News 2008


Signs in Kenya of a Land Redrawn by Ethnicity

The New York Times


Published: February 15, 2008

OTHAYA, Kenya — Sarah Wangoi has spent her entire life — all 70 years of it — in the Rift Valley. But last month, she was chased off her farm by a mob that called her a foreigner. She now sleeps on the cold floor of a stranger’s house, seeking refuge in an area of Kenya where her ethnic group, the Kikuyu, is strong. It is, supposedly, her homeland.

“I am safe now,” said Ms. Wangoi, though the mob still chases her in her dreams.

Across the country, William Ojiambo sat in a field where the ground was too hard to plow. He, too, sought refuge with his ethnic group, the Luo. He used to live in an ethnically mixed town called Nakuru but was recently evicted by a gang from another ethnic group that burned everything he owned.

“We came here with nothing, like cabbages thrown in the back of a truck,” Mr. Ojiambo said.

Kenya used to be considered one of the most promising countries in Africa. Now it is in the throes of ethnically segregating itself. Ever since a deeply flawed election in December kicked off a wave of ethnic and political violence, hundreds of thousands of people have been violently driven from their homes and many are now resettling in ethnically homogenous zones.

Luos have gone back to Luo land, Kikuyus to Kikuyu land, Kambas to Kamba land and Kisiis to Kisii land. Even some of the packed slums in the capital, Nairobi, have split along ethnic lines.

The bloodletting across the country that has killed more than 1,000 people since the election seems to have subsided in the past week. But the trucks piled high with mattresses, furniture, blankets and children keep chugging across the countryside, an endless convoy of frightened people who in their desperation are redrawing the map of Kenya.

The United Nations and Western powers are pushing for a political compromise, and President Bush said he would send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “deliver a message” to Kenya’s leaders.

On Thursday, officials here said that Kenyan government and opposition leaders had agreed in principle to join together in a coalition government but that they remained bitterly divided over the specifics, especially how much power the opposition would have. Two officials close to the negotiations said the government had rejected the opposition’s offer to split power between the president, who would remain head of state and the military’s commander in chief, and a newly created prime minister position.

Whatever deal is struck will have to address the growing de facto segregation, since a resettlement of the country may further entrench the political and ethnic divisions that have recently erupted. Shattered trust is much harder to rebuild than smashed huts, and many people say they will never go back to where they fled.

“How can we, when it was our friends who did this to us?” said Joseph Ndungu, a shopkeeper in the Rift Valley, who said that men he used to play soccer with burned down his shop.

The government is lending a hand in the country’s separation, at least for the moment. Police officers are escorting people back to their ancestral homes, as the government calls them, which seems to be thinly veiled language for ethnic separation.

Alfred Mutua, a government spokesman, said this was only temporary until it was safe for people to live together again.

“Kenyans have the right to reside anywhere in the country,” he said.

But the mass migrations and resettlements that have been set in motion may be hard to reverse.

Take Joseph Mwanzia Maingi, a retired teacher who was just driven out of Narok, a town in the Rift Valley, by a gang of local men with bows and arrows. He fled to his father’s farm in an area that is a stronghold of the Kamba ethnic group, his people. He is now building a house. And not looking back.

“I don’t see any peace agreement that can guarantee our security there,” said Mr. Maingi, speaking of Narok, where he had lived happily for 40 years.

The ethnic segregation is pulling students and teachers out of schools and leaving thousands of jobs vacant across the economy. If it continues, said David Anderson, an African studies professor at Oxford University, “it’ll be an utter disaster.”

“You’ll never be able to reconstitute the state in a meaningful way,” he said. “You’ll have undone 50 years of work.”

The roots of the problem go deeper than the disputed election, in which the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner over the top opposition leader, Raila Odinga, despite widespread evidence of vote rigging.

At the heart is a tangle of long-festering political, economic and land issues. Part of the trouble is the winner-take-all system in Kenya, which happens in much of Africa, where leaders often favor members of their own ethnic group and in the process alienate large swaths of the population. Many people in Kenya saw this coming even before independence in 1963.

“We were worried about the smaller tribes getting dominated by the bigger ones,” said Joseph Martin Shikuku, a 75-year-old opposition figure. “And you know what? That’s exactly what happened.”

Mr. Shikuku was one of the founders of an independence-era political movement that embraced a philosophy called majimboism that has been around in Kenya since the 1950s. Majimboism means federalism or regionalism in Kiswahili, and it was intended to protect local rights, especially those connected to land. But in the extreme, majimboism is code for certain areas of the country to be reserved for specific ethnic groups, fueling the kind of ethnic cleansing that has swept the country since the election.

Majimboism has always had a strong following in the Rift Valley, the epicenter of the recent violence, where many locals have long believed that their land was stolen by outsiders.

“Majimboism was submerged but it never really died,” Mr. Anderson said. In some ways, the election in December was a referendum on majimboism. It pitted today’s majimboists, represented by Mr. Odinga, who campaigned for regionalism, against Mr. Kibaki, who stood for the status quo of a highly centralized government that has delivered considerable economic growth but has repeatedly displayed the problems of too much power concentrated in too few hands — corruption, aloofness, favoritism and its flip side, marginalization.

Because Mr. Kibaki is a Kikuyu, the largest and most powerful ethnic group in Kenya, and Mr. Odinga is a Luo, a group that feels it has never gotten its fair share, the political and ethnic tensions aggravated by this election have often blurred — with disastrous results.

Other African countries have struggled with ways of defusing ethnic rivalries. Ethiopia set up a system in the mid-1990s called ethnic federalism, which carved the country into ethnic-based regions, each with broad power — at least on paper — including the right to secede. But Ethiopia’s leaders soon concluded that too much regional autonomy would tear the country apart, and Ethiopia is now more or less centrally controlled by members of a small ethnic group.

Tanzania took the opposite approach. It de-emphasized ethnicity. It encouraged people to speak Kiswahili, and not their mother tongues, as a way to build Tanzanian-ness. The government sent children to high schools in different areas to expose them to different communities. Tanzanian election law even makes it illegal to campaign for office based on ethnic group.

In Kenya, such campaigning has been dangerous. Human rights organizations have accused several politicians this election season of using hate speech to incite their supporters. Land became the explosive issue, and after the election, opposition supporters rampaged against people who they perceived had not only voted for the president but had also taken their land long before then. To members of the Kalenjin ethnic group, this meant Kikuyus, even if they had lived next door for generations.

The small town of Londiani in the Rift Valley is just one example. Kikuyu traders settled here decades ago. In early February, residents said that hundreds of Kalenjin raiders poured down from the nearby scruffy hills. Even the Good Start nursery school was burned to the ground. The next morning, children with flakes of ash in their hair picked through the rubble, salvaging what they could — a mosquito coil here, a dented lantern there. With no fire engines in town and with running water scarce, all people of Londiani could do was run outside and watch the school burn.

Kikuyus have since taken their revenge, organizing into gangs armed with iron bars and table legs and hunting down Luos and Kalenjins in Kikuyu-dominated areas like Nakuru. “We are achieving our own perverse version of majimboism,” wrote one of Kenya’s leading columnists, Macharia Gaitho.

Many Kenyans blame William Ruto, a charismatic, smooth-talking opposition leader and a Kalenjin elder, for starting the violence in the Rift Valley. Kenyan government officials say that they are compiling evidence that Mr. Ruto instructed his supporters to kill and that he may soon be charged with murder.

Mr. Ruto, 41, denies any involvement.

“They will not touch me,” he said. “My hands are very clean.”

Still, hundreds of thousands of Kikuyus have fled the Rift Valley, followed by members of other communities displaced by revenge killings. The United Nations estimates that at least 600,000 people have been uprooted. About half have gone to camps in churches, police stations, stables and prisons. The living conditions are often horrible.

“Now they’re eating rats,” read a headline in a Kenyan newspaper.

In Othaya, in the hilly green center of Kikuyu-dominated Central Province, residents mobilized to absorb their relatives from the Rift Valley — and any other Kikuyus who escaped with them.

“I was expecting five or six people,” said Miriam Wanjiku, one of the hosts. “Then a whole bus showed up.”

Ms. Wanjiku found houses and abandoned stores for dozens of people to sleep in. She helped able-bodied men — many were wounded — get jobs at the local tea plantations that roll across the hills like one giant, verdant hedge. The children were put in school.

But there was little for the elderly to do. Ms. Wangoi spends her day on a couch, staring at the floor.

“They were sliced like meat,” she said, when asked what happened to her neighbors.

Ms. Wanjiku listened closely, looking distressed.

“I think she needs counseling,” she said.