By Peris Jones
A wave of violent attacks is currently buffeting Kenya and spreading fear and much distress. The insecurity brings to the fore pertinent questions as to who is behind the attacks and what is fuelling them. The long awaited report recently released by the Truth and Justice and Reconciliation Commission provides a useful window to explain the deep seated nature of much of the violence in Kenya, but is not without serious dilemmas in seeking redress.
Eric Barasa pleaded with the attackers to take some of his possessions and leave him be. One lashed out, hacking at him with a machete. Barasa felt something wet on his shirt and noticing it was blood, then realised in the shock that one eye was gouged out. Many more Kenyans are under attack. On just about all points of the country’s compass a wave of violent attacks has shaken Kenya’s northern, coastal, central, and especially western regions. In Barasa’s case, according to media reports, terrifying ‘machete wielding thugs’ are responsible for massacring 10 people, while maiming another 100 villagers. Men, woman and even children have had limbs hacked off. In Bungoma and Busia counties in Western Kenya, where Barasa lives, ‘Villagers cower in fear whenever darkness falls not knowing where the assailants will strike next’ (1). Though these atrocities have taken place for one month, the police, we are told, still apparently have few leads. Shortly after William Ruto, newly elected Deputy President, visited the area and pledged security forces to do ‘everything within their powers’, which includes a shoot to kill policy – indeed, only hours later the gangs in a brazen act of defiance distributed leaflets to local communities that chillingly read ‘we are coming for you’. The attacks are described as well planned death squads that steal nothing but seek to maximise terror in local communities. If the fundamental duty of a state is to protect life and property buttressed by a monopoly over the means of coercion then to use the term of anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff, Kenya is arguably better characterised as a tapestry of ‘partial sovereignties’.
Elsewhere in the country, for example, in Tana Delta along the coast, attacks have taken place on a camp of residents displaced in previous rounds of clan based conflict over resources and decision making last year and in which two hundred lives were claimed. In the North, Mandera county is witness to clashes between rival clans that have left ten dead and four thousand displaced with the situation worsening and with military grade equipment being used by militia and gun men killing policemen and civilians. In November, 2012, though Samburu county is host to the habitual problem of cattle rusting, in one particularly bloody incident forty-two police officers were ambushed and killed by cattle raiders. And compounding the insecure situation, other parts of the country are seeing the growth and, in some cases re-emergence, of militia and movements. The Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) is campaigning for secession of Kenya’s coastal strip and is associated with several militant attacks. In addition, an organisation known as the Mungiki movement who reached particular prominence in the 1990s and late 2000s are deemed to be making a comeback within both Central province and Nairobi itself (2). The capital city is also undergoing a rise in violent crime. All these incidents, seemingly unrelated at first glance as they are, nonetheless add up to a country currently under the cosh of violence. How can we begin to make some sense of these attacks? Who or what is driving the insecurity? How might Kenya move forward in securing its future?
Drivers of conflict
One particularly useful window into many more similar attacks and human rights abuses lies in the long awaited report of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (the Commission) that was recently delivered to Uhuru Kenyatta, newly elected President of Kenya. The Commission was established in the wake of the far more extensive and visceral violence associated with the 2007 elections that shook this nation, with over one thousand deaths and hundreds of thousands having to relocate, often with resulting loss of property. The Commission’s mandate was to identify causes of violence and human rights abuses stretching from the colonial era and into the post-independence era up to the post election violence 2007/8. The broad historical perspective in its investigations enables the Commission to uncover a quite overwhelming picture of gross human rights violations, which they say, have been both ‘normalised and institutionalised’ in Kenya. The sheer scale of violations – associated with every administration from colonialism and since independence – is staggering and provides clues as to the causes and consequences of violence more generally.
Photo: Casper Hedberg. See more pictures from the conflict after the 2007 elections here: kontinent.se
That Kenya is notable for having one of the lowest ratios of police to population (approximately 41 per 100 000 of the population) in the world, is rightly pointed out as a contributory factor. Poor provision of equipment could be also be justifiably cited as hindering adequate responses, the police are outgunned and out-manoeuvred by armed gangs. Some immediate responses include the President’s pledge for an extra annual allocation of resources to recruit another ten thousand police officers and to furnish them with one thousand three hundred more vehicles. High level emergency meetings have also been called with the security forces in response to the violence. Often conflicts are described away as the appearance of ethnicity. The essence, though, as the Commission’s report highlights, lies far more deeply.
Kenya is no stranger to violent incidents and has weathered many previous rounds that are associated particularly with the cycles of electoral politics. Election related violence is estimated to have claimed over four thousand lives in the 1990s and most recently in 2007/8 as mentioned. The President, Kenyatta, and Deputy, Ruto, are both currently facing International Criminal Court cases charging them with crimes against humanity, for their respective roles in the 2007/8 post-election violence. However, it appears to be the norm for political leaders in Kenya to have used violence for political ends in order to weaken political opposition, to provide a bulwark against multi-partyism, or, to gain some or other political advantage. Under the Presidency of Daniel Arap Moi political elites would be rewarded for deploying movements and ethnic communities, such as the Kalenjin and Maasi for political gain in sensitive regions, especially in the Rift Valley. Since then, these and other ethnic groups would enter into volatile relations with the state and formally recognised political actors, as convenient tools for political violence. The dynamic is termed ‘internal repression’, in that the political class have tended to ‘use’ militia to either defend or extend their interest at the cost of local communities. This is precisely the substance of the cases against Kenyatta and Ruto. In Kenyatta’s case it concerns the alleged deployment of the predominantly Kikuyu organisation, the Mungiki.
In the present spate of conflicts, in what otherwise appears merely as senseless violence is instead often driven by specific motivations. In Western Kenya it has emerged that a powerful ‘god father’ and a local militia allegedly have been deployed by regional politicians vying for outright political control. Violence is unleashed either to discredit opposition or punish communities and spread fear amongst those who voted against them. There is a local election petition, for example, currently filed by a former Minister against the present Senator for Bungoma alleging flaws in the recent election and to which the current attacks are allegedly linked. That these practices are not unknown is illustrated by observers in Bungoma who draw parallels between the current attacks and those that also took place in region back in the 1990s by the Angola Msumbiji militia. Other militia, as we will see, are also often used as political battering rams and Trojan horses. Similarly, the conflict in Tana Delta, though taking on the appearance of clan based conflict is as much about political exclusion and therefore of control over resources of one clan by another and who may be deemed legitimate inhabitants of the territory in question.
In the wake of the atrocities in western Kenya a silence is noticeable in that communities affected are reluctant to come forward to the police with information. Rather than simply a lack of resources, there is a more fundamental problem that the population lacks confidence in the police force. The public reticence is understandable in considering the Commission’s statement that ‘the use of excessive and disproportionate force by the police has been a common theme running through Kenya’s history’. Security operations have resulted in hundreds of additional deaths and massacres. Unofficial alliances appear to exist between perpetrators and the police themselves. Important patrons appear untouched by criminal proceedings. The machinery of the state has therefore been used for political assassinations and as a tool for political advantage to eliminate opponents with impunity. Using militia’s one minute, then seeing them as challengers the next, has often led to security forces given instructions to shoot to kill. The consequences can be dramatic –it is estimated that in the 2000s hundreds of extra judicial killings and disappearances were suffered by the Mungiki. It is a continuing blot on parts of the Kenyan landscape that some youth still encounter these drastic practices.
As the report also identifies, land issues are a fundamental cause of conflict. To illustrate the scale of the problem, in taking all statements and memoranda gathered from the public in the Commission report over fifty percent cite issues to do with the issue of land. Between 1962 and 2002 over 200,000 illegal titles were created. In other words, alongside settlement schemes – of varying success – there were also huge land grabs, accelerating particularly into the 1990s. It started with European, predominantly British, settlers but then in the post-independence era it became common practice to reward supporters with land as the cost of providing a more systematic and redistributive programme. In looking at many of the conflicts today the cycle of violence manifests itself in these conflicts over land. The coastal region, most notably, has seen particularly high levels of land being alienated from communities by government officials –most notably Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first President. In considering the scale of loss of land, evictions and forced resettlement in the coast, it is then perhaps unsurprising that in seeking redress for this historical injustice there is the proliferation of organisations, most notably the Mombasa Republic Council. Indeed, the report suggests that most ethnic violence is related one way or another to land grievances and access to resources. A big problem is also that some communities have been rewarded with land and resettled into areas traditionally occupied by other groups and while other landless communities more deserving are overlooked. Similarly, dispossession and alienation of land for others considered ‘alien’ and chased away has sown seeds of resentment and cycles of despair, attack and counter-attack. That elites have manipulated and used these deep seated grievances and with apparent impunity is a striking feature of Kenyan politics.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Militia and Movements amidst inequality
Another striking feature of the conflicts is the enduring nature of movements, militias, and criminal gangs. How do we explain their longevity? Part of the reason can be found in research at NIBR by Jones and Henningsen into the Mungiki organisation (see related references) and that these movements are often ‘Janus faced’. In other words, movements like Mungiki slide between roles as legitimate providers of social services and also as violent oppressors of communities. In the case of Mungiki, services are often provided to communities in the absence of government provision. The organisation has supported the landless – many of whom are their member base – funds small scale businesses, and even land. They also supply other services like water, garbage collection and electricity. Above all, such movements can also offer protection in highly insecure environments – all for a levy, of course. When these organisations are successful in generating their own revenue then they can even begin to exist independently of wealthier patrons.
The key to understanding these movements is therefore on the one hand that they have become a potent means for service provision, parallel to and mimicking the state – hence ‘partial’ sovereignty. The articulation of grievances of underprivileged youths in particular is the other key element. These youth, due to their radicalism, illegality or militancy, are often disqualified from participation in formal political arenas. Some explanations would therefore rightly point to Kenya’s very high level of youth unemployment – on some counts as high as seventy five per cent – that would push even the most stable states into a crisis. This chronic situation occurs, however, at a time when Kenya experiences economic growth, yet with trickle down apparently failing to stem the high tide of inequality. The high level of economic and political exclusion is an engine for mobilising youth into such gangs and movements. Jones and Henningsen show that it is not only the politically correct label of ‘limited opportunities’ holding youth back but how they encounter extremely hostile and brutalising social conditions. Alcohol, drugs, poverty and police brutality pushes so many young Kikuyu to join Mungiki. The glue – in addition to adverse ‘push factors’ – is what Jones and Henningsen identify as the power of the ‘pull factors’: namely, that membership according to several interviewees brings material benefits but also meaning and control that enables members to become a better person. Symptomatic of Kenya’s problems these movements are manifestations of genuine grievances. When rendered as political instruments, used and funded by elites, and engaging in criminal activities, though, these movements have their claims to be solely representatives for social justice corrupted – hence the ‘Janus faced’ condition.
What remains to be seen is whether the most pernicious of factors, namely, the ties between political interests, misuses of the state for economic gain, and these movements and militia, will abate. The challenge for Kenya is no less than that of unravelling an apparent Gordian knot tying political and economic interests and the conflict and injustice it spawns. But a fundamental dilemma reveals itself in seeking to alleviate deep seated problems through many of the eminently sensible suggestions put forward by the TJRC. Human rights at their core are about governing the state’s exercise of authority by providing a system of norms and practices that shape the relationship between the individual and the state (and others in power making positions). As the Commission’s report shows, arguably, the scale of abuses is so vast and implicates so many important people that holding these elites to account looks as likely as sand holding water. The Commission boldly calls for a programme of implementation – including recommendations that 400 people be further investigated and, especially, in recovering illegally acquired land. Kenya, however, is in a unique if not unenviable position with its President, Deputy President, several of its MPs and a plethora of high ranking officials – which include the chairperson of the TJRC himself – implicated in human rights abuses and illegal land acquisition.
Lack of impetus
The political elite in quick response are already mounting a rear-guard action to discredit the findings of the report. Beyond some rather patchy media reporting and a few vocal civil society organisations, it is much harder to see where a more popular impetus for change may come from. It is also understandable that many Kenyans may be cynical about the TJRC when so many previous commissions of inquiry have come and gone but bereft of any implementation of findings. There are also undoubtedly many who simply wish to move forward rather than dwelling on the uncomfortable past. Indeed, the emphasis upon peace and reconciliation that appeared to be a successful ingredient in the recent election campaign for the victors, may also now be serving to close down room for those seeking justice and accountability. To compound the difficulties there is further divisive debate about what remedy is most likely to cut the knot: internal processes such as the TJRC, or, ones driven from outside such as the embattled ICC cases against Kenyatta and Ruto. If the current level of insecurity is anything to go by, what remains clearer is that more blood will be spilled before concrete solutions are finally given political priority and implemented for and by Kenyans.
For more on related NIBR research on Kenya: Henningsen, E. and Jones, P. S. (2013) What kind of hell is this!’ Understanding the Mungiki movement’s power of mobilisation, Journal of Eastern African Studies.
Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission report, at www.tjrckenya.org.
(1) ‘Terror of Gang Attacks’, The Standard, May 13, 2013.
(2) ‘Mungiki Comeback in Gatundu’, The Star, May 13, 2013.