Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kenyan Youth Call for Final End to Violence

In the days and weeks following Kenya’s questionable election outcome in December 2007, an estimated 1,300 people were killed in cycles of violence and hundreds of thousand of others were displaced. A peace settlement that produced a Government of National Unity restored a veneer of normalcy to this East African country, but threats and intimidation, rapes and killings have not truly ended.

I spoke with a group of Kenyan youth leaders visiting the United States this week, and they fear a return to mass violence due to unresolved issues from December 2007 and January and February 2008. They echoed the March 2008 report issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that identified three “distinct but sometimes concurrent patterns of violence.”

According to the UN report, there was spontaneous violence after the announcement that President Mwai Kibaki had won the election when many observer tallies had challenger Raila Odinga ahead going into the final count in Nairobi. Non-Kikuyu opposition supporters took to the streets in Nairobi slum areas and in the western Kenya town of Kisumu, burning and looting. The next phase was organized attacks on certain ethnic groups, such as the Kikuyu, Kisii and Luhya in central and western Kenya, for their perceived voting patterns. Then Kikuyu gangs retaliated against non-Kikuyus in Naivasha, Nakuru and Mathare.

The concept that the violence was mostly ethnic was disputed in an early 2008 editorial in the Sunday Nation newspaper, which accused the government of practicing “a brutal, inhuman brand of capitalism that encourages a fierce competition for survival, wealth and power.” Moreover, there has been a gender component to the violence that has seen untold numbers of women raped, many of them becoming pregnant against their will. Certainly, rape has been used for ethnic intimidation, but all too much of the violence against Kenyan women has been exacerbated by the election controversy though not initiated by it. Cultural patterns that allow women to be treated violently and without respect are made worse in times of social upheaval when law breaks down.

Still, much of the violence in Kenya was neither spontaneous or retaliatory. It was directed by leaders using violence for their own political ends, who took advantage of unresolved ethnic rifts, economic simmering resentments and the vulnerability of Kenyan women. In October of 2008, the government-sponsored Waki Commission issued a report accusing top-level officials of inciting and funding violence in Kenya. Among those cited as being behind the wave of violence were Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta and Agriculture Minister William Ruto.

The youth leaders with whom I spoke said there has been an ongoing debate since that report over how to implement accountability for the violence and its impact on Kenya. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, called for an investigation of what he believes to be crimes against humanity in Kenya. The Government of Kenya had promised to deal with the organizers of the violence, but has failed to do so. The Kenya Human Rights Commission has broad public backing for its support of ICC involvement in the investigation and prosecution of those most responsible for organizing the post-election violence in Kenya, but the government refuses to cooperate. It seems as though the leaders of the ruling Party of National Unity and the opposition Orange Democratic Movement have achieved unity in avoiding bringing the violence organizers to justice.

The youth leaders said the refusal to bring the violence organizers to justice could lead to more violence ahead. That also is the position of Ocampo and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, both of whom helped negotiate the February 2008 peace agreement. However, in addition to the six government ministers named in the Waki commission report, there are other powerful Kenyans who have been responsible for helping the political careers of both President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga. The two leaders are obviously reluctant to take on the people who helped put them into the positions they now hold.

Nevertheless, the status quo is unacceptable. Witnesses to the violence reportedly have been bribed with money, food or scholarships or intimidated through threats of violence. Some witnesses have been killed. Meanwhile, the government refuses to protect witnesses, and those seen as cooperating with the ICC are considered traitors to their own ethnic and political groups.

What was once East Africa’s oasis of stability amid border wars, civil wars and bouts of genocide in the region has now become a tinder box in which the slightest provocation could set off new rounds of mass violence and unrest. The effort to achieve political reform is frustrated by the paralysis surrounding the investigation of those responsible for the post-election violence, even as corruption grows ever more blatant.

The people of Kenya are being pressured on all sides, and their patience is very close to running out. Kenya’s friends in the international community, such as the United States, must do more than scold Kenya’s leaders. Kenya’s friends must work more diligently to find a solution to this crisis, or the next social explosion in Kenya could produce another Rwanda or Liberia.

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