The recent post-election violence in Kenya has done enormous damage to the reputation and economy of a country famed for stability, peace and for being a tourist-friendly environment. While the political power sharing deal, signed in early March, has done much to pull the country back from the brink, and in general restore peace; deep damage was already done – to the economy but more particularly to the ethnic bonds that hitherto the country had enjoyed. This has now been replaced by mistrust, anger and feelings of revenge, and the wounds of this brief conflict will run deep for years to come.
In mid-March I travelled to the city of Kisumu, the capital of Nyanza province, on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. On arrival at Kisumu airport all seemed normal, the regular morning rotation of flights from Nairobi, full of businessmen and other visitors, was arriving for meetings, family visits and other purposes.
Driving into the city, immediately one could see the results of the violence – shops and offices shuttered with temporary steel sheets, and other businesses, many owned by Kikuyu businessmen from the Central highlands of Kenya, had been torched and gutted and reduced to rubble. In fact such had been the outburst of ethnic hatred here that any property and business that was owned by people not of the local Luo community was in ruins. It seemed incomprehensible that people who had otherwise lived closely together for decades could so suddenly turn on each other. It resonated strongly of Rwanda’s past.
Ominous patches of buckled tarmac on the main roads spoke of bonfires that had been lit at roadblocks, as gangs of rampant youths stopped all passers by, demanding to know their ethnicity. Woe betide those of the wrong tribal group. I had pointed out to me the gutted ruins of trucks and buses that had been burned with all occupants inside perishing. I passed scrawled graffiti, ‘Welcome to Darfur’, as the youth turned their neighbourhoods into a sad replica of that war zone. It seemed inadvisable to lean out of my car window and take photos, there is still too much simmering anger and it is still too easy to spark that anger.
I also visited one of the remaining camps for people displaced from Central Kenya and the Rift Valley, who had fled their homes in that region, terrorised out by the ‘Mungiki’-led gangs taking revenge on people from the west to pay back the killings in Kisumu and the northern town of Eldoret. On all sides great brutality had been enacted and great injustices and crimes perpetrated. I spoke to women who had fled with their young children from Nakuru and Elburgon, who had no idea what had become of their husbands. One can imagine the terror of their flight as they passed through the roadblocks fearing that they may have escaped one terror only to meet their ends at another.
One of the few optimistic signs in Kisumu was that businesses were quickly reopening. That is largely thanks to the return of some of the Kenyan-Asian businessmen, who had fled when the violence flared (and many of whom had also had their businesses torched) but came back when given assurances by the political leadership that it was safe to do so. They are single-handedly rebuilding Kisumu’s economy at the moment.
People from Central Kenya are not so lucky. A group of ‘matatu’ mini bus drivers tried recently to return but were badly beaten by a mob before being rescued by the police. The security presence is still high in Kisumu and I saw many Humvees, filled with the Kenyan army, patrolling the streets. There was still tension in the air but a feeling of hope and expectancy that the politicians, who many Kenyans saw sitting on their hands for too long, while Kenya burned, finally opted for peace and a new future for the country.
In Nairobi they were wishing me ‘Happy New Year’. The real Jan 1st had been too traumatic to celebrate. But now all are hoping for a new beginning; for a new Kenya, pulled back from the brink of disaster.
Author – Vince Gainey.