As criminals take advantage of
postelection violence, Kenyans turn vigilante
By Katharine Houreld
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
11. Feb. 2008
KISUMU, Kenya - Children clustered around the charred body, its
features melted into an unrecognizable black mask. The man,
accused of being a thief, was the fourth person to be burned alive
this month in this western Kenyan city.
Residents say they are carrying out their own punishments against
criminals because police have been too busy coping with Kenya's
postelection chaos to prevent theft and looting.
"People are taking advantages of the skirmishes and stealing from
other people," said Dorothy Atieno, a primary school teacher, as
she stared at the corpse in Kisumu. "This is an example to them."
A rise in crime and vigilante attacks has been part of Kenya's
overall descent into lawlessness since a disputed Dec. 27
presidential election. Rival ethnic groups have turned on each
other in a cycle of revenge attacks, police have clashed with
opposition protesters, and homes and businesses across the country
have been torched. At least 1,000 people have died and hundreds of
thousands of have been chased to refugee camps.
The violence had devastated the economy, scaring off tourists who
bring billions in revenue and forcing hotels and other businesses
to fire employees.
Although there are hopes for a breakthrough agreement in talks
between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga,
it may take longer to repair a society undermined by shredded
respect for police and political leaders.
On one recent day in Kisumu, several hundred youths, some armed
with machetes and stones, taunted police loading a corpse into the
back of a van — another victim of vigilante attacks.
"We call the police and they don't come. When we kill them (criminals),
that's when they come," said resident Dorothy Sijenyi as she
watched the scene.
Vigilante attacks are not new in Kisumu, a city of 504,000 people,
but the health official said he was alarmed by the recent spate of
assaults. Usually, he said, there is about one attack a month on
an alleged thief.
Kisumu, an opposition stronghold, suffered some of the worst
violence after Kibaki was announced as the winner of an election
that foreign and domestic observers agree was deeply flawed.
Almost every member of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe fled the city as
people from rival ethnic groups took the streets. No Kikuyu-owned
shop or business remains open — all have been smashed, looted and
burned. They have been stripped even of their corrugated iron
Now that the town has been emptied of Kikuyus, gangs are looking
for new targets, residents say.
Haroun Wandalo said young men armed with machetes have demanded to
search his house three times in the past weeks even though he
belongs to an ethnic groups that voted for the opposition.
"Initially it was about Kikuyus. Now looking for Kikuyus is just
an excuse to loot your property," said Haroun Wandalo.
Now, the mild-mannered, bespectacled cafe owner guards his house
with a machete and his neighborhood has set up its own watch
National police spokesman Eric Kiraithe denied that police have
been slow to respond to crime, saying officers have been ordered
to patrol more frequently and answer complaints faster.
But he acknowledged there was a surge in crime in January, with
more break-ins recorded that month than for all of 2007 and the
rape rate rocketing to its highest level in six years.
Kiraithe said he could not confirm the vigilante attacks in Kisumu,
though he said police were investigating many unexplained murders.
In the town of Limuru, about 12 miles from Nairobi, two men were
lynched Wednesday for trying to tell women how to dress, he said.
One died and the other was saved by police. The next day, a
suspected thief was killed in the town of Naivasha on the
outskirts of the capital, he said.
In Eldoret, a town near Kisumu, Joel Kirorei supervised the
reconstruction of his hotel after it was burned to the ground in
the postelection violence.
"Most of these youths are unemployed," he said. "They have nothing
to do and now they are used to free things."