The Story of the Political Unrest in Kenya Following the 2007 Election

The Story of the Political Unrest in Kenya Following the 2007 Election

One nation, divided

It’s been three weeks since Kenyans went to the polls to elect a new president and parliament. Millions of Kenyans turned out in what initially seemed a free, fair and even exultant process for most voters. What happened next has dominated the international news: strong suspicions and evidence of rigging of vote tallies in the presidential election in favor of incumbent president Mwai Kibaki; street protests and ethnically-tinged violence in much of Kenya; stalled mediation efforts by Kenyans and international dignitaries to orchestrate a dialogue between Kibaki and the election’s putative winner, Raila Odinga; and calls for economic sanctions and a re-examination by donors of their foreign aid flows. Brighter Green has many colleagues and friends in Kenya, and we’re pleased to say that all of them are safe.

Some members of the Green Belt Movement staff have been displaced, and one had her house burned down in the wake of the election. On January 4th, Lucy Mulenkei, editor of Environment News and head of the Nairobi-based Indigenous Information Network, wrote that Kenya was experiencing “darkness here which we never expected…commodities are in shortage and we have not been yet to the offices as transport is limited and police all over.” A few days later, she wrote that she was in her office in downtown Nairobi: “Now at least we can make movements but the tension is still there.”

A few days after that, Daniel Salau of SIMOO (Simba Maasai Outreach Organization), wrote: “This has plunged the country into bloody chaos where hundreds were killed and thousands displaced.” He reported that where he was, in Maasailand outside of Nairobi, it was peaceful, and that there hadn’t been any chaos. However, he also wrote: “I don’t think we are out of the woods yet…the cost of living is becoming unbearable with costs of essential goods doubling and some are not even found at all. We hope all will be well soon.”

Finally, Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai has, since the election results were announced, been actively engaged in mediation efforts, much as she was during the Rift Valley clashes of the early 1990s (recounted in her memoir, Unbowed)She participated in talks led by fellow Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and has been forthright in her calls for peace, a true accounting of what happened on the day of the election, and urgently, dialogue between Kibaki and Odinga to find a way forward. Read her call for more international pressure to be exerted on Kibaki and Odinga to end the crisis in today’s Wall Street Journal, as well as how she’d end the impasse, from the UK Guardian.

Having been to Kenya many times over the past several years, I have much affection for Kenyans and their struggles since Independence from the British to create a truly representative democracy. The grim news from Kenya that began the New Year was unexpected. Some days it seems like the crisis may be moving toward a resolution, and then there are others, like today, when violence breaks out and appears to be stoked by authorities and reckless citizens. Knowing Kenya and Kenyans, I don’t believe the situation will go on like this for months, or years. Nor should it. For the sake of their country and the region, and the rest of us who care, Kenyans should know who they elected as their next president, and that their hard-won right to vote wasn’t taken for granted, not for a minute.

* * *

February Update

Last Friday, Kenyans were glued to their radios or TVs, waiting to hear news of a brokered solution to the election crisis that has consumed and unsettled the country since late December. With more than 1,000 people officially dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, a deal is long overdue. But the news never really came. While former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported good progress and a narrowing of the divide between the two sides, details have been scant. Negotiators may be on the verge of a breakthrough, but aren’t there yet. Stayed tuned, though: Kofi Annan has promised details in the coming week. “They [the two presidential contenders and their parties] surely must rise above it all,” a colleague writes from Nairobi.

What the weeks of strife has done is reveal the ethnic tensions that for many visitors to Kenya only become clear after spending much time in the country – generally off the well-worn tourist paths. As Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maaathai writes in her latest oped on the Kenya crisis, published in the Washington Post, tension between ethnic communities is stirred up by politicians, particularly around elections. The tensions have roots in the colonial and post-colonial eras. And, as Maathai argues, need to be addressed head-on – not papered over until the next eruption into desperate (and often well-planned) violence.

Another colleague writes from outside Nairobi: “…a lot of damage, mistrust and irreversible hatred have been developed between the warring communities” since the flawed presidential vote tallies were announced. “Historical scores based on past injustices are being scored here.” Nonetheless, now is not the time to abandon the idea of working in Kenya, with Kenyans, or writing the country off as yet another weak, benighted African state. There’s too much good that’s been created in Kenya, by Kenyans: a strong civil society, a robust free press, an emerging model of responsible eco-tourism, and a talented new generation of idealist-entrepreneurs who want to make the state work for all, not just a cosseted few. They’re called cheetahs, as opposed to the lumbering hippos of the old political guard.

A brief biological discursion: despite hippos’ reputation as stolid and slow-moving, I have heard first-hand stories of lightning hippo strikes, including from a boat captain who took me out on Lake Naivasha in Kenya’s Rift Valley a few years ago to watch a herd of resting hippos. (Sadly, Naivasha has been a site of post-election violence and displacement.) Only their ears and their eyes were visible above water in the heat of the day. But they weren’t sleeping; far from it. I listened to my guide describe a hippo breaking his boat in two, tossing him into the water, killing his colleague, and keeping him on dry land for 20 odd years (he’d only recently gotten this job, he told me). I looked into the steady eyes of the hippos. Old and very young, very large and newborn (about the size of a sheep), 15 or so, about 20 feet away. And I made a decision. This view of the hippos from the water would be enough to last me many years.

All of this makes the analogy of the old, but wily hippos and the young, fleet-footed and resilient cheetahs apt in light of Kenya’s current situation. Brighter Green is partnering with “cheetahs,” specifically on a project to increase the use of solar and wind power in off-the-grid-communities through sustainable, community-run, green energy businesses. Luckily, the recent violence hasn’t affected our NGO partners, although tensions haven’t been wholly absent. We’re planning, funding permitted, to all meet and push the idea forward in coming months at the solar-powered, composting-toileted, eco-safari lodge, Basecamp Masai Mara. Here, in the northern extension of the Serengeti, we’ll work – and if past experience is any guide, we’ll watch, too: cheetahs and hippos, in their numbers, wild. (Kenya’s tourism industry is suffering mightily and it may take years to recover; Basecamp is a fantastic place to visit. Enough said.)

March 2008

Finally, after two months of tumult, and more than 40 days of mediation by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Kenya’s two rivals for the presidency have signed a peace deal. They’ll share power in a coalition government, with Mwai Kibaki remaining president (despite the flawed voting process that appears to have been subverted in his favor) and his opponent, Raila Odinga, taking on the newly-created post of Executive Prime Minister. These two have tried to share power before and it didn’t work, so Kenya’s civil society and political leaders will have to work hard to make sure the deal sticks and the new government functions effectively.

Kenyans and many around the world have breathed huge sighs of relief — after more than 1,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands of displacements, and uncounted numbers of homes, businesses and community ties destroyed. The recent violence has dealt a severe blow to Kenya’s $1 billion a year tourism industry; safari lodges stand empty, camp workers and guides sent home on furlough.

The new government is set to launch a multimedia campaign to draw tourists back to Kenya; at its center: the country’s spectacular wildlife. And yet I hear from a colleague that the animals have been so relaxed, even as much of Kenya’s human population was experiencing turmoil. The lack of visitors, it seems, makes them happy. For the past few weeks, at least, cheetahs haven’t been tailed by 10 or more white tourist vans, most violating rules to keep a decent distance away; elephants haven’t been disturbed at the watering holes by the click of tens of camera shutters; and lions, perhaps the most unflappable of Kenya’s mammals, have been free to laze and doze and laze some more out of sight of the beetling vans.

But Kenya wants its tourists back. And in truth, the animals need them, even if their lives, unobserved, have a certain richness. After all, Kenya’s wildlife, like that in nearly all the world’s protected areas, needs to “pay its way” in the words of a native American chief I met several years ago in Wyoming. He was referring to bison, who’d been reintroduced on native grasslands. But if they don’t generate revenue, well, he said, explaining the calculus, they may as well not be there.

Expect the tourists slowly to return to Kenya. It’s an extraordinary place to visit and will remain so. As they do, I imagine the animals will return to a more wary stance, a little less content to share their environment with the tourists. But they make accommodations, often surprising ones. When I was last there a female lion, surrounded by four of the standard-issue white vans seemed to shrug: she lay in the grass, surveying the horizon. At one point, she stood up and walked into the shadow of one of these very vans and plonked herself down, not two feet from the wheel axles. She rested there in the semi-cool for a good, long time.