Understanding the Violence in Kenya
Mwai Kibaki says that he will not negotiate until the violence has subsided. He is promoting the assumption that it is his opponents, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), that are orchestrating the violence. In fact the violence is counterproductive for ODM. Raila Odinga (Luo, Nyanza Province), Musalia Mudavadi (Luhya, Western Province), and William Ruto (Kalenjin, Rift Valley Province) had all called repeatedly for the end of the violence. What are the factors that have made the violence occur?
It is common practice in Kenya for a mob to kill a suspected thief. A case like this is reported in the newspaper every day or two. If a person calls out "Thief, thief" and a young man runs, a huge crowd will capture the accused thief and beat him to death unless the police are able to arrive quickly enough to save the person. I was horrified in the late 1960's when I heard then President Jomo Kenyatta speaking in Machakos supporting this practice: "Catch the thief and put this face in the mud." I myself have seen a mob run after the thief--really he has no chance of escape. When my daughter was in Nairobi in 1994, she knew of a young man who was caught and a stone dropped on his chest--he died. Recently the papers reported that two supposed thieves were killed by a mob in Lugari District in an area far from here. The explanation given is that the police are corrupt and if a thief is turned in, he bribes the police and is out on the street that same day. Therefore people turn to vigilante justice. I don't completely buy this justification. For this to happen, Kenyan society must condone the basic principle that it is okay for a mob to kill someone. This, of course, is a necessary condition for the rioting and killing that is now occurring. In any peacemaking work that will be done in Kenya, one of the first concerns will have to be to confront the acceptance of vigilante justice.
Another aspect is the fact that in the 1970's and 1980's Kenya had a very high birth rate. Men born during this time are now the youth; defined in Kenya as anyone under 35 years of age. When one looks at the tree of age distribution, one will find that for Kenya there is a big bulge during the youth years of 18 to 35. In other words, there is a proportionally larger number of youth in the society than would usually be considered normal. Another aspect is that a certain percentage of these youth have parents who have died of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990's and the 2000's. In short, the older generation -- which should be guiding the younger generation in constructive ways -- is much smaller than would be expected. The youth lack guidance and control.
One must also remember that, until 2003, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund pressured Kenya not to hire more teachers and not to promote education since this was considered fiscally irresponsible. Consequently many of the youth mentioned above have had inadequate schooling. It was only in 2003 with the Kibaki victory that Kenya felt able to defy the World Bank and IMF and introduce free primary education. Approximately a million extra students enrolled in Kenyan primary schools. All the political parties in this election have promised to make secondary school education also free beginning this year.
In our town there are a certain number of crazy people. One in particular, a rather tall, young man, speaks to me when he sees me: in extremely good English. Only his English doesn't make any sense. I once asked him his name and he replied with twenty or so names including "Kibaki" and "Mandela." One day he asked me if I wanted to go see the marijuana plants. Marijuana grows everywhere and is readily available. Likewise a cheap distilled local brew, called "changaa" in Swahili, is easily obtainable. In the last few years, we have two relatives who died of "changaa" spiced with methanol alcohol. Although this could be considered a case of murder against the brewers who spiced the "changaa" it is not even seen as a crime since drunks are really no service to society anyway. The point is that there is a lot of potent alcohol and drugs available to the youth. Even in peaceful times the consequences from this are devastating. Then, when the opportunity for violence arises, those youth in the drug/alcohol culture are the "troops" of the mob.
Then, as before, we need to return to the matatu (mini-bus) business where most of the conductors are Kikuyu. There are designated stops for the matatus along the road. Each stop has five to ten (and in the cities such as Kakamega they seem uncountable) young people called "tauts" who escort you to your matatu, carry your bag (I don't let them carry mine), and put you into the matatu. They are "tipped" about 10 shillings for each person they bring in. But this is really extortion because, for example in my case, I know exactly which matatu to get into and the taut pretends to have brought me in order to get the tip. The relationship between the conductor and the taut is terrible. Sometimes the conductors refuse to pay, resulting in loud arguments. As the matatu pulls away, tauts jump on the doorway before the door is closed demanding their tip. I have seen the conductors throw the tip on the ground. When the Kibaki government first came into power, they revised the rules for the matatus and tauts were abolished. But they quickly returned and are now as common as before. Usually these tauts are drunk, particularly in the later afternoon. But when the conflict begins, it is not at all surprising that the first target of destruction is the matatus being burnt by the tauts; I saw eight plumes of smoke from burning matatus in and near Mbale shortly after the election results were announced.
In normal times as you walk around the town and through the countryside, you see many small groups of young men, doing nothing. What life, what future, and what investment do they have in the status quo? Nothing. For these youth, it also must be remembered, looting is a very lucrative business.
The violence seen now is always there, just below the surface, erupting frequently on a small scale. The political tension from the election is nothing more than an excuse to ignite the violence on a massive scale. The violence is done by a small percentage of the population, even by a small percentage of the youth. But people here feel as helpless about how to control this violence as you all do thousands of miles away. Everyone I know here in town condemns the violence. They well know that the violence against the local Kikuyu, whom they all know and associate with on a daily basis, is unjustified. People, including my wife, say that it is only God who can bring back the peace.