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Making sense of political-related violence in Kenya

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Since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 1991, the political landscape in Kenya has been characterised by incidences of tribal- and clan-based disturbances with political undertones.

In the period leading up to the first multiparty elections in 1992, some areas of the country flared up in tribal conflict that was geared towards influencing voting patterns in the elections.

Some of the flash points then were areas on the coast, which pitted people native to the coastal areas against the upcountry people perceived to be outsiders. This culminated in the infamous Kaya Bombo killings of 1992 (and to some extent the 1997 clashes). Though the government of the day set up commissions of enquiry into this violence, nothing much came from this process and eventually no action was taken against the perpetrators.

Other areas that saw political-related tribal conflict were in the Rift Valley, including Molo and Burnt Forest in Nakuru district and, to a lesser extent, Isiolo District in the northeast. Though investigations were carried out, once again no action was taken against anyone in relation to this violence.

This lack of action after 1992 is thought to have significantly emboldened the instigators, with the same violent scenario played out in 1997 with essentially the same results.

Sometimes the violence has taken on a religious angle. In 1992, Kenya’s second-largest city, Mombasa, witnessed many street battles between the police and supporters of the Islamic Party of Kenya (IPK), which was trying to get their members elected to parliament on a radical Islamic platform. Though they were unsuccessful electorally, scores were injured and millions of shillings worth of property destroyed in the ensuing street battles with police.

The 2002 elections, which brought an end to the KANU regime, were also characterised by the same street violence but saw the emergence of a new phenomenon in the form of armed groups. For the first time, groups like Mungiki, Kamjesh, Jeshi la Mzee, Sungu Sungu and the Baghdad Boys entered the picture. These were groups of youths that were controlled by different political interests and used force to protect the “turfs” of their political masters. Though the 2002 elections were comparatively peaceful on the standards of those held before, some of these armed groups played a larger role in the 2007 elections and the chaos that followed. (The Mungiki, for example, has been mentioned many times in the ongoing post-election violence cases at the International Criminal Court.)

The 2007-08 violence was the most widely reported and the episode in which the international community was most involved. The best way to summarise the chaos was that it pitted the supporters of the president’s Party of National Unity coalition – predominantly the Kikuyu-Meru axis – against the prime minister’s Orange Democratic Movement coalition – predominantly the Luo-Kalenjin axis. With the intervention of the international community, this led to the promulgation of the new constitution, which due to a myriad of factors has spawned some of the confusion that manifests itself in violence today.

Political-related violence in 2012

There have been several attacks and revenge attacks between Orma and Pokomo tribesmen in recent weeks. The Orma are predominantly semi-nomadic herders, while the Pokomo are farmers. It has been widely reported as a conflict for resources, especially water in the predominantly arid area. There is evidence, however, that local politicians are actually exploiting entrenched animosities to create the conflict. It is telling that, as opposed to earlier years, this time round automatic weapons were used.

Earlier, in Wajir, near the border with Somalia, Degodia clansmen attacked a Garri village and killed six people. Despite the heavy deployment of security personnel tension remains high. Again it has been widely reported that this was part of the usual resource-related conflict but there is evidence that the two Somali clans are being incited against each other by politicians making ready for the upcoming elections. Though tribal- and livestock-related conflict has traditionally been present among the Somali clans, this instance is unique because conflict over administrative and electoral boundaries is at play here, since they were reviewed recently as is required by the new constitution.

Other areas of the country that have been affected by such killings in recent months include Mandera, Isiolo and Marsabit counties. What is unique yet common among these areas is that they are mainly occupied by pastoralist communities, among whom tension has always been present due to cultural practices, especially cattle rustling, which have been exacerbated by water scarcity and hence a nomadic lifestyle, leading to conflict over land. Due to these factors, groups in these areas are easy to set against each other.

Other areas have also witnessed some kind of electoral-related disturbances, though not to the level of the ones highlighted above. They include Kajiado, Mombasa and Kisumu. There are by-elections to be held in some constituencies and thus far the party nomination process has been characterised by scuffles.

Recently, the Kenya Red Cross released a report indicating that starting January 2012 more than 200 people have been killed and hundreds displaced in violence directly tied to the upcoming general elections. The report expressed concern that if more is not done to reduce tensions before the general elections there may be fighting on a par with that seen in 2008. Most security analysts agree with this. The Red Cross is a credible source in Kenya since they have a presence in even the most remote areas.

The case of Mombasa

Mombasa is quite unique in the context of the upcoming general elections. The Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) is a formation by the coastal people that on paper seeks to enumerate the grievances of those people. Their thrust is secessionist: with their rallying call of Pwani si Kenya (The Coast is not in Kenya), the group seeks to declare the coastal strip as an independent republic. This is criminalised in the current constitution. The group had been previously proscribed by the government, together with other groups like Mungiki and Kamjesh, but a court ruling recently declared that the government overstepped its authority in this move. This has been seen to embolden the group, which has gone on a recruitment drive like never before.

The MRC has declared that the next general elections will not be held at the coast. In fact, in mock elections held early this year, youths allied to the group attacked officials of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and the Administration Police manning the polling stations, stealing the officers’ firearms.

There is emerging fear that the group has been infiltrated by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab, which is thought to have a large presence in Mombasa and other coastal towns. Recent riots and street confrontations with police in the city are a worrying sign. It has emerged that youths in the town have access to automatic weapons and hand grenades and are willing to engage the police with such weapons. During the riots, several police officers were killed and others injured when the rioters threw grenades at police vehicles. This has never been recorded before in Kenya. Several churches were also burnt down in an attempt to introduce a religious angle to the chaos.

The MRC has previously shown signs of being ready to use force in pushing their agenda. Analysts in Kenya are worried that the next general elections may end up being chaotic in coastal regions if the government does not step in and do something urgently.

No confidence

August 2012 marked the second anniversary of the promulgation of the new constitution, which has brought with it some important deadlines. Parliament has been holding extra sessions to beat these crucial deadlines and there are accusations that important bills will not get due consideration because of the rush. The executive has been accused of deliberately sabotaging the implementation of the law and in instances accused of watering down bills to suit the purpose of a few elites. This has been especially in the case of the integrity bill, which was to be used to vet electoral seat contenders in the next elections.

Most importantly, the current commissioner of police is in office unconstitutionally, after the president, Mwai Kibaki, and the prime minister, Raila Odinga, failed to agree on the members of the Police Service Commission, which would have started the process of putting in place the first holder of this newly created office. Worryingly, in addition to a constitutionally leaderless police service, the Ministry of Internal Security does not have a substantive minister or permanent secretary, as both key decision-making roles are only filled in an acting capacity. This is made even worse by the resignation of the Administration Police commandant to join elective politics. (The paramilitary Administration Police is one of the police units that was brought together with the regular and General Service units to form the new Kenya Police Service.)

Police reform, which is crucial in the upcoming election period, has essentially stalled due to the differences between Kibaki and Odinga. This is a serious potential threat to security in this crucial period. This power struggle has also been played out over the putting in place of a credible Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission, the body that is mandated to vet contestants in the upcoming elections.

Some final observations

Kenya has been in perpetual campaign mode since the last general elections. Political temperatures have been and continue to be high.

The issues that led to the chaos after the last elections have not really been addressed since the implementation of the new constitution. There is growing lethargy and resignation among the populace and a sense of resentment towards the legislature and the executive, seen by many as stumbling blocks to the full implementation of the new constitution.

The credibility of the next general elections continues to be called into question, with revelations of corruption in the procurement of the new biometric voter registration system by the electoral body. Some question the preparedness for the 4 March 2013 date and politicians are already calling for an August 2013 election date, though most Kenyans disagree.

The country is greatly Balkanised along tribal lines and politicians continue to inflame tribal sentiment in their campaigns. Most Kenyans are not really aware of what the new constitution indicates, especially on the electoral front, so they are wont to believe what the politicians tell them.

This is a potent mix that if not handled properly has all the potential to drive Kenya to election-related violence worse than that seen in 2007-08.

This article by Open Briefing contributing analyst Lawrence Gitonga Mwongera was originally published by openDemocracy on 14 September 2012.