TOPICS > Politics

Kenya’s Post-election Violence Stems From Ethnic, Economic Disparities

March 19, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The fighting that raged in Kenya after disputed December elections was a sign of deep-seated ethnic tensions and underlying economic problems in the country, including joblessness. Margaret Warner reports from Kenya on the roots of the violence.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, Kenya’s sudden descent into violence. Margaret Warner is there and she describes how it happened.

MARGARET WARNER: On the shores of Lake Victoria, the fishing boats are coming in from their early morning run, loaded with tilapia, Nile perch, and sardines.

Waiting for them are local women, who snatch up the best of the lot to sell at open-air markets in nearby Kisumu, one of Kenya’s largest cities. The rest go to wholesalers who can afford refrigeration and reap the real profits.

It’s hard to imagine the brutality that struck Kisumu just two months ago. Fisherman Charles Otieno says he and other members of his Luo tribe late last December thought they were on the verge of electing a new president who would help Luos and other marginalized tribes improve their lot.

They reacted with fury when Nairobi election officials announced that incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, had won instead.

CHARLES OTIENO, Fisherman: As a Luo, I think something was taken from me because the ODM people, they won, but the electoral commission, I think they were bribed. And then they just — they just announced that the PNU won the results.

MARGARET WARNER: Within 24 hours, gangs of young Luos, shouting the name of their candidate, Raila Odinga, and the initials of his party, ODM, descended upon businesses owned by prosperous Kikuyus in this city of a million people.

Nearly all the Kikuyus, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 of them, had their property destroyed and were driven out of Kisumu altogether. This wreck of a compound just a stone’s throw from the fishing dock used to be a prime resort hotel owned by a Kikuyu.

Newly installed Mayor Sam Okello toured the wreckage with us. He refused to discuss the ethnic basis of the conflict for fear of scaring off potential investors, but he was frank about its economic roots, including joblessness.

SAM OKELLO, Mayor, Kisumu, Kenya: Unless the unemployment is tackled, it is dynamite. It’s a huge problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Sixty percent of Kisumu’s young adults are without work, he said, despite a high level of literacy.

Luo anger targets affluent Kikuyus

Peris Gitangu
Kikuyu refugee
One of the things that I feared most was rape for my daughter and I. So I told her to jump with me, but she told me, "No, Mom, we can't go. I've seen them hurting my brother. Please, Mommy, we can't run away."

SAM OKELLO: It's a fact that Kenya's one of the countries with the highest disparity, in terms of haves and have-nots. So that is a manifestation that something, somewhere is not adding up.

MARGARET WARNER: One man who felt the brunt of the anger of Luo have-nots against prosperous Kikuyus is Dominic Gitangu. He came to Kisumu as a young man and became a successful electrical contractor. He also built a large family compound with a dairy operation and chicken hatchery for his wife and their four children.

On December 29th, just a day after the election results were announced, hundreds of young Luos stormed his gate. Armed with iron bars and stones, they found Gitangu and his 20-year-old son in the cowshed.

DOMINIC GITANGU, Kikuyu Businessman: Their ringleader, the person who was leading them, he came to where we were and he told me, "We have come to kill you."

MARGARET WARNER: His wife, Peris, meanwhile, tried to persuade their 19-year-old daughter to go over the back fence with her.

PERIS GITANGU, Kikuyu Former Resident of Kisumu: One of the things that I feared most was rape for my daughter and I. So I told her to jump with me, but she told me, "No, Mom, we can't go. I've seen them hurting my brother. Please, Mommy, we can't run away."

MARGARET WARNER: So Peris let the gang in, with her husband in tow.

PERIS GITANGU: They were very wild, with stones, and just chanting songs, political songs of ODM, and they were just young people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, sitting in the safety of a donated apartment in Nairobi, they can hardly believe what they went through, how the young toughs began looting their house as the family went out the back and over the wall to the safety of a Luo neighbor's, how the neighbor drove them to the airport where, with Dominic barefoot, they caught the last flight for Nairobi.

PERIS GITANGU: It's a very hard thing overnight to become a beggar. I used to support children. I remember even an orphan I used to take care of from Kisumu, from the Luo tribe. I used to go see her in school. And now I lost everything.

MARGARET WARNER: But local Luos say they suffered, too. In the Kibuye market, East Africa's largest, their brisk trade in vegetables, radios and recycled clothing ground to a halt as commerce throughout the country was disrupted for weeks.

The large Kikuyu-owned buildings were burned out. And then, Luo residents say, departing Kikuyus burned several entire streets of modest Luo stalls.

The Kisumu violence radiated outwards to Nairobi and throughout the farming heartland of the Rift Valley in between, to communities like Eldoret, Nakuru, and Naivasha, and dozens of smaller villages.

Kenya Human Rights Commission Director Muthoni Wanyeki says the Rift Valley violence by the disgruntled Kalenjin tribe and the Kikuyus was hardly spontaneous.

MUTHONI WANYEKI, Kenya Human Rights Commission: The organized militia activity is definitely organized by senior politicians, senior public servants. I think we're talking, like I said, about the Kalenjin elite.

Similarly, with the kind of counter-wave of militia organizing, you're definitely talking about the Kikuyu elite. And in that sense, it's obvious that there was some level of complicity by the state and by the government of Mwai Kibaki.

MARGARET WARNER: The scale of the bloodshed shocked most Kenyans, who had seen themselves as the model of a progressive African country. The outburst disturbed the world, as well, especially the United States, which has looked on Kenya as a haven of stability in a volatile region.

A history of ethnic tension

Mutahi Ngunyi
Political Scientist
Even politically, we organize along ethnic lines. Our political parties are not parties, per se. They actually are ethnic coalitions with their big political party names.

MARGARET WARNER: And the question many are asking is: How could this country fall so quickly into brutal tribalism?

MUTAHI NGUNYI, Political Scientist: If it didn't happen in this election, it was going to happen in an election somehow at a point down the road. This is so because of the many issues that we froze at independence which have now come to the surface.

MARGARET WARNER: Prominent political scientist Mutahi Ngunyi says in Kenya tribal identity is never far from the surface.

MUTAHI NGUNYI: Kenyans, we define our identity using tribe. In this country, in the morning, when we go to work, we are Kenyans. But when you go home in the evening, we become ethnic citizens.

Even politically, we organize along ethnic lines. Our political parties are not parties, per se. They actually are ethnic coalitions with their big political party names.

MARGARET WARNER: Ngunyi says the Kikuyus' dominance is a legacy of British colonial days when they were favored. And though a Kikuyu himself, he's critical of what he says is his tribe's culture of looking down on other tribes.

MUTAHI NGUNYI: The Kikuyus are socialized to be superior people, superior people, pretty much like the way the Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi are socialized to be superior. And that socialization is, in my view, ill-informed.

MARGARET WARNER: The ethnic differences are magnified by economic disparity, particularly in the countryside. It's another holdover from the 80-year British era, when poor Kikuyus were forcibly moved to the areas of other tribes so that white settlers could assemble huge tracts of Kikuyu land.

And when many British left at independence in 1963, the land wasn't returned to ordinary Kikuyus, but taken over by the new Kikuyu elite for private estates.

In the 45 years since then, Kenya's population has nearly quadrupled and there's just not enough farmland for everyone. In a country where three-quarters of the people still depend on agriculture for their livelihood, that's a combustible combination.

In the cities, too, a similar disparity persists. In the shadow of Nairobi's rapidly growing skyline is the sprawling Kibera slum: 800,000 people live cheek-by-jowl, trying to scratch out a living. And most of the poorest, once again, are non-Kikuyus. Unemployed young men haunt the streets.

DAVID OCHIENG, Kibera Resident: No job. No food. Sometimes you have a kid and a wife. He needs to eat. So you have to steal at night. You're not sleeping at night.

MARGARET WARNER: Armed with machetes, some of these men protested the election; others killed Kikuyus and destroyed their buildings. Police responded with what human rights groups say was a heavy hand. Scores of non-Kikuyus were killed.

Hidden divides open for all to see

Raila Odinga
Kenyan Prime Minister-Designate
This conflict has unmasked the face of true Kenya, and what we're seeing is not really beautiful. For 45 years, we have lived a lie, that we're a unified nation. We're not.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, bar-owner Erineo Odeke says the violence was worth it to wake up Kenya's political class.

ERINEO ODEKE, Kibera Bar-Owner: These people have deceived us for so long. They have been talking of progress, of change. Every time they talk of change. Every time they talk of change. But we have never seen that change.

MARGARET WARNER: In the weeks leading up to the election, this ethnic frustration was fanned by Kenya's growing number of independent radio stations broadcasting in tribal languages rather than English or Swahili. Some of the worst offenses occurred on call-in shows.

But Radio Lake Victoria in Kisumu has been cited by international monitoring groups for its choice of music, especially a song called "A Baboon is a Baboon."

Radio Lake Victoria's news director, Seth Oloo, says the song was about the animal kingdom, not the human kingdom.

SETH OLOO, Radio Lake Victoria: So I may not agree with the opinion that it was used to fuel ethnic violence or to degrade another ethnic community, but if we give it critical analysis, people are bound to come up with different meanings.

MARGARET WARNER: And Muthoni Wanyeki says the crisis has made many Kenyans recognize their own hidden prejudices.

MUTHONI WANYEKI: We're kind of astonished, actually, at how easily the debate had become an ethnic debate.

MARGARET WARNER: Even Raila Odinga, now poised to become prime minister in a new coalition government, acknowledges that the crisis revealed just how ethnically fractured Kenyan society really is.

RAILA ODINGA, Kenyan Prime Minister-Designate: This conflict has unmasked the face of true Kenya, and what we're seeing is not really beautiful. For 45 years, we have lived a lie, that we're a unified nation. We're not.

We are just a conglomeration of disparate ethnic groups that are antagonistic to each other.

MARGARET WARNER: Back in Kisumu, Mayor Sam Okello says he needs successful Kikuyus to return.

SAM OKELLO: We'll join hands in the process of rebuilding. The security is now enhanced. And we would like them to come back so that we can attract new investment, as well, because, unless the old investment is happy, it's awfully difficult to get Mr. New Investment in town.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Old Investment, Dominic Gitangu, and his wife haven't been back to see the devastation, and they don't plan to any time soon.

PERIS GITANGU: I can't go back. I can't trust anyone. I cannot live with people I can't trust.

DOMINIC GITANGU: I can go there, do some jobs, and come back, but not invest. Why should I go there, invest, after five years again? Everything is turned down. There is no guarantee that this thing will not happen again.

MARGARET WARNER: The danger for Kenya is that this mistrust could be one lasting legacy of this crisis.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret's reports from Kenya will continue later this week.