No one predicted what has come over Kenya in the last month since its disputed presidential elections. But since then, the country has fallen from the grace of being one of the most-stable countries on the African Continent to being the host of machete wielding street mobs of young, angry, disenfranchised men. Tourists and ex-patriots have largely left the country as security and the economy have plunged amid the unrest.
In all likelihood, Orange-Democratic Movement leader, Raila Odinga, won Kenya’s presidential election against incumbent Mwai Kibaki on December 27th. Raila, an ethnic Luo, widely led in opinion polls up until the election, accusing Kibaki, a Kikuyu, that he had not done enough to tackle corruption. Kenya’s other various minority tribes have long been hungry for a more prominent role in government. With the slow and non-transparent way the votes were counted in the days following the election, many were convinced fraud had taken place.
I knew something strange had come over the city on December 29th when I took an early morning stroll on the shores of Lake Victoria in the Western city of Kisumu, the hometown of opposition candidate Raila Odinga. The election results had not yet been released but tension was in the air because the results had been delayed for a second day. I was followed down a dirt road by two men, when one, bearing a machete, announced somewhat casually that, “We are going to kill you.” It was a little too casually in fact, for he was not convincing enough for me to readily cede my camera.
Nevertheless I began to scream for help as I was hit twice in the arm with his (luckily dull) machete and knocked to the ground. I screamed as loud as I could as the two men tugged on my camera bag while I took a few kicks. I could not physically let it go. It was impossible. I had come to Kenya to work, and work was now my life. Within a minute, several dockworkers heard my cries from inside the port and came running, sending the thieves to scurry off down some nearby railroad tracks.
I was left only with bruises, scrapes and a small laceration where the machete had hit. Thanking my helpers profusely, I marched on to my hotel in order to wash up before going to the police station to report the incident. The police were surprised that this would happen in a normally safe and peaceful town. However, within the hour the city descended into chaos as a shocked police force stood in passive observance of mobs looting shops and burning the houses of anyone not of the Luo tribe.
The fact that I had just walked away from a machete attack camera in hand may have given me an air of invincibility, but I began to photograph the mayhem as it unfolded on Kisumu’s streets. In a tense moment of being surrounded by a crowd, a man named Joseph stepped out and began to mediate between me and the mob, demanding they go about their business and let me do my job.
Joseph stayed with me like a guardian angel for the next several hours as the rioters looted and burned every shop in town and did the same to the houses of rival tribesmen. Even the livestock were not spared. Goats and cows were savagely torn apart, their limbs paraded around like trophies. All the while chanting “No Raila, no peace!,” the rioters seemed indifferent that I was documenting their actions.
This phenomenon was to last only a short while however, and after a few attempts at my camera and a few more close calls with machetes, shooting became impossible. Joseph and I holed up in my hotel room and prayed for peace to come over the city.
Calm came to the city that night after the Kenyan army marched in, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at anyone left on the streets. But the quiet was to be only temporary. On the following evening, the Kenyan Electoral Commission announced the results in Kibaki’s favor and swore him in within 30 minutes of doing so, prompting new and increased outbreaks of violence.
Unable to get food or water and out of cash, by this time I was waiting at the airport for the next flight to Nairobi. After waiting 12 hours for the flight, it was canceled due to security concerns. I was able to make it on a later flight with a different airline that evening. The riots that had taken place the previous day in Kisumu were no longer just an affair of Western Kenya, where I was, but had now spread throughout the country. As our plane flew out of town I could see the flames engulfing the streets and buildings below.
The violent aftermath that has engulfed Kenya has not subsided in the past month. It has begun to take on an eerie resemblance to Rwanda in 1994, whose genocide occurred under similar post-election tribal strains that descended into civil war. Mediators including former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, have failed to nip the problem in the bud. Last evening, Mugabe Were, an Orange-Democratic Movement MP elected on December 27th, was killed outside his home in Nairobi. Officials have stopped short of calling it an assassination.
Since its independence in 1963 Kenya has been ruled by only three presidents: Kenyatta, Moi and currently Kibaki. All men have followed the pattern of being ever-reluctant to relinquish their presidential powers. Despite his failure to implicate corrupt government officials as promised before winning his first term, Kibaki is most remembered for making primary education universal for all children in the country.
After years of peace and functioning democracy, Kenya’s brutal tribal tensions have come to a rolling boil and are now exposed to the rest of the world. But before too much sympathy is given to Odinga and his supporters, there isn’t much evidence to show he would have acted any differently as an incumbent. While most likely the true victor, Odinga and his ODM party is also the likely perpetrator of electoral irregularities according to the New York Times. Let us also remember that Kibaki, the current incumbent, himself came to power in 2002 as the opposition candidate of change, vowing to rid the country of corruption but keeping many of the crooks from the Moi administration in office. At the center of the problem is a nasty tribalist mentality that will continue to draw blood and tear apart the country unless ordinary citizens can look past tribe and see one another as united Kenyans.
With thanks to Joseph Otieno.