After weeks of violence
many wonder if Kenya’s success was
merely an illusion
by Matthew Rosenberg
05. March 2008
TIGONI, Kenya–More than a century ago, European colonists carved
up Africa, jamming together people who spoke different languages,
danced to different music and worshipped different gods within the
Kenya was one of the few new nations that flourished. But now, the
once stable and prosperous country seems as flawed and fragile a
creation as many other African states.
Weeks of bloodshed have seen ethnic gangs exact revenge on rivals
and people divide themselves along tribal lines. The spark was an
election, which the opposition says the president stole, and which
foreign and domestic observers agree was deeply flawed. Former U.N.
chief Kofi Annan says he hopes to have mediated a settlement, but
even if the politicians agree, the wounds will not heal easily.
Appeals to tribe have long trumped ideology in Kenyan politics,
and ethnic strife has been common around election time since the
country made its first democratic strides in the 1990s. But no
previous violence has been so sustained or ferocious. More than
1,000 people have been killed and 300,000 forced from their home
since the Dec. 27 vote.
The economy has been gutted, and many wonder whether the world’s
view of the Kenya of bountiful game parks, shimmering beaches,
thriving capital and busy port was just an illusion.
No matter what happens at the ongoing peace talks, “there won’t be
a cataclysm, that doesn’t seem likely,” said Gladwell Otieno of
the Africa Center for Open Governance in Nairobi, the capital.
Instead, she and others see Kenya’s long-simmering problems —
crime, poverty, corruption — magnified and bereft of politicians
able to tackle them. “Increasing balkanization, people seeking out
the company of their own, entrenched vigilante groups, entrenched
gangs,” Otieno continued.
“We hope it doesn’t go that way, but we don’t know.” In this
village outside Nairobi, a postcard-perfect landscape of hills,
tea plantations and flat-topped acacia trees, an increasingly
fractious and faltering Kenya is comes into view. Packed into the
grounds of a dilapidated police station are more than 4,000 people.
They’re camped out in tents, waiting in line for baked beans,
doing laundry in a pit by the latrines. And on the edge of the
camp, they’re waiting for buses. “I’m going to my homeland,” said
Helen Odhiambo, a 30-yearold mother of three. Like most people at
the camp, Odhiambo is of the Luo tribe, whose ancestral lands are
in western Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria.
Three generations ago her family moved to the central highlands,
the territory of the Kikuyu, the largest and most dominant of
Kenya’s 42 tribes. Odhiambo has never lived in the homeland of
which she speaks. “My grandmother said we had a small homestead
for the whole family.” That was decades ago.
But “I cannot stay here,” she said, telling the story of the night
three weeks ago when Kikuyus, from President Mwai Kibaki’s ethnic
group, went hunting for Luos, the tribe of opposition leader Raila
Odinga, who says the election was stolen from him. “I grabbed
things in my house. My children grabbed things. We left much
behind,” Odhiambo said.
She had heard that some of her neighbors were killed, but didn’t
know anything more. Piled all around Odhiambo were bundles of
clothes, pots and pans strung together, a soiled teddy bear. The
bus, she hoped, would come that afternoon. She couldn’t say
exactly where she would go. Western Kenya was as far as she had
thought it out. Up the road, back toward Nairobi, the migration
was going in other directions.
Camped out next to a church were Kikuyus driven out of the west.
George Mbugua, 47, worked in a village in the lush Rift Valley,
home to the Kalenjin people, who have long resented an influx of
Kikuyus that began with independence from Britain nearly a half
century ago and never really stopped. “Here now, I am friendless,
family-less, penniless. But I am told we’re all Kikuyu people
here, that I will be helped,” he said.
He didn’t sound convinced. Nobody knows how many people are moving
across Kenya to seek the safety of ethnic numbers in this country
of 38 million. But it’s not just the rural poor; there are many
reports of Nairobi landlords renting only to the right ethnicity,
and businesses taking care about which staff are sent to which
For many ordinary Kenyans, the new reality is sobering. “Sure, we
all made jokes about each other, the Luos and Kikuyu, the other
people,” said Victor Gitonga, a 24-year-old Kikuyu Red Cross
worker who was helping at the Luo camp. “But that was joking. If
people cannot live, work, stay in any place in this country, than
is this a country? We are finished,” he said.
It would take a lot more to get to that point — no one’s even
whispering about secession. “Kenya is too important a country to
allow to fail,” U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger said in an
interview. The East African country is a key ally in the war on
terror and a hub for the U.N. and scores of aid groups working in
Nearly all its neighbors rely on the deep-water port in Mombasa
and the country’s extensive, if worndown, road network — in fact,
at one point last month, Kenyan turmoil temporarily drove up
Ugandan gas prices by about 200 percent. For now, everyone is
looking to Annan, who said Friday the two sides were “making
But there’s growing doubt that Kibaki, under whose rule the Kikuyu
grew more dominant and corruption worse, or Odinga, who has made a
career out of appealing to tribal loyalties, can bring Kenyans