaos reigned in and around the town, Kenya’s fourth largest, as tribal gangs fought with knives, pangas, stones and poisoned arrows. After more than 60 people had died, the police imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The tourists left and have not come back.

Kamau and other relatives of the dead milling before the gates of the mortuary said they believed worse bloodshed was to come. The violence had exploded after members of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) claimed the government had rigged the elections to prevent their leader, Raila Odinga, 63, replacing Mwai Kibaki, the 76-year-old president.

Immediately after the re-election of Kibaki, the violence was directed against his tribe, the Kikuyu, whose political and economic domination of Kenya since independence in 1963 has exposed them to widespread resentment. But in the past week Kikuyus have hit back at Luos, Luhyas, Kalenjin and other tribes supporting Odinga, who is himself a Luo.

The ODM said the violence was a spontaneous surge of anger at Kibaki’s electoral “fraud”, but activists on both sides fanned the flames of tribal resentment and on Wednesday, after nearly 1,000 people had been killed and 250,000 had been made homeless, the Daily Nation newspaper said the fear of civil war was not far-fetched. Jendayi Frazer, the American assistant secretary of state for Africa, called the violence “clear ethnic cleansing”.

A glimmer of hope emerged late on Friday when Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general who is mediating, announced that the government and opposition had agreed a plan to end the crisis. Annan said measures would be introduced in a week to 10 days to stop the violence. But 27 more people were killed and a church burnt yesterday.

In the traumatised strife-torn Rift Valley, many Kikuyus driven from their homes said it was too late to stop the tribal hatred. “It is impossible to live together. There will be more blood. It cannot stop now,” said Robert Njoroge, 55, who came to the mortuary to collect the body of his nephew, who had been murdered by the Kalenjin.

The reason why the Rift Valley has become the epicentre of the conflict is rooted in history. Once the homeland of the Kalenjin and Masai, much of it was seized early last century by the British, who turned it into a colonial paradise of farms and Tudor-style mansions. Instead of being returned to those tribes on independence, the farmland was bought by Kikuyus, the tribe of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president.

Although the constitution granted Kenyans of any tribe the right to live anywhere in the country, the spread of Kikuyus across the Rift Valley triggered bitterness and grievances.

Many Kikuyus believe that the violence was planned, regardless of the election result. They have accused William Ruto, one of Odinga’s top aides, who is a Kalenjin and an MP in Eldoret, one of the flashpoints in the Rift Valley, of a pre-election hate speech.

“He has become the warlord of the Rift Valley,” said a man called Simon. “He poisoned the Kalenjin against the Kikuyu.”

Kamau said his Kalenjin neighbour, a banker, had warned him two weeks before the election to expect trouble. He said he had heard hate speeches broadcast on the local Kalenjin radio station and had been told that Kalenjin youths were being indoctrinated against the Kikuyu while undergoing circumcision in December as a rite of passage.

“There are no Kikuyus who have been left on their farms in the Rift Valley,” said Kamau, who was burnt out of his Eldoret home with his wife and three children and now lives in a refugee camp.

“They have destroyed all our property. They think the Rift Valley is theirs and no other tribe should be there. That is what they were told during the circumcision ceremonies.”

So powerful was the rhetoric that it seemed to have infected even educated Kalenjins. After being burnt out of his home, one senior figure at Moi University in Eldoret was warned last week that his colleagues were hunting for him and he should not return if he wanted to stay alive.

The growing and seemingly uncontrollable tribal violence has led to inevitable comparisons to Rwanda, where the 1994 genocide claimed nearly 1m lives. But Kenya is not Rwanda. It has 42 tribes, where Rwanda had only two, one of which made up 90% of the population. The brutal ethnic cleansing that divided Bosnia is a fairer analogy.

To combat the Kalenjin attacks, the Kikuyu in the Rift Valley have resurrected a murderous criminal gang notorious for beheading its victims. The gang, called the Mungiki, was established during elections in the 1990s to counter violence by Kalenjin gangs but was later outlawed. Last year the police reportedly killed 500 Mungiki in a crackdown.

According to a priest in Nakuru, Mungiki gangs were on the prowl last week, under police protection and looking for members of other tribes. One Kikuyu youth who would call himself only John described how he was forced to join a gang which beheaded 15 Kalenjin and Luos.

“They killed one man armed with a club and stones. He could not answer a question put to him in Kikuyu so they forced him to the ground and cut off his head. Next we met a big man sharpening two pangas. They cut him so fast that his mouth was still moving when they lifted up his head on the end of a panga.”

His story fitted word from other Kikuyus that a strategy had been devised to wait for most Kikuyus to be in places of safety before striking back against the Kalenjin. “We kept quiet for a month,” said one Kikuyu who was thirsting for vengeance.

“If we had acted before our people were safe, the Kalenjin would have killed them. Now we will chop them in pieces. Raila and Ruto will cry.”

Tribal divisions

* Kenya’s main tribes are the Kikuyu 20%, Luo 14%, Luhya 13%, Kalenjin 11%

* President Kibaki is Kikuyu; Odinga is Luo\

* The Kalenjin in the Rift Valley resent Kikuyu land purchases there

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