In Kenya, Never Again?

On Saturday we went to a photo exhibit in downtown Nairobi called Kenya Burning, documenting in gut-wrenching detail the post-election violence that erupted between December 2007 and February 2008. More than 1,500 people were murdered, many burned alive or hacked to death with machetes. For two awful months it seemed the country might go the way of Rwanda in 1994. Saturday was the first anniversary of the signing of the power-sharing agreement that stopped the violence, so the horror was on many people’s minds, and the gallery was packed.

I had been curious about the role ethnicity played in the violence. Not long ago Homelands produced a 40-piece series on cultural identity and change, called Worlds of Difference, and although there was only one story explicitly about inter-group violence (Marianne McCune’s “Relearning the Peace,” from Burundi), many touched on the tension between the human need for cultural affiliation and the societal need for tolerance and peace. To me it seems like one of the Big Issues of our globalized (and weaponized) age. How can people enjoy the benefits of group membership without tearing the larger society apart?

Kenya is a good place to ask that question. With more than 40 tribal groups, the country had long been seen as a model of interethnic harmony. Then came the 2007 election, between the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe (Kenya’s largest, representing 22% of the population), and a challenger, Raila Odinga, a Luo (the third largest, at 11%). Kibaki was declared the winner despite evidence of massive fraud, and the violence that followed had a distinctly ethnic cast, with Luos and their allies attacking innocent Kikuyus and vice versa.

Yet according to what we learned at the exhibit, the violence was not nearly as spontaneous as it appeared. Nor, for that matter, was it as ethnically motivated. Those who burned and pillaged were largely members of organized gangs taking orders from politicians, not ordinary citizens whipped into a chauvinistic frenzy.

And so the papers in Nairobi one year later are not brimming with articles  about the dangers of tribalism, as I had expected, but about the failure of the political leadership to confront those responsible for the violence. Editorials and headlines condemn a “culture of impunity” — not just for the orchestrators and perpetrators of last year’s slaughter, but for police death squads, private militias, and corrupt officials. The focus of public debate is not on the need for dialogue and reconciliation, but on the need for state institutions to govern as they were meant to govern. So while I’m still hung up on questions of tribe and identity, most Kenyans, it seems, have moved on. Or at least that’s the hope.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.