A former paragon of African stability, Kenya is now a country on the brink. But a recent peaceful rally may be a sign that collapse isn’t inevitable.
NAIROBI, Kenya — Tear gas flew and shots were fired Monday in Nairobi, Kenya, as the political opposition held a rally denouncing the leadership of President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Meanwhile, differing explanations among the nation’s political leaders about who was behind the attacks that left dozens dead in a coastal town are contributing to the sense that Kenya is a country on the brink.
Concerns about corruption, murderous attacks on a rural village and now rising political temperatures may be suggesting another step back for the nation that was once the paragon of African peace and stability.
“We come in peace”
The government reported that 15,000 soldiers were deployed around Nairobi on Monday to keep the peace as thousands of protesters gathered in Uhuru Park next to the commercial district where chants of “Uhuru must go!” and “CORD to the State House!” could be heard throughout the day.
In one instance, dozens of young protesters challenged soldiers guarding the entrance to the park. They carried twigs with leaves as symbols of their non-violent protest but still met unyielding — though mostly unarmed — members of the Kenyan military. Some were stopped and searched, while others were let through without contact, the soldiers clearly giving way to determination.
“We come in peace,” said one protester who gave his name as Victor Mercy to MintPress News after pushing through the line of green camouflaged resistance. “We don’t want to fight. We just want to be heard.”
However, conflict did arise. Dozens ran for cover when soldiers fired machine guns into the air by another entrance to the park after protesters there refused to submit to being searched. Downtown, a mere half a mile from the park, soldiers and police shot teargas into an unruly crowd confronting authorities.
The civil disturbance came just two days after a more disconcerting event: Armed attackers fired on a police station, killing as many as 29 people in coastal Mpeketoni, the site of the attacks that left 60 dead just a couple months ago. Al-Shabab has taken credit for the attacks in Mpeketoni, and the opposition has used the incidents as an opportunity to accuse Kenyatta of being incapable — and even disinterested — in protecting the nation’s citizens.
“There are 15,000 soldiers here in Nairobi,” the rally’s master of ceremonies, opposition party secretary Anyang’ Nyong’o, told the crowd. “But there are no soldiers protecting Mpeketoni.”
A continent divided and a nation’s liberation
For many years after its liberation, Kenya was held up as an example of how to overcome post-colonial rule even despite the haphazard borders drawn by Western colonizers.
Between 1884 and 1885, Western powers — particularly France, Germany, Great Britain and Portugal — held a series of meetings in which they divided up the African continent amongst themselves. The new lines showed little regard for the locations of tribal groups, and in the case of Kenya, that meant that more than 40 different tribes were lumped together into one nation — including the Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, Kamba, Kisii, Meru and Masai. Kenya is also home to descendants of Omani explorers who settled the coast and introduced Islam to the country. (The British continued to rule Kenya for another 80 years after those sessions, known as the Berlin Conference.)
The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is the son of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding father and first president who led the nation to independence in 1963. After 15 years abroad, Jomo returned to Kenya and rose to the presidency of the Kenya African Union in 1947 and was later arrested, suspected of leading the violent Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-1960) against colonial rule. With Nelson Mandela-like popularity, he was easily elected as the country’s first president after liberation.
The elder Kenyatta was credited with keeping peace among the disparate groups and tribes. A 1969 article in National Geographic magazine describes the country as euphoric and hopeful for the future.
“Harambee!” the author recounts hearing at various times while touring the country. “Harambee” translates from Swahili as “All pull together,” and it has become the nation’s official motto. However, it’s heard less in today’s Kenya.
While Jomo Kenyatta remains a popular figure in Kenyan history — the international airport is named after him — his successors were revered considerably less, accused of graft and human rights abuses. Much of the enthusiasm from the early days is now all but gone.
“There is too much corruption,” Michael Ogada told MintPress.
Ogada offers visitors tours of the Kibera slum, but says he was a teacher in Mombasa until he lost his job following the 2007 and 2008 post-election riots. He says such political infighting has also been a major impediment to the country’s development. “The economy hasn’t been the same since then.”
The 2007 election was widely reported to be fraught with irregularities after Raila Odinga ran against incumbent President Mwai Kibaki. Despite a strong lead at the start of the vote count, the results turned heavily and the Electoral Commission announced Kibaki won with more than 230,000 votes on Dec. 30. Odinga accused the government of fraud.
Over the course of the next several weeks, supporters of Odinga staged rallies around the country. Some rioted, targeting members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, in one case torching a church full of people in Eldoret.A BBC reporter described seeing a man who had been hacked to death and the charred remains of a woman outside the building.
The army responded in kind with a “shoot to kill” policy. In the end, around 1,300 people are estimated to have been killed, including politicians, an Olympic athlete and a track star.
It wouldn’t be the last time Odinga would say his election was stolen. Last year, Uhuru Kenyatta officially won the presidency with 50.7 percent of the vote and members of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement believe the ballot boxes were stuffed then, too.
International Criminal Court and U.S. non-involvement
President Kenyatta is currently under indictment in the International Criminal Court in the Hague, accused of organizing revenge attacks during the 2007 and 2008 post-election violence. However, the case seems close to being dropped for a lack of evidence, and Kenyatta is expected to travel to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama next month.
The United States is not a signatory to the ICC, but members of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party will be watching closely, as that many believe the U.S. is supporting the opposition, partly because of Obama’s Luo tribal ancestry.
Jubilee and CORD
Odinga was a prime minister under President Kibaki, and the son of Jomo Kenyatta’s first vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. The younger Odinga has become the face of the opposition, joining his Orange Democratic Movement with two other parties — the Wiper Party and Ford Kenya — to form the CORD coalition, or the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy. CORD leadership has blamed the president for a litany of abuses, including corruption, tribal favoritism, economic decline and, now, national security failures.
Called Saba Saba — “Seven Seven,” a reference to the date July 7 — the rally was intended to recall the first Saba Saba held on July 7, 1990, in which protesters rallied against the nation’s second president, Daniel Arap Moi, demanding a change to the constitution that would allow multiparty elections and put a term limit on the presidency. The government cracked down on that protest as well, though violence was seen on both sides then. The constitution was changed the following year, but that didn’t stop Moi from winning another term as president in what many still see as another stolen election. (Moi did step down in 2002 after a total 24 years in office, adhering to the new constitutional term limits.)
More than 50 years later, tribal affiliations remain one of the most divisive characteristics of Kenya. The Saba Saba rally appeared to overwhelmingly comprise members of Odinga’s Luo tribe, which is also the tribe of Obama’s father. A member of the Kikuyu tribe, Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party are accused of favoring Kikuyus in government appointments and economic favors.
“He doesn’t do anything for us,” said Mercy, a Luo. Mercy lives in the Nairobi slum Kibera, where he picks up trash and organizes youth events. “We can’t get jobs. There’s nothing for us to do.”
However, there aren’t many jobs to go around. According to different estimates, Kenya’s unemployment rate falls between 40 and 45 percent. The World Bank has calculated that 70 percent of those unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 35, an estimate reinforced by the average age of those seen rallying in the early afternoon on a Monday.
Ogada, the former teacher, says the politics are more about greed than tribalism.
“You even have Kikuyu living in the slums,” he said. “Here we have the rich and the poor. The politicians don’t care about the poor. They just take whatever they can get.”
The question: al-Shabab or not al-Shabab?
The murders in the coastal town of Mpeketoni have handed the opposition another charge: Kenyatta doesn’t care about protecting his own citizens, even from the likes of al-Shabab.
However, Kenyatta has blamed the attacks on “local political networks,” noting that most of those killed were Kikuyu.
“The attack in Lamu was well planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community,” he said in a televised address in June after the first attacks that left more than 60 people dead.
In the minds of many of Kenyatta’s supporters, the statement implicates Odinga.
Francis, a local tour operator, told MintPress he believes Odinga himself ordered the attacks.
“Raila was gone for three months,” said Francis. “Then he comes back and we have all these troubles.”
If al-Shabab was involved, they were merely hired guns, one theory goes.
However, the issue may be the residual impact of policies implemented by Jomo Kenyatta himself. Shortly after independence, the new government started a settlement program that evicted residents along the coast. The newly displaced were Muslim descendants of the early Omani explorers who settled the region generations ago.
Members of the Kikuyu tribe then moved into the freshly vacant homes. The issue was reportedly investigated by Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which was originally designed to look into the violence of 2008, but no report was ever released.
The attacks, many believe, may have been part vengeance and part an attempt to reclaim an inheritance.
“People are still angry and want their land back,” a Muslim restaurant worker told MintPress. “That’s why they killed the men because it is the men who own the property.”
A peaceful end
While Kenya continues to deal with ethnic strife, rampant unemployment and widespread poverty, Monday’s Saba Saba rally may actually be a sign of some political stability. Some clashes between the army and protesters broke out, but it seems no one was killed, injured or even arrested — unlike every other major rally in the nation’s history.
Standing on nearly every corner in Nairobi, the police — many armed with machine guns — appeared reserved, and the majority of the youthful ralliers seemed more interested in the speeches and the music than in violence or looting.
“Tell the world we just want to be heard,” Mercy asked. “We deserve to be heard.”