letters from nairobi

March 9, 2013, 19:48
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Every day, when I take my dog for a short walk outside of my apartment complex, I stop by the front gates and talk with Boaz, the resident askari (security guard). We chat about the weather, upcoming holidays, happenings around the neighborhood – the usual topics that comprise small talk. But this past week, as the country ground to a halt while ballots were counted, mis-counted, re-counted, and re-counted again, there was only one subject of discussion, here and everywhere: the election.

Boaz, like most non-Kikuyu or Kalenjin Kenyans, supported current prime minister and leader of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party, Raila Odinga, in his bid for the presidency. In the weeks leading up to Monday’s election, I would walk by the askari post where Boaz would be sitting, listening to the radio in the sunshine. He would point to the prime minister’s tinny voice issuing from the radio’s speakers, promising campaign reforms in English and Swahili, and tell me, grinning, “Listen – this is our next president!”

“Our country is ready for change,” he would say. And the conviction in his voice was unshakeable.

On Sunday evening, I wished him luck in the voting process the following day. On Monday, as I walked through the gate in the morning sun, he proudly displayed his pinkie finger, the fingernail stained by the dark ink used to signify an individual who has cast a ballot. He had awoken hours before dawn to wait in endless voting queues, along with hundreds of thousands of Kenyans across the country. On Monday, his grin was wider than usual, his eyes bright with hope.

On Tuesday, our conversation was brief: “So, now they’re counting?” “Yes, so we just wait.” On Wednesday morning, following a breakdown in the electronic tallying system which caused all ballot counting to stop and begin again from the very beginning, a hint of fatigue colored Boaz’s voice: “Still counting,” he told me, adding, “I have heard rumors of fraud in Central Province. People getting two, three ballots each. But as long as the IEBC [Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission] addresses these issues, I believe people will remain calm.”

“Kenyatta [Odinga’s rival and presidential frontrunner] is ahead in votes. But that will change,” he said confidently. “If you look at a map of Kenya, it’s red just in the middle” – red signifying supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta’s party, The National Alliance (TNA) – “and orange everywhere else! The north, the coast – all over!”

“So we are just waiting for the votes to be tallied.”

On Thursday, as the number of counted ballots rose and Kenyatta’s lead over Odinga widened, I stopped by the front gate as usual to discuss the latest developments.

Holding the metal door open with one hand, his pinkie fingernail still stained with ink, Boaz shook his head and looked grim. “I have nothing to say today,” he said, and gave a half-hearted, bitter laugh.

Friday morning marked the first of several missed deadlines when the IEBC claimed it would be ready to release final results to the public. People’s impatience with the bungled process, overshadowed by a growing fear that each passing day heightened tensions and the possibility of violence, was stretched thin.

There was no smile in Boaz’s voice, no sparkle in his eye.

“Kenyatta has stolen the election from us,” he said matter-of-factly. In his voice, anger mixed with sadness, colored by a sense of resignation; of inevitability. And for the first time since the political contest began, I didn’t know what to say to him.

Another day came and went without a final verdict. But finally, six days after Kenyans turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard under the new democratic constitution, six days after the people maintained peace despite rallying cries of hate speech and incitements to violence – and to the disappointment of foreign journalists who flooded the country, eager to snap photographs of burning buildings and machete-wielding slum-dwellers – the votes were tallied, and a president was declared.

Uhuru Kenyatta won the election with 6,173,433 votes, or 50.03% of total votes cast.

The margin of victory was so slim – just over 4,000 votes of the 12.3 million cast – that Odinga has pledged to contest the results in court. As television screens across the country broadcast images of red-shirted Kenyatta supporters dancing in the streets, waving flags and cheering, I walked down to the front gate.

Was the election really over? Or is this just the beginning of the next phase – of judicial appeals, protests, and defiance?

As the late afternoon sun streamed through the leaves of acacia trees, I walked up to Boaz. “I’m sorry,” I said. There wasn’t anything else to say.

He smiled, sadness touching the corners of his mouth. Sadness, but something else – acceptance? Exhaustion? Relief?

“Now is not the time to look to the past,” he said simply. “Now, all we can do is look ahead, to the future.” And the radio blared on.


On the Election
February 28, 2013, 11:32
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In Nairobi, four days before the election, the tension is palpable.

The city is blanketed with scrawled graffiti and an endless repetition of low-budget political posters, one stiffly posed smiling man indistinguishable from the next. On street corners and in parking lots, trailer trucks wallpapered with campaign stickers blast deafening music to rally supporters. (The purpose of these so-called rallies remains unclear, as most of the gathered crowd can be seen sitting on the ground, eating ugali and drinking soda, and looking utterly bored.) In shop windows, typed notices inform customers of upcoming closures “due to elections” – some, hopeful, announce closures of only one day to coincide with the official holiday, but many others, less optimistic, announce closures of a week or more.

In coffee shops and mutatus, grocery store queues and board rooms, there is only one topic of conversation – and one question being asked: will there be violence? Or, more pointedly, how bad will it be this time? On this topic, opinions vary widely – no one wants a repetition of the 2007-2008 disaster, when close to a thousand people were killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and the country plunged into social and economic chaos that continues to reverberate today. But whether or not enough time has passed, and enough change has occurred, to ensure that this election remains peaceful is a contentious debate.

“We Kenyans have learned from our mistakes. What happened last time will not happen again,” my taxi driver assures me. But what about the reports of machetes being bought in droves from supermarkets? A pause. “Better to be prepared this time. Just in case,” he says.

Despite the mounting hysteria, evinced mostly by foreigners, aid workers, and ex-pats who are fleeing the country in advance of the election and following melodramatic “emergency preparedness” decrees (“prepare a ‘go bag’ with emergency supplies including dental records, power of attorney, moist towelettes, and a signaling whistle”) the majority of Kenyans seem cautious but hopeful that this will be a relatively peaceful election.

The world is watching, this time around. But whether or not that will be enough to stop history from repeating itself remains to be seen.

What the ICC Ruling Means
January 18, 2012, 13:39
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On or before Monday, January 23rd, the International Criminal Court is expected to rule on the fate of the “Ocampo Six.” In Kenya, a collective breath is being held in anticipation of the ruling, which, many believe, will be a crucial moment in the current and future political climate of this country.

Admittedly, I find the complexity of the situation a little confusing. I’ve been trying to unravel the many strands of political, tribal, and historical affiliation that comprise this knot – this blog entry is my way of attempting to understand the situation and its implications. So, bear with me. Or skip it. (I’ll never know!)

The charges against the defendants stem from events that occurred during the post-election violence of 2007-2008, when tribal clashes pitted neighbors against each other and ripped apart villages and communities. To oversimplify the sequence of events as I understand them: the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared winner of the presidential election despite widespread reports of vote rigging and election fraud. The controversial result sparked a countrywide explosion along ethnic and tribal lines – Kibaki is from the Kikuyu tribe and his disputed win ignited tensions between the Kikuyus and his political opponent’s tribe, the Luos.

The Luo and Kalenjin tribes were, for political purposes, affiliated; united in opposition to Kibaki and, by extension, the Kikuyus. When Kibaki was declared winner of the election, the Luos and Kalenjins rioted. Kikuyu houses and shops were burned to the ground, people took to the streets with clubs and machetes, and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. In one oft-cited attack, young Kalenjins locked 30 women and children inside a church on New Year’s Day and set it on fire, killing everyone inside.

In response to these attacks, the Kikuyu retaliated against both the Kalenjin and Luo tribes and violence raged in communities throughout the Rift Valley. By the time then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan stepped in to broker a truce, approximately 1,300 Kenyans had been killed and more than 660,000 displaced – thousands of whom still live in temporary settlements, far from their homes.

So who are the “Ocampo Six” and what does this have to do with them?

The “Six” are a group of high-profile Kenyan politicians and leaders who are charged with committing “crimes against humanity” by allegedly masterminding the post-election violence. They are accused of, among other things, murder, rape, forced transfer of population, persecution, and other “inhumane acts during chaos.”

What’s most crucial to understand about the “Six” – and what makes the upcoming ICC ruling so potentially explosive – is that the defendants hail from a mixture of tribal and ethnic lines. Who the court decides must stand trial at The Hague will undoubtedly have a ripple effect throughout the country, where tribal tensions are muted but smoldering.

The “Ocampo Six” (“Ocampo” refers to ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo) are Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta; former cabinet minister William Ruto; Cabinet Secretary Francis Muthaura; former national police chief and current head of the Postal Corporation, Hussein Ali; former government minister Henry Kosgey; and radio executive Joshua Arap Sang. Both Kenyatta and Ruto are currently planning to run for the office of president in the next election – many analysts are questioning what, if any, affect the ICC ruling will have on each’s presidential ambitions.

The ethnic breakdown of the “Six” is as follows: Kenyatta and Muthaura are Kikuyu, Ruto, Kosgey, and Sang are Kalenjin, and Ali hails from Kenya’s formidable Somali community – but, for the intents and purposes of ICC observers, is grouped with Kenyatta and Muthaura as a Kikuyu ally.

The ICC’s forthcoming decision could indict none of the defendants, all six of the defendants, or any number in between.

The likelihood that none of the suspects will be brought to trial is thought to be slim – Reuters’ James Macharia says it would be a “serious embarrassment” for Ocampo – but whether one, two, or all six individuals will be brought to trial remains to be seen. The most important factor, in terms of political backlash and possible consequences, is the ethnic balance of the suspects. If only Kikuyus, or only Kalenjins, are held responsible for the violence, many fear that ethnic tensions will ignite once again; however, if an equal number of Kikuyus and Kalenjins are charged, observers hope that both communities will be somewhat pacified.

With the next round of presidential elections looming on the horizon, the consequences of the ICC’s ruling will no doubt be far-reaching. The post-election violence of 2007-2008 is not merely a scar on Kenyan history – it is an open wound. Whether it will heal or fester in Kenya’s volatile political climate remains to be seen.

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