Kenyan elections on Monday stir fears of ethnic violence

One front runner for president is wanted in The Hague accused of orchestrating brutality in the last election five years that left 1,100 dead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 March, 2013, 5:49am


"Welcome to Valley View photographic site," says the weathered wooden sign, boasting that you are 2,400 metres above east Africa's Rift Valley, the birthplace of mankind. A row of corrugated-iron shops hawk traditional Masai cloths and handcarved elephant, lion and zebra bookends. But today there are not many tourists to barter with.

Down in the valley there's a clue why. Sunshine gleams off the metal roofs of housing built for families displaced by ethnic violence that followed Kenya's general election five years ago. More than 1,100 people were killed and 600,000 fled their homes. On Monday, the nation goes to the polls again in possibly the most important vote in its 50-year history. Many fear a repeat.

To an outsider it is hard to believe the most powerful country in the region, with its vibrant middle class, boutique malls and thriving tech sector could be on the brink of catastrophe. But every five years, its foundations are shaken by the democratic cycle. In recent months more than 200 people have been killed in politically charged violence in the Tana river region and in the north. The fact that one of the front runners for president has been indicted by the international criminal court (ICC) is another portent of trouble.

The Rift Valley in particular has become accustomed to these convulsions. Internally displaced persons are still living with the consequences of the politically fuelled tribal conflict in 2007-08.

Margaret Wambui Mwai, 65, is 282 kilometres from her home village and mourning her son, Joshua, who was killed in the eruption.

"He had been hacked to death on his way back from work. The memory still haunts me. The doctors at the mortuary could not salvage the situation so he was buried with his head almost off," she said.

Joshua, 42, left behind three wives and 12 children. The violence caused Mwai to flee for her life. "People started burning houses. We ran away, we didn't salvage anything, we left our things to burn. It was a very frightening time."

An informal settlement of about 6,000 families has sprung up in the Maai Mahiu area, according to the local chief. But not all are recognised as IDPs and entitled to benefits. For Mary Nseri, 35, a single mother of six, life is much tougher than it was five years ago when she fled her burning home.

"It's very difficult to earn a living here," she said.

Election time fills her with dread, she said. "We don't know what could happen. We will vote but we are worried the same thing could happen again. It's a precarious situation."

Mwai and Nseri are ethnic Kikuyu - and intend to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu running for president. They credit him with saving them from ethnic Kalenjin militias last time. Land ownership has been a longstanding grudge between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities.

For this election, Kenyatta has formed a pact with William Ruto, a prominent Kalenjin, raising hopes of peace in the Rift Valley at least. But both Kenyatta and Ruto are facing ICC charges for orchestrating that violence. They stand accused of involvement in murder, forcible deportation, persecution and rape. Among Kikuyu voters in the Rift Valley, it appears the charges have made Kenyatta stronger, with many saying they want to defend him from a meddling foreign court.

Kenyatta's principal rival, Raila Odinga, observed dryly that it would not be possible for him to run a "government by Skype" while he stands trial in the Hague.

The two men are refighting their fathers' old battles. Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya's first president while Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, an ethnic Luo, was vice-president until their relationship soured. This year promises another chapter in the rift between Kikuyus and Luos.

Not all Kenyans, however, believe they are condemned to repeat the past. Ngunjiri Wambugu is convenor of Kikuyus for Change and a political adviser to Odinga, not Kenyatta. He said members of the group were working for various candidates cutting across tribal lines.