When violence came to our door – The Kenya riots 2008

Flashback & analysis: Kenya’s new constitution in the aftermath

I don’t know why, but during most of my trips to foreign countries I have a tendency to end up in some sort of emergency in the shape of a natural disaster, riot or armed conflict. Certainly, I don’t usually choose the common tourist destinations, but Borneo, Australia, the Fiji Islands or Kenya can hardly be regarded as explicitly dangerous or controversial ports of call. All of these places, however, have awakened with a bad mood on the occasions that I have happened to visit them. I got entangled in heavy floods on Borneo on Christmas 1996, forest fire in southern Australia and a deadly hurricane on a Fiji island in the spring of -97.

This article deals with the political violence that exploded in Kenya just after Christmas of 2007, nation-wide riots that resulted in the appointment of a new constitution in 2010. To put it briefly, it was created to strengthen democracy and diminish the president’s power.

Of course I had the bad luck of finding myself in Nairobi just as the situation exploded a few days before New Year’s Eve. My girlfriend and I had just left Sudan to celebrate Christmas in Kenya and she was about to start a teaching job at the French School in the capital. 

A presidential election was coming up, an event that certainly interested me, and the race stood between two candidates: the ruling president Mwai Kibaki and the opposition leader Raila Odinga. Kibaki was supported by the aristocrat, cleptocrat and former president Arap Moi, while Odinga claimed to represent the poor and deprived. This was only the country’s second presidential election since independence in 1963 and a historical one also because the outcome had never been uncertain before, i.e. there had never been any successful opposition to the governing party.

The reason for the outcome to get so violent was a result of Kibaki’s declaration of himself as victor, while Odinga refused to accept his counterpart’s claimed victory. The candidates’ voters, then, mainly belonged to the ethnic groups of their political leaders, which made a violent reaction inevitable and transformed the usually peaceful country into an armed ethnic conflict that showed horrible resemblance to the genocide in Rwanda. Luckily, an actual risk for such an ultimate, full-scale ethnic war of extinction was never a possibility in Kenya.  

Nonetheless, we got to witness distressing political instability taking place in a democracy under development. We zapped between this news and the Benazir Bhutto murder in Pakistan during their presidential election. The world’s media rolled out tragic shots of riots taking place in two third world countries simultaneously, which I viewed as effects of obvious democratic growing pains that in most cases are unavoidable in young democracies. It was an exciting time but the seriousness and the violence came crawling closer and closer, and we started to wonder what could happen to us.

The riots started all over the country in the days following the election, and in the poor areas of Nairobi thousands of people, primarily from the Kikuyu ethnic group, were forced to flee their homes to escape the brutal violence carried out by criminal gangs from the Luo group, the same ethnic group Raila Odinga belongs to. All of central Nairobi was sealed off by the military and made the capital look like a ghost town, while the ghettos stood in flames. The situation in Nairobi was tense and we failed to buy groceries for New Year since the stores refused to let the consumers inside in fear of looting. From the taxi we could see heavily armed soldiers besiege the city.

The political violence in Nairobi and other parts of the country was intensified during the night towards New Year’s Eve and according to Al-Jazeera, more than 100 people had so far been killed, primarily in the capital. CNN reported of 200 deaths on New Year’s Day and on January 3rd the death toll had risen to 300. By that time the conflict had produced 100 000 refugees and some had escaped into Tanzania and Uganda. It was reported that thousands of Odinga supporters were fighting other ethnic groups in the slums ofKenya’s bigger cities. As usual whenever these kinds of chaotic situations occur, criminal gangs took the opportunity to loot and set things on fire. On one occasion 30 people were burned to death in a church where they had tried to seek refuge.

The Kenyan events strongly reminded me of the Rwandan genocide where drunken mobs hunted down people carrying the wrong ID cards and hacked them to death with machetes only because they belonged to the wrong ethnic group. People scared to death hiding in churches where they thought they would be safe, but were murdered in the most bestial ways regardless if they were women, children or elders.  

We’ve all seen it before in Congo, Rwanda, the Balkans and Armenia during World War I, to mention a few. In chaotic situations where societies have broken down power vacuums are inevitably created. Parts of the population then take the opportunity to rape, murder and loot. These perpetrators, often constituted by law abiding, tax-paying family men, turn to vicious thugs, and play right into the hands of the dark forces that have orchestrated the evil plans in order to increase their power or secure their economic interests. These scrupulous elites live and breed on the hate that has been generated by historic grievances and that resurface through vicious, deceitful propaganda. I asked myself how Kenya, which has lived at peace through almost 50 years of independence, could fall into such a horrific ethnic war.

On New Year’s Eve we still hadn’t found any food, so our fridge remained empty. Luckily, we managed to locate an open restaurant in our neighbourhood that provided grilled chicken and fish as well as a couple of bottles of Kenyan beer, together making up an improvised New Year’s dinner.

The violence continued into the following week since Odinga continued refusing to agree to the claimed results. He claimed the results were forged and that threw even more fuel to the fire. Now it had reached also the rich parts of Nairobi. In our search for food one afternoon just after New Year we walked straight into an ongoing demonstration mainly containing the typical young, angry men armed with broken bottles and sticks. The trail came from Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, so we decided to forget about the food and turn back. Later on the news, we could watch the fires and destruction on the streets a few hundred metres from our home.

Tension on the streets of Nairobi, New Year's Eve 2007

Despite all controversies surrounding the election, Kibaki was sworn in as president, and that ignited a storm of renewed bloodshed. The violence continued to spread across the country during January 2008 and on the news we watched armed youths at improvised roadblocks terrorizing motorists. Some of them were hacked to death with machetes.

The former UN general secretary Kofi Annan visited Nairobi and gave yet another useless diplomatic speech in a situation where action was desperately needed. The two antagonists at last started to talk to each other and offered handshakes and broad smiles in front of flashing cameras, while the riots and killings continued. But instead of these lame attempts from the international community as well as from the Kenyan government, powerful measures to protect the citizens and their property and to control the murderous mobs with military force if necessary, were needed. But Kofi Annan’s spokesman maintained that the army should not interfere and that it was the responsibility of the police. However, the violence was far too widespread for the police to stand a chance and the situation risked escalating into a full-scale civil war.

If Kenya is to secure peace in the long run, the Kenyan society needs to sort out the ground causes of the conflict (where poverty is the main obstacle), the general injustices and the landowning issues. The resources and prosperity must spread downwards and include deprived areas to secure stability in the long run.

The riots stopped with the creation of a coalition government that included both parties. The achievement of the new constitution was a direct result of the 2008 riots, and was appointed through free elections. It is unquestionably a necessary step towards a Kenya that once again can stand as a role model of peace to the rest of Africa. 

Filip Ericsson

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