News 2008


Kenyans Say Tribal Divide Has Reached Police Force

Victims of Mobs Accuse Officers of Standing By

By Stephanie McCrummen

Washington Post Foreign Service

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

NAIVASHA, Kenya -- Benson Onyango slipped behind the door of his house, terrified as he watched about two dozen young men chase his friend down the dirt paths of their neighborhood in this lakeside town. His friend stumbled to the ground, and the gang began beating him with clubs and iron bars.

Onyango scanned the neighborhood for anyone who could help, he recalled, and felt a flash of relief when he saw 10 police officers on a slope nearby. But seconds passed, and the police just watched, he said. He called out for them to do something. They finally fired several bullets into the air, but the beating continued.

"At long last, they cut his neck," said Onyango, who now lives amid heaps of mattresses and clothes at a local police station, his only potential refuge, and still fears for his life. "The police, they saw what was happening, and they did nothing."

"The police were from their tribe," the Kikuyu, he said of the gang. "So they tried to defend their people to do what they wanted."

In the violent weeks since this country's disputed Dec. 27 presidential election, traumatized Kenyans have repeatedly accused police of failing to protect them. They say officers have run away from machete-wielding gangs and local militias, or stood by and watched as their brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and neighbors were butchered and their homes burned to the ground. In some cases, officers are accused of egging on or assisting the attackers. Opposition leaders have also repeatedly accused the police of gunning down unarmed demonstrators.

In the best of times, the police here are a poorly paid force often accused of human rights abuses and corruption. Government officials say they are now simply overwhelmed or lack clear guidance.

But many Kenyans believe the police are as dangerously divided as the country itself. Officers from President Mwai Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe have been accused of allowing attacks on Luos and other ethnic groups loyal to opposition leader Raila Odinga, a Luo, while others say Kalenjin and Luhya officers have permitted attacks on Kikuyus.

Meanwhile, amid the prevailing insecurity, gangs and tribal militias are asserting greater control over swaths of western Kenya and Nairobi's poorest neighborhoods, where groups that have taken names such as the Baghdad Boys and the Taliban, as well as an outlawed sect, the Mungiki, are recruiting hard.

The lack of trust in police protection is speeding the ethnic segregation underway across the country, where more than 600,000 displaced people are heading for regions where they feel safe -- the Kikuyus to their ethnic homeland in central Kenya, and the Luos, Luhyas and Kalenjins to the west.

"The only problem we have now is one," said John Oduri, a tailor whose shop was torched by gangs. He was spending his fifth night at the Naivasha police station, about 50 miles northwest of Nairobi, wearing clothes stained with his brother's blood. "We want to leave this place and go home."

A political split within Kenya's security forces and the military remains one of the most dreaded scenarios in this once-stable and prosperous East African nation.

Analysts say Kibaki has been reluctant to use the military more fully to stop the violence because he is worried about losing control over it. He has also become alarmed by divisions in the police force, according to one high-ranking Kenyan diplomat with close ties to the country's security apparatus. A recent transfer of police commanders in western Kenya was intended to rid the force of Kalenjin officers whose loyalty to Kibaki was in doubt, the diplomat said.

"It is no longer a national police force, or even a national armed force," he said on condition of anonymity because of his involvement in ongoing negotiations between the two sides. "It is skewed in terms of composition and command."

Analysts say the military and the security forces -- which include the police and a paramilitary force known as the General Service Unit, or GSU -- became heavily politicized when Kibaki took office in 2002. Both forces had previously recruited according to census. But Kibaki's government drew heavily from his own ethnic group and began placing Kikuyus in high-ranking positions, causing some resentment among the rank and file.

Many Kenyans had treated the police who patrolled their communities like neighbors, but that trust has nearly disappeared.

"If they put tight security, we will not refuse to go back," said Paul Karimi, who was forced off his farm in western Kenya. "But if they put the regular ones, the regular police, no. We don't want them there."

Karimi sat with hundreds of other displaced Kikuyus at his new, temporary home, a schoolyard along a paved road winding through the rolling, green tea farms of central Kenya, where he grew up.

When his farm came under attack after the election, Karimi said, he and his neighbors frantically called local police officers, many of whom they had known for years. Some were Kalenjin, a tribe that supported Odinga. By Karimi's count, about 20 armed officers showed up. They were faced with more than 100 local Kalenjin militiamen armed with machetes and bows and arrows.

He and others screamed for help, expecting the officers to open fire on the militiamen, he said, but "the police just ran away."

The militiamen descended on the farm, burning houses and piles of maize, and Karimi escaped to the forest. He and hundreds of others made their way to a police station. Karimi boarded a bus for Central province two days later.

The other displaced Kikuyus told similar stories as they gathered in lines for beans or sat on piles of mattresses and clothes.

Faith Wanjiru, 22, said about 30 police officers showed up when militias attacked her farm, about 15 miles from Karimi's. The officers watched as her house burned and the militiamen hustled her and other screaming women into a nearby school.

"The police did not fire one shot, nothing," she said.

The women were trapped in the school for three days, and the gangs began raping the Kikuyu women, Wanjiru said. During the day, she could hear what she assumed was a police or military helicopter hovering overhead, and several times the women ran outside to wave it down.

"But they didn't help," she said.

After several days of attacks across the Rift Valley, the government sent the GSU paramilitary force, which tear-gassed the school, whisked the women away in trucks and later helped escort the convoys out of the area.

When the Kikuyu gangs attacked Naivasha, however, the GSU was nowhere to be found, and the local police force was left to fend off several thousand young men who rampaged through the town hunting down Luos, Luhyas and Kalenjins, apparently to avenge the attacks in the Rift Valley.

Willy Ndagona, the top police official in Naivasha and a Luhya, said his officers did their best under the circumstances. He said that his police force is ethnically diverse and that he instructs officers according to the law.

"I would like to believe they are working within the tenets of the force," Ndagona said. "But on an individual level, I cannot know what some would do."

Survivors of those attacks remain crowded at a police station parking lot with their belongings, a scene nearly identical to the one at the schoolyard.

"We had people butchered, and the police just watched helplessly," said George Ochieng, a hotel worker who said he wants to leave Naivasha for his home village in Nyanza province, far to the west."

Many of those at the police station said that Kikuyus from town taunt them at night and that they must pay the police to escort them beyond the station gates.

When Ochieng returns home, he said, he will discuss whether it was time to form a local defense force. "If the army will provide security, okay. If they are reluctant, we will have to do it."