Kenya Finally Decided to Take War Crimes Seriously

Is the era of using violence to gain office over?

Jan 26 2012, 10:00am

It was a pretty tense scene at the Amani Pub in Turbo Town (real place), Kenya a few days ago. The International Criminal Court (ICC) made a historic decision that afternoon, announcing it will move ahead on charges against four Kenyan politicians suspected of committing war crimes during the 2007/2008 post-election violence.

This is the biggest deal for finance minister and deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta (who is coincidentally the wealthiest man in Kenya, and son of founding father Jomo Kenyatta) and former education minister William Ruto, both of whom are presidential aspirants. Also charged are cabinet secretary Francis Muthaura, and Kass FM radio journalist Joshua arap Sang.

Kenyans and the rest of the world have been paying a lot of attention to the proceedings. Everyone here remembers what happened after the December 2007 elections, when incumbent Mwai Kibaki was sworn in despite some pretty heavy protestations from his opponent, Raila Odinga. The entire election process was super shifty. Kibaki was sworn in during a secret after-hours ceremony, and tribal tensions exploded for a good three months afterwards.

When all was said and done, over 1,100 people had died. Reports of mass rapes, brutal murders, and forced deportations completely freaked out the rest of the world.

In Nairobi, Nakuru, Naivasha, and Eldoret, an initial wave of violence against the Kikuyu tribe (Kibaki is Kikuyu) saw some pretty brutal bloodshed, murder, rape and mass displacement. A wave of retaliatory attacks laid waste to Odinga’s Luo tribe, as well as Kalenjins and Kambas (among others), most of whom had also supported Odinga’s presidential bid.

To figure out what in the hell happened, I went to check out the Rift Valley Province, a Wild West-y area home to Eldoret and Turbo Town. William Ruto is MP for Eldoret North. He hails from Turbo Town and is widely believed to have financed a lot of the really vicious violence that happened here.

The international media had been anxiously awaiting another explosion of crazy violence on Monday (myself included; sorry, journalists are ghouls). But while things were indeed tense in the pub, people seemed pretty stoic about the whole thing once the decision was announced. They watched the verdict in silence. One dude said “wow,” and scratched his head, and the anticipated riots that had a platoon of paramilitary police officers patrolling the area didn’t actually happen at all.

It’s likely a case of people learning a valuable lesson, because four years ago things were really ugly here.

In the Kiambaa district outside of Eldoret, you will find several rows of largely unmarked graves on a small, dry plot of land. On January 1, 2008, in the wake of Kibaki’s “victory,” the local Kikuyu community was experiencing some pretty major backlash from the Kalenjins who dominate this district. Hundreds sought refuge in the Kenya Assemblies of God Church, which turned out to be a very poor decision.

 I met Mike Karanja, who was at the scene on that shitty new year’s day.

“It is written in the Bible that whoever seeks shelter in the house of God, evil cannot follow him,” he said.

Wrong. A mob comprised of several hundred extremely pissed off Kalenjins surrounded the church, demanding bloody vengeance. The men outside tried their best to defend the estimated 250 people within, but to no avail. They got their asses kicked, the mob set fire to a stack of mattresses on the side of the church, and the whole place went up in smoke. Anyone who managed to escape was attacked with machetes, arrows, and clubs.

“Most of the attackers were not easy to identify. They had smeared mud on their faces, and it was such a huge mob you could not know. Maybe it's your neighbor. But you’ll never tell,” said Karanja.

No one in Kenya has ever had to answer for any crimes committed after the election—including police, who are accused of killing hundreds of innocents in an effort to quell the violence. And it’s not just the wounded who are still suffering—hundreds of thousands were displaced in the months following the election, and many have yet to return home.

At the Yamumbi Internally Displaced Persons camp outside of Eldoret, 25 families are wondering why the government still hasn’t made good on promises to resettle them.

Yamumbi is basically the worst place you could imagine living. Four-year-old tents are tattered and frayed, there is no running water, food is low, and the people living here are broke and voiceless. The local police station wants to turn this place into a dog training site, but the government has yet to tell the families here where they can resettle. Yamumbi residents have been here for fucking years, and it is taking its toll on them.

Anne Wamboi remembers celebrating Kibaki’s win on new year’s 2008, when she caught sight of a frantic neighbor sprinting to deliver some really bad news.

“She told us, ‘While you are celebrating, they are attacking us on the other side.’ At first we thought she was joking, until we saw the plumes of smoke,” she recalled.

Wamboi was clever enough not to stick around and see if her neighbor was messing with her. She fled with the clothes on her back, and later learned that her house and all her possessions had been burnt and destroyed. She became an IDP that day, and hasn’t had a real home since.

“When it rains it’s the worst time. All the tents are torn and leaking, and this area is swampy. The kids are the ones who take the heat the most. There is mud everywhere,” she said.

At the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Eldoret, director Ken Wafula has spent the last four years lobbying hard for victims’ rights. His group was the first to offer witness protection programs when the government was busy hemming and hawing over whether to prosecute any suspects itself.

It didn’t, meaning the ICC had to get involved, and since then many witnesses of the violence have faced threats, gone missing, or straight up fled the country.

“The biggest problem is not with the suspects, it is with the tools that can be used by them,” said Wafula, referring to politicians paying gangsters and disenfranchised youth to intimidate, beat, and murder their opponent’s supporters before and after election campaigns.

As Kenya heads into an election season that will culminate with a new president in 2013, Wafula said the confirmation of charges has changed everything.  Ruto and Kenyatta have vowed to continue with their presidential bids despite being on the line for war crimes, which puts a bit of a damper on everything, but Wafula said there’s no going back.

“Kenyan politics will change forever. The era of using violence to get to office is over…. More witnesses will appear. Convictions will be probable. Kenyans don’t want to be subjected to another five years of misery.”

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