The Diffusion of Violence in Kenya
March 17, 2008
Before Kenya imploded in violence following its disputed election on December 27, 2007, most observers were optimistic about its future. Kenya had been on a roll since 2002, when the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) under Mwai Kibaki finally put an end to the repressive regime of Daniel Arap Moi. One friend, who later became a minister, emailed me and exclaimed, "We did it! We did it!" Everyone was hopeful. At last, there was real freedom of speech, association, and press. Gone were the days when friends were dragged away and tortured in Nyayo House. Gone also were the days when citizens looked over their shoulders before speaking openly in public cafes. Street venders, who once hid publications like Finance, Society, and so many other magazines under their shoe shine boxes, producing them only for favorite customers with a wink and a nod, now were free from harassment. People expected a change and they got it, not just with the return of basic freedoms but also in the economy. It rebounded from the doldrums of the Moi period, with a growth rate of 6%. This was one side of the Kenya story, the one highlighted by most pundits and academics. They did not see other signs of Kenya teetering on the edge of disaster. Even in 2002, violence was causing havoc in ordinary citizens' lives. Instead of responding, many in the new government seemed more interested in feathering their own nests. In one of its first acts, the new parliament raised the mostly untaxed salaries and perks of MPs to over $190,000 a year, one of the highest rates in the world. By 2005 and 2006, grand corruption was unchecked. The Anglo-Leasing Scandal involving fraudulent contracts for passport printing equipment had cost government millions of dollars. A 2007 report by the World Bank's Department of Institutional Integrity outlined rampant corruption in three big projects in three different sectors at all levels. Institutions outside the presidency, which had been weakened deliberately over the years, could not and did not check government abuses. By 2005, Kibaki's victory coalition had fragmented along ethnic lines, and violence was everywhere. Both in 2005 and 2006 when I was in Kenya, everyone I knew had bumped up against violence in one way or another. A friend of a friend was shot to death in her own driveway. Former colleagues at the University of Nairobi all had been carjacked more than once and their offices had steel grates on the outside. Certain parts of the city and the countryside were no-go areas since they were controlled by gangs; prostitution had taken over Nairobi's busy Koinange Street at night; and hardly anyone would come down to meet me in the Central Business District (CBD) because they felt driving there was too dangerous, particularly at night. A friend's son was roughed up near the MacMillan Library in broad daylight, the city looked seedy, and the once booming and vibrant Biashara Street was almost dead. Many businesses had decamped to the safer suburbs. The owner of a store where I once had been a regular customer confided that he went home to his apartment on River Road before dark and never left again until the morning. Passengers using the popular City Hoppa bus were scanned with a wand to ensure they were not carrying weapons, and a fellow rider told me that he put his right hand over his left when in the city to cover up his gold wedding ring. Everyone was on guard, including some MPs and lawyers I knew, who by then had armed bodyguards. In 2006, on the way from a friend's house to a wedding-after party, violence caught up with me too, and I was robbed at gunpoint in a car at 8 o'clock at night. Well before December 2007, I thought Kenya was on dangerous precipice, with many characteristics of failing states. I was so concerned in 2006 that I spoke to colleagues in government, in donor agencies, and in human rights organizations, urging them to address the spreading violence before the country imploded. Friends and colleagues listened with interest, but no one was willing to act. Everyone still thought Kenya was poised for a better future. After all, the agricultural sector, which had been decimated under Moi, was back on track and benefits were trickling down to ordinary farmers. Tourism, Kenya's main foreign exchange earner was doing well too and unlike most of its neighbors, Kenya's revenue almost covered its budget. What few perceived or were willing to acknowledge was that the diffusion of extra-state violence was undermining the viability of the Kenyan state. This diffusion began under Moi, who orchestrated extra-state violence to keep control and to stay in power. It began in small ways, initially with Moi's chief ministers and henchmen having their own thugs. It escalated after the return to multi-party democracy in 1991, when Moi began a systematic violence project. Its aim was to decimate his largely upcountry opposition, particularly in the constituency rich Rift Valley in advance of the 1992 and 1997 elections. Here and elsewhere in the country, the government aided, formed, and abetted gangs and warriors from marginal areas and ethnic groups who supported Moi to attack and kill upcountry Kikuyu, Luos, and Luhyas. Building on local grievances, particularly over land, they incited locals against "outsiders." The reason was political: to get rid of opposition voters. As a result, over 1,500 people were killed and more than 300,000 were displaced, thereby changing the political landscape of the Rift forever. Dead and displaced people do not vote and did not in the 1990s. The diffusion of extra-state violence continued to escalate. Young Kikuyu men displaced from the Rift Valley in the 1990s moved to Nairobi and began to form gangs of their own, spawning more extra-state violence. The most notorious of these was a gang known as Mungiki. It began in Laikipia as a Kikuyu revivalist group in the 1980s, but soon morphed into a Mafioso shakedown gang. It meted out "justice" in crowded slums, where it operated as a shadow state, charging for the use of pit latrines and other amenities and services. Mungiki also engaged in carjacking, and demanded fees from operators of "matatu" buses, used by ordinary Kenyans, in Nairobi and in large parts of Central Province, the Kikuyu heartland. Mungiki attracted and impressed youths into membership. Money from their mandatory dues, theft of cars, kickbacks from matatu owners, and payments from politicians, transformed Mungiki into a lucrative capitalist operation. The movement hired itself out to both government and opposition MPs, and allegedly even to Moi to support his candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, in the 2002 election. Gangs proliferated.They took more and more menacing names: the Taliban, the Bagdad Boys, Jeshi ya (Army of) this and that, and even the Rwenjes Football Club, a verbal throwback to the world of Winnie Mandela. Some organized along ethnic lines, though all similarly hired themselves out to both supporters and opponents of the state, even to some supporters seeking protection from the state itself. By the time of the 2007 election, the violence that Moi had launched in an effort to retain power over the state had become so pervasive that it was undermining the state itself. The situation was explosive. The torch that lit the fuse was a presidential election that was too close to call beforehand and disputed afterward. There were two other contributory factors to the implosion, evident since the time of Kenyatta, but more striking when I was in Kenya in 2005 and 2006. First: the politicization and deliberate weakening of institutions outside the presidency that could check it; and second, the proliferation of ethnically driven, winner-take-all, clientist political parties with no discernible difference in programs or ideology. A good deal of analysis about Kenya and other countries in Africa has concentrated on the formal nature of institutions, such as government, elections, parliaments, or parties, rather than looking at how these institutions actually function and the incentive systems that explain why they work the way they do. In Kenya, most institutions still operated under direct or indirect presidential control. Hence, the government's various anti-corruption agencies were paralyzed and unable to act. John Githongo, the chief anti-corruption investigator, had to flee the country in fear of his life when he uncovered the Anglo-Leasing Scandal and the connections of Kibaki's ministers to it. All formal rules governing the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank had been abandoned to make that scandal possible. The government apparently commandeered thugs to invade the offices of a leading newspaper, East African Standard, to keep a story about the Kibaki's second family and their connection to two "Armenian" mercenaries, who seemed to operate with state protection, from being printed. Among the institutions denuded of independence and autonomy was the critical Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK). In the run-up to the election, President Kibaki appointed new commissioners, some on the eve of the election, without consulting the opposition as previously agreed. He allowed them to supervise and hire elections officials from their own areas and made his ex-lawyer the ECK deputy. The resulting popular perception of bias in the ECK undermined its credibility. The courts also were seen as being under the thumb of the president, leading to the view that there were no credible autonomous institutions available to mediate the crisis of a disputed election. Not so surprisingly, the anger over the results and resolution of the election moved to the streets leading to the explosion of pre-existing sources of diffused violence. Kenya's political parties, meanwhile, had become mostly collections of ethnic fiefs, with a chief ethnic figure in charge, aiming at capturing control of the state. Party leaders were clients of their presidential candidate who wanted to go and "eat" with him when he took office. Party programs and ideologies were largely interchangeable. Under these conditions, winning mattered a lot, not just to get power but to exclude others from getting it. Hence, the campaign period was marred by hate messages and ethnic slurs. The closeness of the election tapped into the view that Kenya politics is a zero-sum game, and that not winning could spell disaster leading to ethnic groups and blocs being excluded from power and the resources of the state for years or decades. When Kibaki and his chief rival, Raila Odinga, finally accepted a power-sharing arrangement and stepped back from the edge, both Kenyans and outsiders breathed a sigh of relief. However, if the underlying problems of uncontrolled extra-state violence, the deliberate weakening of institutions outside the presidency, and the practice of politics as a zero sum ethnic game are not addressed, Kenya could implode again, destroying the integrity of both state and nation. ____________________________________________________________________________ Susanne D. Mueller works as a consultant for the World Bank and various international organizations and is an Associate of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She lived and worked in Kenya and the region for twenty years. This essay is based on a forthcoming article, “The Political Economy of Kenya’s Crisis,” to be published in the upcoming issue of The Journal of Eastern African Studies.
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