Old Tensions Persist in Kenya's Rift Valley

Winning electoral team held up as model of ethnic cooperation, but that isn’t quite reflected on the ground.

Old Tensions Persist in Kenya's Rift Valley

Winning electoral team held up as model of ethnic cooperation, but that isn’t quite reflected on the ground.

Some of those uprooted by the 2007-08 violence in Kenya's Rift Valley still fear going back home. (Photo: IWPR)
Some of those uprooted by the 2007-08 violence in Kenya's Rift Valley still fear going back home. (Photo: IWPR)

The election of Uhuru Kenyatta as Kenyan president and his running mate William Ruto as vice-president has been hailed as proof that ethnic tensions have been resolved. After all, Kenyatta is Kikuyu while Ruto is from the Kalenjin group – communities that were on opposing sides in the bloodshed that followed the last presidential election in December 2007.

However, in the western Rift Valley region that was the focus of much of the violence, memories of Kikuyu-Kalenjin clashes are still fresh, and the issues that divided communities then are still present.

Ruto was part of the Orange Democratic Movement, ODM, which disputed the defeat of its candidate Raila Odinga in the 2007 presidential election. Kenyatta was on the other side, a senior figure in the Party of National Unity, PNU, whose candidate Mwai Kibaki claimed victory.

Clashes between PNU and ODM supporters quickly assumed an ethnic dimension, with Kikuyus broadly supportive of the former and Kalenjins, Luos and others backing Odinga. More than 1,100 people were killed and 600,000 lost their homes in the fighting, before a power-sharing deal was reached in which Kibaki remained president but Odinga became prime minister.

Despite their election victory, Kenyatta and Ruto, together with a third suspect, Joshua Arap Sang, are due to go on trial at the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague later this year to face charges of orchestrating the bloodshed.

The political alliance that Kenyatta and Ruto formed last year proved a successful strategy, winning them large numbers of votes from both Kikuyus and Kalenjins in the Rift Valley.

For some former protagonists, the election draws a line under past differences. In their view, it also makes the ICC process redundant.

“We fought in the 2007 general election and have since moved on peacefully,” Rachael Korir, from Burnt Forest in Eldoret East, part of the Rift Valley, told IWPR. “We Kalenjin and our Kikuyu brothers and sisters are living in peace with one another now and therefore the ICC should give way to allow us to address our differences internally.”

John Kamau, from Ruto’s home town, Turbo, near Eldoret, agreed, saying, “The message [of the elections] was simple – Kenyans want to forget what happened and move on. Kenyatta and Ruto should be given ample time to discharge their services to Kenyans.”

Not everyone in the region is so sure that old wounds can be so easily healed.

One businessman in Turbo told IWPR that many of the people who were forced to leave their land five years ago were still afraid to return, despite the political accommodation reached by Kenyatta and Ruto.

“Healing and reconciliation in this area is superficial and could explode at the slightest provocation,” he said.

Another man, who lives in Eldoret, said there was lingering animosity between the two communities.

“Many of us are still hurting,” he said. “There is no proper local mechanism for perpetrators to come out and confess and seek forgiveness despite the resettlement of some victims.”

The 2007-08 violence may formally have been about an election result, but in the Rift Valley, it brought many old resentments to the surface. Perceived injustices done to one side or another, land disputes, and competition for resources meant that conflict quickly escalated. These underlying issues have not gone away, experts warn.

“While the events of 2007-08 played a crucial role in the just-concluded electoral process, issues that informed the violence are yet to be addressed,” James Ndeta of the Peace Initiative Kenya organisation said. “Kenyans have realised that violence is not the solution to their conflict, and that peace is the way to go. However, issues of illegal and irregular land allocations and resource inequalities are yet to be dealt with.”

Peace organisations in the Rift Valley welcomed the ICC’s intervention, saying it contributed to ensuring that last month’s election went off peacefully.

At the same time, Kenyans’ faith in the ICC has declined steeply in recent weeks, after the court suffered a series of reverses.

Just as Kenyatta and Ruto were declaring victory, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda dropped charges against a fourth suspect, former civil service chief Francis Muthaura, after a key witness admitted lying to the court.

Immediately after the Supreme Court confirmed Kenyatta’s election on March 30, following a legal challenge by Odinga, the prosecutor made it public that three prosecution witnesses had withdrawn their testimony against the suspect, citing threats made to their families.

“The dropping of Muthaura’s case and witnesses withdrawing from these cases is disheartening and quickly obscuring our hopes for justice at the ICC,” said Anne Kandie, who lives on the outskirts of Eldoret. Her husband died in the 2007-08 unrest.

Amid the political jubilation and the ICC’s embarrassing setbacks, some say the need to prosecute past perpetrators of violence is as urgent as ever – if only as a deterrent for the future.

“Kenyans can choose to appease themselves with the relative calm the country is enjoying at the moment, [but] sweeping under the carpet the crimes committed more than five years ago and pretending we have moved on [amounts to] deception,” Richard Maina, a lawyer and chairman of the Rift-based Champions for Peace group. “Without holding perpetrators accountable, the past injustices would haunt us forever.”

Nor does the Kikuyu-Kalenjin electoral alliance forged by Kenyatta and Ruto mean that ethnic divisions are a thing of the past. While Kenyatta took around six million votes, that leaves another five million – including most Luo, Luhya and Kamba voters – who chose Odinga.

George Kegoro, executive director of the International Commission of Jurists in Kenya, believes these divisions need to be addressed head-on.

“We must as a country openly start discussing ethnicity, ethnic cooperation and political competition, for the sake of national unity,” he said.

James Kimisoi of the Catholic Justice Peace Commission drew a distinction between the rhetoric about peace-building coming from Kenya’s new leadership and the need to work towards genuine reconciliation on the ground.

“Political convenience along ethnic lines has continued to compromise efforts for justice in this country,” he said. “People easily believe what politicians say and forget the atrocities they have gone through.”

This article was produced as part of a media development programme implemented by IWPR and Wayamo Communication Foundation.

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