Fear looms over day-to-day life in Kenya

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Si­mon Al­li­son

It’s easy to pre­tend that there is no cri­sis in Kenya.

No mat­ter how dys­func­tional its pol­i­tics, life here goes on. Peo­ple go to work, they go shop­ping, they cram into mata­tus (minibus taxis), they com­plain about the weather and the foot­ball — and the pol­i­tics, of course the pol­i­tics — and they go home.

Kenya may be star­ing into a bloody abyss, but it is star­tlingly dif­fi­cult to find ob­vi­ous ev­i­dence of dis­con­tent out­side news­pa­per head­lines or the tele­vi­sion screen. There is hardly any party para­pher­na­lia on show — and, in the run-up to Thurs­day’s elec­tion re­run, protests and demon­stra­tions have been largely con­fined to small ar­eas of ma­jor cities.

Even in Kisumu, the op­po­si­tion heart­land where four peo­ple were shot on Wed­nes­day, the run­ning street bat­tles be­tween pro­test­ers and po­lice took up just a tiny per­cent­age of the city’s com­mu­nal en­ergy. The city is big enough that, just a few sub­urbs away, it was pos­si­ble to go about one’s daily busi­ness with­out hear­ing a sin­gle shot fired.

But look hard enough and you can see how the cur­rent cri­sis — res­ur­rect­ing trau­matic mem­o­ries of the 2007 and 2008 post­elec­tion vi­o­lence — has in­fil­trated the na­tional psy­che.

Kenyans are scared, and the fear man­i­fests in sub­tle ways.

If they can, house­holds have stock­piled gro­ceries. Par­ents are urg­ing their kids to stay close to home. The traf­fic in Nairobi is no­tice­ably lighter — less than an hour from the air­port to the city cen­tre, even in rush hour — be­cause so many peo­ple have boxes of bal­lot pa­pers are piled high out­side the school hall. They are meant to go to polling sta­tions across the dis­trict, but no one has come to col­lect them. They’re too scared.

Of the eight elec­toral of­fi­cials sup­posed to be on duty at Lions High, only three re­main.

The re­turn­ing of­fi­cer, John Ngutai, is also wor­ried for his safety. “I sleep in a dif­fer­ent house every night. There are risks,” he said.

The na­ture of those risks is ev­i­dent at the Oginga Odinga teach­ing hos­pi­tal, gone to stay with fam­ily mem­bers else­where.

On the shut­tle route from Nakuru to Kisumu, op­er­a­tors have not for­got­ten the lessons learned a decade ago, when hun­dreds of ve­hi­cles were torched. Pas­sen­gers in Kikuyuowned minibuses are off­loaded half­way, and then bun­dled on to Luoowned minibuses for the rest of the trip. Kikuyus are per­ceived to be in Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta’s camp, Luos with op­po­si­tion leader Raila Odinga. “For safety,” the con­duc­tor ex­plains to dis­grun­tled pas­sen­gers. He’s not tak­ing any risks.

Nor is most of the busi­ness com­mu­nity. The past four months of in­sta­bil­ity has cost the econ­omy 700-bil­lion shillings ($6.75-bil­lion) — 10% of Kenya’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct — ac­cord­ing to the Kenya Pri­vate Sec­tor Al­liance.

It’s not hard to pin­point the source of this fear. Ever since the Supreme Court an­nulled the Au­gust 8 pres­i­den­tial vote and gave the much­ma­ligned elec­toral com­mis­sion just 60 days to or­gan­ise a new one, politi­cians have reck­lessly ratch­eted up the ten­sions.

The rhetoric has been ac­com­pa­nied by some gen­uinely fright­en­ing de­vel­op­ments. Amnesty In­ter­na­tional es­ti­mates that at least 33 peo­ple, and pos­si­bly as many as 50, have been killed in po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence since Au­gust 8, in­clud­ing a nine-year-old who was shot by po­lice while stand­ing on a bal­cony and a woman, eight months preg­nant, who was tram­pled to death af­ter faint­ing from in­hal­ing tear­gas.

No one is safe, not even those in the higher ech­e­lons of power. which has treated 18 vic­tims of elec­tion-re­lated vi­o­lence in the past few days, vic­tims like Mo­hamed Juma (20), who was shot twice in two separate in­ci­dents by po­lice.

An­other vic­tim is Owuor Issa (26), who has a bul­let hole in his chest but has no idea how it got there.

He was walk­ing back from his classes at Kisumu Polytech­nic when he got caught up in a po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tion. The next thing he re­mem­bers, he was bleed­ing on the ground.

On Tues­day, gun­men at­tacked Deputy Chief Jus­tice Philom­ena Mwilu’s driver, se­verely wound­ing him. Was it a botched as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt? A barely dis­guised threat? What­ever it was, it was enough to dis­suade Mwilu and sev­eral of her Supreme Court col­leagues from go­ing to work on Wed­nes­day.

As a di­rect re­sult, just two mem­bers of the Supreme Court were on hand to hear an emer­gency pe­ti­tion to can­cel or post­pone the elec­tion: not enough to form a quo­rum, mean­ing the pe­ti­tion was not heard and the elec­tion went ahead by de­fault. But it’s not re­ally an elec­tion. Odinga with­drew his can­di­dacy weeks ago, and on the eve of the vote he dou­bled down. “Do not par­tic­i­pate in any way in the sham elec­tion. Con­vince your friends, neigh­bours and ev­ery­one else to not par­tic­i­pate,” he told sup­port­ers in Nairobi. He warned darkly of the govern­ment’s in­ten­tions: “We are aware that the blood­thirsty regime is us­ing every chance to mas­sacre our peo­ple.”

Al­though he urged his sup­port­ers to re­main peace­ful, Odinga also said that his po­lit­i­cal coali­tion would trans­form into a “re­sis­tance move­ment”, a term more com­monly associated with civil war. And in Swahili, in im­promptu com­ments, the op­po­si­tion leader said that if the cat was eat­ing the chick­ens, then there were many ways to kill the cat — a dan­ger­ously am­bigu­ous metaphor.

Keny­atta, in a tele­vised speech from the State House, was just as stub­born. He in­sisted the elec­tion would go ahead and is­sued his own veiled threat: “But let no one in­fringe on his broth­ers’ or sis­ters’ right [to vote] and let ev­ery­one know that our se­cu­rity agen­cies have been de­ployed across the coun­try to en­sure the safety of each and every Kenyan.”

Kenya’s trig­ger-happy po­lice have been im­pli­cated in much of the re­cent vi­o­lence, and are not con­sid­ered im­par­tial by the op­po­si­tion.

But most damn­ing of all was the com­ment made by the man in charge of guar­an­tee­ing a cred­i­ble vote.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble un­der the cur­rent con­di­tions to hold free and fair elec­tions,” said Wa­fula Che­bukati, speak­ing to jour­nal­ists last week.

He’s had a rough few months. As chair­per­son of the In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral and Boundaries Com­mis­sion, he’s al­ready botched one pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — as per the sting­ing Supreme Court judg­ment, which an­nulled the vote — and has spent the past six weeks des­per­ately try­ing to or­gan­ise a new one, amid a bar­rage of crit­i­cism di­rected at him and his or­gan­i­sa­tion from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

But the flaws ob­served by the court are not so eas­ily rec­ti­fied, es­pe­cially in such a short space of time. It’s proved dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to get new prin­ters to print the bal­lot pa­pers, or to re­con­fig­ure the more than 40000 elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines, or to train elec­tion of­fi­cers in op­po­si­tion ar­eas amid a wors­en­ing se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion.

With the new vote sched­uled for Thurs­day, Che­bukati is pre­par­ing to fail again.

And if the head of the elec­toral com­mis­sion has lost con­fi­dence in the elec­toral process, why should any­one else take it se­ri­ously?

Chaos: Sup­port­ers of pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Raila Odinga burn tyres ahead of Kenya’s fraught elec­tion re­run. Photo: Ya­suyoshi Chiba/AFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.