Simon Muchiri says he survived having his house burned down and being left destitute in violence following Kenya’s elections five years ago. Now he’s planning to vote for the very politicians accused of leading those attacks.
Uhuru Kenyatta, the deputy prime minister and a member of the dominant Kikuyu community, is running as a team with former political foe William Ruto, an ethnic Kalenjin lawmaker, in presidential elections planned for March 4. Opinion polls show their alliance leads in Kenya’s Rift Valley, the region where Muchiri lives and the epicenter of post-election violence in 2007 that pitted the two ethnic groups against each other.
The two men have been indicted by the International Criminal Court for directing ethnic mobs to murder and forcibly displace people during the fighting. They both deny the charges.
“If the president is a Kikuyu and the vice-president a Kalenjin, now we are one and there will be no fighting,” said Muchiri, a 50-year-old farmer and father of eight, as he pointed to the police station in Burnt Forest, a town northwest of Nairobi, where his family sought refuge for six months.
The candidates’ main challenger is Prime Minister Raila Odinga, an ethnic Luo who is running on a joint ticket with Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and leading in most public opinion surveys. Their so-called Coalition for Reform and Democracy would garner 51 percent support for the presidency against 39 percent for Kenyatta’s alliance, according to a poll by Nairobi-based Infotrak Research & Consulting released this month. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
That equation flips in the Rift Valley, where 52 percent of respondents indicated they would vote for a Kenyatta presidency over Odinga’s 38 percent, the survey showed.
Grievances over land have triggered violence in the Rift Valley in every vote except one since 1992, when multiparty democracy was introduced in Kenya, the world’s largest tea exporter and East Africa’s biggest economy. Kalenjins say the Kikuyus, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, were unjustly given land by the government after the nation gained independence from Britain half a century ago. The country has 42 ethnic groups.
The region accounts for a fifth of the country’s 14 million registered voters, making it the biggest voting bloc. It grows most of Kenya’s food, including 60 percent of the corn and almost all its wheat. The Rift Valley is home to the majority of the country’s tea plantations, run by companies including London-based Unilever Plc and James Finlay Ltd.
It was among the flashpoints of the 2007 violence that also engulfed the western city of Kisumu and the slums of the capital, Nairobi. More than 1,100 people died and 350,000 were displaced in the clashes that slashed economic growth by two-thirds to 1.5 percent as agricultural output slumped.
Politicians in Kenya typically draw support from ethnic affiliations. Two out of the three Kenyan presidents since independence were Kikuyu. The exception was Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin who was in power for 24 years.
Violence following the election was triggered by opposition allegations that President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, secured a second term by rigging the vote to beat Odinga, a member of the Luo community whose supporters included Kalenjins.
ICC prosecutors accuse Ruto, 46, of mobilizing his kinsmen to carry out pre-planned attacks on Kikuyus, Kisii and Kamba in Eldoret, 265 kilometers (165 miles) from Nairobi, and the surrounding area, according to a case information sheet on the Hague-based court’s website. He “directly” supervised arms and crude weapons purchases and gave cash rewards to perpetrators on the ground who looted and killed, it says.
Kenyatta, for his part, is accused of ordering the Mungiki criminal gang to respond with reprisal attacks, which included rape, on the Luo, Luhya and Kalenjin communities in Nakuru and Naivasha towns, about 140 kilometers northwest of Nairobi, the ICC said. Their trials begin in April.
Kenyatta, the 51-year-old son of Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, said he and Ruto can run the country even while fighting the ICC indictments.
“Kenya is not a banana republic, Kenya is a country that actually has very firm and clear institutions in place,” he said in an interview on Al Jazeera television broadcast yesterday. “The system and the state will continue to run.”
Kenyatta’s defense lawyers say he had no control over the Mungiki and that he “does not satisfy the subjective elements of the crimes alleged,” according to a Nov. 17, 2011 court filing. Ruto “did no wrong” and is being charged at the ICC “because of a flawed investigation and the over-reliance on a handful of anonymous witnesses,” David Hooper, a member of his legal team, told the Hague-based court on Sept. 1, 2011.
The coalition of ICC suspects may neutralize tensions between the feuding ethnic groups in the March vote, reducing historical power struggles, said Macharia Munene, a professor of international studies at the U.S. International University. Kenyatta and Ruto “coming together could have a positive effect and give people a reason to think twice before doing something untoward on ethnic lines,” he said by phone from Nairobi.
The Jubilee alliance has put “peace and stability” at the center of its election campaign, Kenyatta said yesterday.
The violence in 2007 ended after Kibaki entered a power-sharing accord with Odinga, 68, who was installed as prime minister. They agreed to reorganize the police and courts, overhaul land ownership laws and adopt a new constitution.
Any changes have failed to stem long-standing resentments from communities that say they have been economically disadvantaged, Daniel Were, a peace activist, said in an interview in Eldoret. The alliance between Kenyatta and Ruto may help bridge the partisan divide, he said.
“The personal interest of the Kenyatta and Ruto alliance is to get rid of a common enemy, Odinga, and that could increase the chance of peace if these two groups are now united,” he said.
While the nation enacted a charter in 2010 aimed at improving government accountability, Rift Valley residents have seen little practical effect, according to Nelly Ndung’u, a 41-year-old women’s activist in the region. Some Kenyans displaced by the violence are angered by reports that state donations of housing, land and money meant to help them return home or resettle are allotted on tribal loyalties, New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Jan. 17.
Many remain in temporary mud-walled housing and have failed to recoup their family’s possessions, including cattle herds that were wiped out in the clashes, Ndung’u said. The sense of injustice lingers as most of the low- and middle-level perpetrators have escaped trial.
“Are we really going to vote back the people who are responsible for this destruction?” Ndung’u said as she stood near the grave of a neighbor shot dead by police during the violence. “We want to vote for a leader who will bring us higher, not leaders who came here to burn and kill us.”