Kenya: The roots of the violence

 — Feb. 1, 20081 févr. 2008

The following commentary on the recent violence in Kenya was written by Giuseppe Caramazza, a Comboni Missionary working in Kenya for 16 years. The article was published in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, on January 30, 2008. The English translation presented here was prepared by Matthew Sherry for www.Chiesa, a weblog by Sandro Magister of La Repubblica.

The roots of the violence
by Giuseppe Caramazza

In the international press, the violence that is shaking Kenya is still being defined in relation to the electoral upheaval that began in the African country at the end of December. In reality, one should not confuse the political protest with the killings that are taking place above all in the Rift Valley, the region that divides the country in two, from north to south. Nor should one forget the hundreds of persons killed and the more than 250,000 internal refugees, mostly housed by parishes and convents. It is true, however, that there is a connection between the political crisis and the violence.

During the electoral campaign, the political opposition often said that, once it had come to power, it would employ the politics of the majimbo. This is a Swahili word that we can translate as regionalization. The Catholic Church, like other Christian confessions, immediately declared its opposition to this. Why?

In the colonial era, the English divided the country along tribal lines, and not always in keeping with the territories that were truly controlled by the various ethnic groups. This led to a rigid territorial division that was then adopted by the newly created republic of Kenya. It should not be forgotten that when the English took control of Kenya, they wanted to see in African society a reality that had been fixed for centuries, while in fact there were populations on the move, and, in some cases, common territories that were exploited in different ways by two or more ethnic groups.

It should also not be forgotten that two hundred years ago the population of Kenya was a small fraction of what it is now. It would be impossible to propose going back to the former borders today. With independence, the centralized English administration continued, and was even strengthened during the years of the semi-dictatorship of President Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi.

The proponents of the majimbo want to restore to the regions the right to administrate their own resources. The government has not accepted this idea., and the Churches have aligned themselves against it because it conceals the terrible seed of tribalism.

Already in the past, the former president Moi used this card to reinforce his position among the ethnic groups of the Rift Valley. Every time that he wanted to frighten the residents who were not originally from the region, he threatened them with the majimbo. The message was clear: those who were not originally from a particular place did not have the right to live there or to own property. This goes against the constitutional principle that sees Kenya as a united country and gives Kenyans the right to live anywhere within the borders of the nation. These are principles that are not readily admitted by many who still today perceive as their place of origin the ancestral territory as it was delineated by the colonial administration.

After the disaster of the presidential election last December 27, in various areas of the Rift Valley some members of the local ethnic groups saw the opportunity to drive out the “foreigners” and appropriate their lands and their other belongings. It is clear that the ethnic group hardest hit was that of the Kikuyu. They are the largest ethnic group, their ancestral territory is not sufficient to accommodate all of them, and so many of the Kikuyu have bought land in the Rift Valley and have turned it into model farms.

But it is not a question only of the Kikuyu. The Luya are being targeted in the area of Eldoret, the Kamba near Nakuru, the Kisii in Kipkelion. It could not have been expected that the Kikuyu would stand around twiddling their thumbs, and in fact there has been violence in Nakuru and Naivasha, which are Kikuyu-majority cities.

It should not be forgotten that the worst violence has occurred in the places that have been experiencing insecurity for years. The clashes in Londiani, Molo, and Cherengani today have something sinister about them, since there has been similar violence in these areas almost constantly over the past five years. This is not, therefore, a new outbreak of tension, but the explosion of a violence with ancient roots.

In recent days, moreover, the group Human Rights Watch published a report in which it affirms that the politicians of the Orange Democratic Movement, the opposition party, have fomented ethnic hatred in many areas, have collected money for the purchase of weapons, and have asked residents to expel the members of other ethnic groups from their property. New investigations will shed more light on these accusations. It is clear, however, that the majimbo has been invoked by the opposition, and they are culpably responsible for the violence of recent days.

In Nairobi, the political demonstrations have died down, giving way to various mediation initiatives. The slums, which house the majority of the population on less than ten percent of the urban land, are being kept under control. So far, it has not been possible to bring the government and the opposition to meet at the same table. Former UN secretary Kofi Annan has made concerted efforts in recent days, and has succeeded in making a few small openings for dialogue. The bishops have encouraged Kofi Annan to continue along this path, and have invited President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga to make room for dialogue.

Dialogue between the contending parties has always been the solution adopted by Kenyans to address questions between two rivals. Nonetheless, the violence and the public accusations exchanged between the two parties risk blocking the process and clouding the vision of the contending parties. Whatever the political solution, it is clear that the major questions that must be addressed are the ones that went unresolved during the previous government of Kibaki: the fair distribution of land, access for all to the country’s resources, growth of the civic sense of the population and its right to participate in the political debate.

Posted: Feb. 1, 2008 • Permanent link:
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