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Memories of Violence Haunt Upcoming Presidential Election in Kenya

February 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
After the disputed presidential election of December 2007, Kenya fell into chaos as neighbors from different tribal ethnic groups turned on each other in violence. Five years later, Kenyans are worried that history may repeat itself as they prepare for new elections. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports.

GWEN IFILL:  Next: to the East African nation of Kenya.  It’s a close ally of the United States in a very unstable region, a partner in the war on terror and an economic ray of hope on the continent. 

Kenyans go to the polls Monday to elect a new president for the first time since 2007, and it’s an election that will be watched far beyond the nation’s borders. 

Special correspondent Kira Kay was in Kenya recently and filed this report. 

KIRA KAY:  Near Eldoret, Kenya, there is a cemetery that is small in size, but large in meaning.  Mary and Haron Macharia have come to visit the grave of their daughter Joyce. 

MARY MACHARIA, (through translator):  I feel weak when I remember my child.  It is easier to forget when I am far away from here. 

KIRA KAY:  On New Year’s Day 2008, Mary, two-year-old Joyce, and hundreds of others fled to the church that once stood here, as an angry mob descended on them. 

MARY MACHARIA (through translator):  They stabbed us with spears and threw stones at us.  We scrambled into the church, but they lit it on fire. 

KIRA KAY:  The Eldoret church burning was the worst case of the violence that spread across Kenya following disputed presidential elections in December 2007.  Neighbors of different tribal ethnicities turned on each other, and this nation of 42 million people plunged into chaos. 

Mary survived, but was burned over much of her body.  Joyce and 35 other children and adults died inside the church. 

HARON MACHARIA:  This is the place where my daughter burned.  The white particles are the bones of my daughter.

MAINA KIAI, Human Rights Lawyer:  That violence was massive for this country.  We talk about 1,300 people dead.  I think, if you count it over time and those we don’t know, it’s probably around 2,000. 

KIRA KAY:  Maina Kiai is a human rights lawyer who collected testimony from victims. 

MAINA KIAI:  And then there was about 600,000 people who were internally displaced from their homes, massive, huge chaos.  We were on the brink of civil war. 

KIRA KAY:  Two months after the violence began, international mediators brokered a power-sharing deal between the political rivals, Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and Raila Odinga, a Luo. 

Now, five years later, it is election season in Kenya once again.  Odinga is staging a second bid for the presidency.  He is in a very close race against Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president. 

UHURU KENYATTA, Kenyan Presidential Candidate:  All of us have a responsibility to ensure that the track of reform that we have established is maintained. 

KIRA KAY:  There is hope things will be different this time.  In 2010, voters peacefully approved a new constitution meant to address many of the root causes of the violence. 

COMFORT ERO, Africa Director, International Crisis Group:  In many ways, it takes politics away from the center, from central government and gives politics to the local people. 

KIRA KAY:  Comfort Ero is Africa director for the International Crisis Group. 

COMFORT ERO:  And what you will see in the new elections will be elections for governor, senator and local assembly.  And the idea is that politics resource and administration will also be managed in these various counties. 

KIRA KAY:  There is a reformed judiciary to arbitrate political disputes that in 2007 played out violently on the streets and a new elections commission.  Ero says the old one had badly bungled the 2007 vote. 

COMFORT ERO:  It was seen as compromised.  It was seen as lacking independence, particularly because the president under the old constitution was able to unilaterally appoint commissioners. 

What we have seen in the last five years is the creation of a new body.  And today there’s a sense in which the commissioners are more independent, neutral. 

KIRA KAY:  These changes give voters some optimism. 

MAN:  If we got guys who can deliver on the new constitution that has its basic on policies, rather than individuals and the personalities, then we will — it will deliver. 

KIRA KAY:  Much of the damage from the election violence has been rebuilt.  The streets of the capital, Nairobi, bustle with the middle-class office workers that signal Africa’s rise in the global economy. 

The government has resettled many of the people displaced by the fighting and given them money and housing to restart their lives.  But, in the Rift Valley, the epicenter of the violence, small desolate camps of displaced people still dot the countryside. 

Within these tents, you begin to hear about the remaining fractures in Kenyan society that will take more than one election cycle to repair. 

Advocate Keffa Mugenyi warns that many Kenyans like those in these camps and others who have sheltered with relatives are stuck in limbo. 

Why then was it too dangerous for these people to go home if others could? 

KEFFA MUGENYI:  It depends with where you came from.  There’s quite a number of them who have been able to go back, but those who were along the boundaries between inter-communities, the majority of them even up to now, even some of the houses which have been reconstructed by the government, people have not gone back.

And, secondly, also, there has been the whole problem of lack of psychosocial support.

KIRA KAY:  While some families living at this camp are still on the resettlement list, others pooled their government payouts to buy the land under their shacks. 

Three of Joyce Muhito’s eight children have died of illness here.  Still, she says she would rather live in this camp environment than risk returning to her old village. 

JOYCE MUHITO (through translator):  I like this place.  It’s peaceful.  I rest well here.  I can’t go back. 

MAINA KIAI:  Kenyans are making sure they’re not victims again by separating from the others, by being only among your own, so you feel safer there. 

KIRA KAY:  Maina Kiai says these fears are driven by political manipulation based on ethnicity. 

MAINA KIAI:  Ethnicity messes everything up, because it gives leaders an easy tool to mobilize people.  So, we basically believe that if our person, if somebody with from my ethnic group is elected as president, then we will benefit.  Actually, you can see benefits to an ethnic group when the president has come from that group.  So, that’s a very real thing.

KIRA KAY:  Tirop Kitur, who works with Maina Kiai, brought me to the Tegea, where historic grievances over landownership are stoked in a frustrating election-related cycle. 

TIROP KITUR:  The first year, people are doing reconciliation.  The second year, things are OK, the third year.  By the fourth year, the elections are coming, so there’s a lot of talk of one community leaving in this place and so on.  Then, the fifth year, there is violence.

KIRA KAY:  Why? 

TIROP KITUR:  Because that is the time the politicians have a fertile ground to incite one group against the other. 

KIRA KAY:  After the last elections, ethnic Kikuyu and Kisii farmers were violently evicted.  Many fled the area entirely, while others grouped together for safety in numbers. 

Tegea town swelled to three times its population. 

TABITHA KWAMBOKA (through translator):  We would like to rebuild our houses back where we came from, but we need security first. 

KIRA KAY:  Tabitha Kwamboka’s woman’s home was torched.  She saw women raped and a neighbor decapitated. 

TABITHA KWAMBOKA (through translator):  The kind of life I’m leading now is so different from the life I led before the elections.  As we approach another election, we’re afraid, especially we women, who are targeted. 

TIROP KITUR:  These communities have stayed together for a long time.  Both of them have rights to be here.  So they shouldn’t be fighting.  They’re equally rich or equally poor.  So, it’s unfortunate.  It’s the leadership that is playing out these differences. 

KIRA KAY:  Maina Kiai says tensions between communities also remain high because there has been very little effort to bring perpetrators of the violence to justice. 

Only four cases of election-related murder have been tried in local courts.  One was for the killing of Mary Macharia’s daughter and the others in the Eldoret church attack.  Four men were charged, but they were acquitted for lack of evidence. 

Mary and Haron have started a new life in a new town with their young daughter, Mercy.  But they still struggle with the past. 

MARY MACHARIA (through translator):  I have not seen any justice, and I have not seen any culprit being punished to serve as a lesson and to deter people from engaging in such immoral acts again. 

KIRA KAY:  Because Kenya didn’t make good on its promise to create a domestic tribunal for the election violence, the International Criminal Court stepped in.  Four men have been indicted for crimes against humanity, including presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto.  The indictments have become an ethnic rallying call. 

MAINA KIAI:  These two gentlemen especially did a fabulous job of politicizing and turning this indictment by the International Criminal Court into a positive.  And now they have begun playing victim.  They began saying it’s the international community against my tribe. 

KIRA KAY:  But 54 percent of Kenyans support the ICC trials.  Some, like Joseph Ndege, worry about international backlash. 

JOSEPH NDEGE:  We have been told, immediately, we vote criminals.  We are going to be discriminated.  The country will lose everything.  Even donors will suspend aid.  So, we’re very careful.  We want to watch out what we’re going to do. 

KIRA KAY:  As another election approaches, some groups in Kenya are working to keep ethnic divides from again spiraling into violence.  The Kibera slum in Nairobi saw some of the worst fighting five years ago. 

Local resident Jane Anyango says rumors are flying of an uptick in the sale of machetes. 

JANE ANYANGO:  The reports that we are hearing is that people are scared and people are strategizing, like let me equip myself, so that, in case it happens, then this is what I’m going to do. 

KIRA KAY:  But in a small community hall, Jane and her neighbors of varying ethnicity have gathered to share information and strategize about ways to keep their streets calm. 

WOMAN:  And if possible, find a way to have these youths who have these firearms surrender them. 

JANE ANYANGO:  We are trying to normalize the fact that I’m from my community and you are from your community, but we must learn to coexist, to accept that all these political parties exist, but at the end of the day, we are Kenyans and we must protect Kenya. 

KIRA KAY:  The election on March 4 may be too soon for Kenya to leave behind ethnic politics, but it will be a test for a new constitution and, if violence-free, may offer a new start for a country trying to escape its recent difficult history. 

GWEN IFILL:  Kira’s story was produced in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting.