December 29th, 2002
My father’s voice exults over static from Nairobi to San Francisco.
Kenya’s election results are rolling in. Mwai Kibaki, the presidential candidate fielded by the rainbow coalition of opposition parties, has won 65% of the vote. Titans of single party rule have lost their seats. An unprecedented eleven women have been elected to parliament. The era of Daniel Arap Moi, and the ruling party KANU, who have plundered Kenya at will for 24 years, is over.
For Kenyans, this is the Berlin Wall coming down. This is a Florida recount where the truth prevails. Kenyans were killed for this. People were tortured, exiled, imprisoned, for resisting single-party rule. I never believed I would see it end in my lifetime.
I’m glued to my monitor, shooting jubilant emails to other Kenyans in Boston, London, New York. We are sitting up all night watching results come in. Tears of hope and renewed pride rolling down our faces.
We are daring to dream again. To imagine going home. We are thanking all the gods, ancestors and spirits that sustain us.
Five Years Later. November 2007
Jacaranda time in Nairobi. Clouds of purple extravagance, against a backdrop of foliage, sunlight, rain, sky. Each flower a dancer in motion.
So what happened to that guy in New York? says Waithera
I ended it, I say. He was never going to leave Brooklyn. Lovely man, but one of those New Yorkers who thinks he’s a world citizen because he has 9 different ethnic restaurants in his neighborhood. When we started dating, I was serious about moving to New York, but then I realized it was just a stepping-stone to coming home. Here.
And you? I say. Anyone nice in your life?
The Kikuyu men my age, she snorts, are chasing women 15 years younger. And you know, because of who my parents are, I could only consider someone of the same social status. All those ones are already married, and cheating on their wives.
If you’d just consider dating a non-Kikuyu, I say. But we’ve had this exchange before. I already know the answer. Poor Wai. The Curse Of Gikuyu Female Aristocracy. Family mansion in Karen, shopping trips to London, software consultancy career, thrice-weekly golf at Karen Country Club, mega-inheritance, dating pool of exactly three eligible men. When we were classmates at Loreto Convent, I had no idea who her family were. School uniform really does erase some kinds of difference. I actually pitied her sometimes – I got way better marks than she did, and it never occurred to me that academic success was not a survival imperative for her. She supplied me with Harlequin novels, I helped her with mathematics, we laughed ourselves silly over things only funny to hormone-high teenage girls. Big changes ahead, I say. This election. Get with the times, love.
I hope not, says Waithera. We’ve had five years of 6% growth. Why change drivers when the car is going in the right direction?
Come on Wai, I say. Kibaki’s failed. Crazy poverty and inequality. Where’s our new constitution? What about those 500 bodies dumped in the forest? Young Kikuyu men. Imagine if your brother was one. And that small matter of the Goldenberg scam that almost cleaned out our treasury? They didn’t just rob us, they robbed the next three generations!
The most important thing is stability, says Waithera. Raila Odinga is a socialist. With a 20-year grudge against us. Already, he’s building up the sentiment against Kikuyus. If he becomes President, there will be retaliation.
Raila Odinga is hardly a socialist, I say. I only wish. He’s a member of your club – just like Kibaki. But the ODM Party does have more ethnic diversity, more women, more young people. To the old guard – and to Britain and the US – that looks like socialism. And retaliation for what?
For our success. Kikuyus have worked hard and saved, and invested. We think ahead…..
I cut her off.
The Kenyatta family did not acquire 500,000 acres by working hard and saving. How many ethnic groups do we have in Kenya?
She is silent. The unspoken answer, Forty-Three, hangs in the air.
And how is it that Kenya has been run by a tiny handful of old men from Central Kenya since 1963? And the rest of the country exists on scraps?
I lean forward. I hear myself get louder.
Political office is a job. You’re elected, you have an assignment, you get assessed on your performance. You get promoted if you deliver, you get fired if you don’t. And when your time is up, you fucking go.
Silence. I may have crossed a line. At least I didn’t say Gikuyu Hegemony. I grope for something to break the tension.
Wouldn’t it be crazy for the US to get a Luo president before we do?
December 27th, 2007
A record eight million Kenyans rise as early as four a.m. to vote. We queue for up to ten hours, in the sun, without food, drink, toilets. I know a woman who gets out of her hospital bed, pulls the drip out of her neck, crosses the city on matatu and foot with bloodstained bandages visible – to vote. The country speaks through the ballot. Against greed. Against corruption. Against neo-colonialism. Against feudalism. It is the largest, best organized non-violent mass protest in our history.
Results come in over two days.
All 3 sons of Daniel Arap Moi are voted out. Go Rift Valley!
We send home 80% of the MPs from the last parliament. Minister after powerful minister falls. All Kibaki’s cronies. Men who have been in office since 1963.
Kibaki’s party, PNU, is left with 78 parliamentary seats.
The opposition party ODM, led by Raila Odinga, has captured 102 seats.
It is the third day. We are waiting for the President to be announced. The nation is keeping vigil.
I am watching on TV with friends, as tallies from the constituencies are being announced at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
Look how bloodshot his eyes are. He hasn’t slept for days.
What’s that guy yelling from the back?
Opposition observer. Says the tally just announced is different from the one he confirmed in the constituency.…..
Please, not after all we’ve been through….No, no, no, no.
What happened? The screen went dark!
The anchor is reporting from outside the conference center. There has been a power blackout at Kenyatta International Conference Center. The media have been ejected by paramilitary police who are arriving in trucks…..
Then, all the channels go dead, except for the government mouthpiece KBC.
I text Waithera: I feel sick. She texts back: I just want peace.
Fifteen minutes later, we watch as the Chair of the Electoral Commission declares Kibaki the winner.
30 minutes later, we watch Kibaki being sworn in on the lawns of State House. At night, under heavy security.
A friend who was in the forefront of the struggle for multi-party democracy sends me a heartbroken text: Remember how we felt in 2002? It’s all gone.
December 30th, 2007
A church in Eldoret is burning, with 200 people inside. In 100 years, we have never had a church or a mosque burned down in Kenya.
Spread the word: the Muslim Medical Professionals are offering free treatment to anyone injured.
What the fuck was the US Ambassador thinking, to formally congratulate Kibaki?
He’s just rescinded it. The EU said the results “lack credibility”. Stupid asshole.
The Chair of the Electoral Commission on TV, looking tormented, sounding confused, contradicting himself. He says there are those around Kibaki who should never have been born. What does this mean? That the coup was driven by Kibaki’s inner circle, not Kibaki himself? That Kibaki is simply a puppet?
The police are shooting indiscriminately at protestors in the streets. Paramilitary police are guarding the city mortuary so the media can’t count the bodies. They ring the empty Uhuru Park and Central Park, to keep people from gathering, while they let Nairobi’s poorest areas become war zones.
A twenty-four-hour curfew is imposed on Western Kenya, where Raila Odinga comes from. People are trapped in their homes, without food or water. They face police bullets if they emerge.
A friend texts me: The conditions here are horrifying. Inhuman.
Rift Valley is ablaze. The highways are blocked by armed militia. Uganda’s roads are at a standstill. All fuel deliveries from Kenya have been grounded. We are shutting down the whole region.
The Red Cross warns of an imminent cholera epidemic in Western Kenya, days without electricity and water.
Containers pile up at the Port of Mombasa. Ships unable to unload cargo leave still loaded. Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Southern Sudan, the Congo, all dependent on Kenyan transit for fuel and vital supplies, grind to a halt.
Where did all these horses come from, that the police are riding? I’ve never seen such sleek, well-fed animals. And who guessed, in our city of water shortages, that our police had high-powered water cannons to drive Kenyans off the streets?
The Urgent Action Fund needs $90,000 to set up rape crisis centres. Nairobi Women’s Hospital is now FULL. They’ve dealt with 19 rape cases in the last 24 hours.
It’s just been announced that the police have banned all “processions.” Does that include weddings? Funerals? Are they going to put the whole country under house arrest?
Keep putting out the analysis from the field reports – four distinct types of violence! Protest. Police gunfire. Organized militia. Communal defense.
Another broadcast on CNN that calls this “ethnic conflict”. The next line will be “tribal warfare.” Then they’ll mention Rwanda. Wait for it.
Hello! Stolen election!
I work with a coalition of civil society and activist organizations that organize under the banner Kenyans For Peace, Truth and Justice (KPTJ). We insist that any resolution of the crisis must address the injustices at all levels – historic, and current -, which brought on this catastrophe. We reject calls for “peace” and “dialogue” from the camp we label “Kenyans For Calm” – those who really seek violent suppression of legitimate protest so normal life can resume for the wealthy.
KPTJ traces each strand of violence to its source, holds the initiators accountable. When we say “peace”, we meant the police violence, and “shoot to kill” orders, have to stop. We name the militia mobilized in by individual political actors, to evict, loot, rape and terrorize in different regions of the country, and we describe their operations.
We draw on decades of Pan-African organizing to mobilize support for an African Union intervention. African solutions for African problems, we demand. The European Union takes its lead from the African Union. A Panel of Eminent Persons, headed by Kofi Annan, is dispatched to Kenya to broker a mediation agreement.
When a KPTJ team of six meets the Forum of Retired African Presidents in Nairobi, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda lights up. “Look at you,” he crows. “You are young. You are from different ethnic groups. Three of you are women. This gives me hope!”
The Kibaki camp bugs Kofi Annan’s hotel room. How much further can they embarrass us? The man is here to broker a mediation agreement!
Other vomit-inducers: The Disaster Vultures. All the UN careerists flocking to Nairobi, to make their resumes on our tragedy. Yeah, I worked with Kow-fi on the Kenya Crisis.
Among Kibaki’s many crimes, let this one not be forgotten. He made us petition Bush to intervene in Kenya. And now we have to be grateful to Bush for that intervention.
On February 14th, Bush sends Condoleeza Rice to Kenya. On arrival in Kenya, she requests a meeting with KPTJ, who again send a team of three women and three men, a cross section of Kenya’s finest civil society minds, to brief her. Immediately following her meeting with KPTJ, Rice speaks to the press, finally aligns the US with the AU and EU, in requiring Kibaki and his hardliners to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.
In the end, sanctions on the leaders of both parties are instrumental in checking the state violence and the private armies. Global asset freezes, travel bans, threats to repatriate kids studying abroad. Human lives mean nothing. Kenya is one of many revenue streams, disposable. They will burn this country down, but only if they still have their ranches in Australia, their havens in Dubai, their billions stashed in London and New York.
There are 1,300 dead. There are 600,000 displaced from their homes, refugees in their own country. It’s impossible to estimate how many women have been raped, impregnated, infected with HIV.
KPTJ runs a full page ad in national newspapers.
Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga:
To prevent our country from collapsing, Kenyans accepted an imperfect solution – a mediation agreement and a coalition government. This gave you both a LIMITED AND TRANSITIONAL mandate for reform, reconciliation, and reconstruction. However, we now see you both in bed together misusing the crisis to enrich yourselves and your allies. YOUR GREED IS OBSCENE. SHAME ON YOU BOTH. There is an unstated threat that if Kenyans do not accept the greed of the ruling class, the country will once again be allowed to descend into anarchy. We want NO MORE THAN 24 MINISTERS. Kenya cannot support a bloated cabinet of 48.
Signed: Kenyans For Peace, Truth and Justice
We launch a cellphone text campaign:
Kenyans want a lean clean cabinet! Send.
Mawaziri Majambazi! Pass it on.
Our Country Our Cabinet. No More Than 24
Lean and Clean. Greed is Obscene
Siasa Ya Pupa – Njaa Kwetu!
Cabinet Feasts Kenyans Starve
No More Than 24! No More Than 24!
We end up with a cabinet of 40, for a country of 38 million. China has a cabinet of 40 too. For 1.3 billion people. We want members of parliament to pay taxes. We want MP salaries cut – from 18,000 US dollars a month to 9,000 US dollars a month. Kenyan MPs are the highest paid in the world.
Inflation has hit 21%. Maize flour, kerosene, petrol, fares, rent, milk, sugar – are beyond the means of most Kenyans.
This is the price of peace…
A cartel of politicians steal Kenya’s grain supply to sell abroad. These politicians include William Ruto, Kenya’s Minister of Agriculture, and Raila Odinga, former opposition leader, now the Prime Minister.
The trucks loaded with maize drive through villages where Kenyans are starving. Women sell their daughters to the truckdrivers, for twenty shillings at a time, so they can feed their families for one more day.
Philo Ikonya, president of PEN Kenya, and other activists stands outside Kenya’s Parliament arms aloft, wearing empty maize flour bags over their hands like gloves.
“Corruption Equals Death,” they chant.
Police grab them, hustle them into a car. They rip Philo’s boubou, bare her back and chest.
Inside the moving car Richard Mugwai, deputy commanding officer of Nairobi’s Central Police Station, rains down blows.
He hit us where there would be no obvious bruises, says Philo, like under the chin. He said he would take us where we could never talk again.
In March, two civil society activists, Oscar King’ara and George Paul Oulu, are shot dead on a public road, within walking distance of the president’s residence. A university student is shot dead by the police in a conflict over one of the bodies.
In July, Kenya suffers an acute water crisis, following months of drought. Nairobi City Council turns off the water supply for the entire city of over 3 million people for three weeks. I am in Sweden, on a fellowship at the Nordic Africa Institute. At the Tallberg Forum, Sweden’s answer to Davos, I encounter Charity Ngilu, Kenya’s Minister of Water. She gives a presentation on water management. Never mentioning that taps are dry in Kenya’s capital city – from which she has decamped, to this stunning country retreat on the shores of Lake Siljan.
The US elects a Luo President.
Kibaki declares a public holiday in Kenya the day after Obama’s victory.
Kenyans vote in a new constitution by a huge majority, eight years after it was promised. It devolves state power across all regions of the country, and dedicates legislative seats for women, minorities, youth, people with disabilities. Resources for Kenya’s 47 counties will now be managed by county governors and county assemblies, instead of by the Central Government from Nairobi. It promises land reform. Under this constitution, Kenyan women are finally full human beings, entitled to pass on their citizenship to their children and to inherit land equally. It feels like the triumph we were denied.
Remember those 1,300 killed? The half-a-million displaced and dispossessed? The 4,000 who were injured when All The Evil happened in 2007-8?
Neither do the perps.
‘No one can compensate you for rape. No one can compensate you for infection with HIV. But there is a certain amount of peace only justice can bring. There are those of us who meet our perpetrators every day. Those who raped us are our neighbours. It’s tough knowing that they are still very safe from the arm of the law.’ —Survivor of Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence
There will be no local justice. The Kenyan government misses every deadline for setting up local tribunals. Six men are indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. They are alleged to have financed, trained and mobilized militia to terrorize communities from their homes, to burn, rape and massacre. Four will eventually go to trial. Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first President. William Ruto, former member of Raila Odinga’s inner circle. Francis Muthaura, Kibaki’s former Head Of Civil Service. And journalist Joshua arap Sang.
We have never seen the most powerful men in the country go to court for their crimes. This cannot be unseen. It will change our national memory. It will recode our collective DNA.
Then Kenya invades Somalia. Supposedly it is in response to the kidnapping of two British tourists and a Frenchwoman from the Kenyan Coast. I believe an external enemy diverts our energy and attention away from the ICC trials. I believe it is a proxy war for the US. Until I discover from Wikileaks that the Kenyan government has wanted to invade Somalia since 2010, and the US actually discouraged us. There goes my final illusion about my country.
A small group of writers issue a statement of protest. Hardly anyone wants to sign on. We are spitting into a gale.
We, the undersigned, register, in the strongest terms, our opposition to Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia. We note that several months at minimum is required to plan a military operation that involves crossing borders. Therefore the reasons put forward by the Kenyan government for this operation (the kidnap of two British tourists and a French resident at the Kenyan coast) are demonstrably false.
We will kill some Somalis and call them Al-Shabaab. We will all feel very Kenyan indeed.
They die, and we forget about 350,000 internally displaced Kenyans, stolen World Bank monies, missing Education Ministry funds, the ICC-Kenya trials, 2012 elections, our new constitution.
The army will claim, as invading armies always do, that they have courageously engaged the enemy. They kill innocent civilians.
All of us are paying, already, for this blood-thirst. We will go on paying for years to come. We will pay with our taxes, our un-built schools and hospitals, our unpaid teachers, our jobless youth, our deteriorating security, our shattered relationship with our neighbours.
We do not need the deaths of Somalis to know who we are.
Kenya captures the main Somali port, Kismayo. We are encouraged to forget about the war. Kenyan troops settle into a long-term occupation.
The Kenyan government begins a pogrom against the Somali community in Kenya, ordering all Somalis to ‘return to Dadaab‘, the refugee tent city on the barren Kenya-Somali border. There is a deafening silence on this from every sector of Kenyan society. It’s open season on Somalis.
We strike oil. We don’t ask who owns the oil. We don’t ask who owns the land on which the oil was discovered. We don’t ask who will benefit from oil revenues.
There are internal invisible wars being waged across the country on vulnerable communities. Land grabs. Millions of acres of land are being sold by politicians to biofuel companies, mining companies, agribusiness companies, urban developers. Sold out from under local communities who have lived on them for generations. Desperate for water and soil to survive, they turn on each other. They organize and fight back.
There are only three tribes in Kenya. The haves. The wanna-haves. The have-them-removed.
Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto strike up an alliance to run for the presidency. Princeling and thug, on a platform of impunity.
Nairobi is a boom town. The hot commodity is Peace. Chagua amani we are urged from every direction. Choose Peace, as if you could pluck it out of the sky.
As I write this, we are in the final hour of campaigning. Two giant competing rallies of the two leading Presidential contenders have been going for almost 6 hours in Nairobi – Raila Odinga’s CORD alliance, where the US flag is rampant, and Uhuru and Ruto’s Jubilee Alliance.
I wonder how many still-homeless, still-uncompensated IDPs (internally displaced persons) from 2007 are watching.
Philo Ikonya now lives in exile in Norway.
Waithera and I have not had any further contact since our text exchange, when we witnessed Kibaki’s civil coup.
In the midst of cacophony, this small piece of news snakes out. A national Marine Park, 23 acres of Kenya’s richest coastline, is being sold to private investors for $1.4bn.
On Monday, we vote. Again.
In 2011, Kenya lost three great activists – Dekha Ibrahim, Wambui Otieno, Wangari Maathai
‘There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors. I think you thought there was no such place for you, and perhaps there was none then, and perhaps there is none now; but we will have to make it, we who want an end to suffering, who want to change the laws of history, if we are not to give ourselves away.’ – Adrienne Rich
the greedy old men
the women who restore
die in their fullness
in this wild
grieve with our labor
into history think forward
we will not un-see
nothing as easy
as comfort nothing
as false as certainty
only our voices
fragments in gale
continent to continent
lay down the only
power lines that run
on the voltage
of our courage