Plane Ride Take Two- I receive a lesson in Kenyan politics

Not only am I sitting next to people who speak English this time, they are Kenyan and they talked to me about Kenya!!! The woman was kind enough to explain the political situation to me and exactly what happened in the recent civil war, something that I keep reading about but haven’t yet quite understood. As far as I understand, here’s a super brief version what went down:

On December 27th 2007 a presidential election was held and incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared to be the winner despite candidate Raila Odinga’s claims of victory. As the woman said, Kenyan elections are always rigged but this election was very very blatantly dishonest.

Kibaki is a member of the Kikuyu tribe, a traditionally dominant group mostly located in Central Kenya. Odinga is part of the smaller Luo ethnic group but he managed to form a coalition of Luhya (same ethnicity as my host family) and Kalenjin and Muslims. The third place candidate Kalonzo Musyoka was mainly supported by the Kamba.

When Kibaki’s victory was announced, civil unrest broke out. As the woman explained it to me, the violence started in the cities and grew in intensity as it entered the countryside. She thinks that it was mostly started by frustrated Luo (Odinga supporters) in the cities burning Kikuyu (Kibaki supporters) shops and houses. When it entered Nakuru, her hometown as well as other more rural areas throughout Kenya, the frustration turned into full out tribal warfare with members of all of the three major tribes (Kikuyu, Luos and Kalenjins) killing each other.

Kenya has always been a fairly stable country, the woman described the tribal differences as being akin to differences in religion in the US- they’re there but they’re really not a huge deal (although the SF Chronicle describes violence as a result of long-standing economic and tribal tensions). There were skirmishes in the presidential elections in 1992 and 1997 but nothing like the recent civil war. Hence when the civil war broke out, everyone was SHOCKED. The media and international mediators such as Kofi Annan (former Secretary General of the United Nations?? ***link his name) pleaded for an end to the civil war, reiterating “we are all Kenyans, stop this madness” (***link to article). Finally in February 2008 a power-sharing agreement was reached in which Kibaki would remain President and Odinga would be prime minister (a newly created post). Also a coalition government with an equal number of ministers from the different parties, meaning that there are now 40 members of Parliament. As the woman said, this means peace but it also means Kenyans will have to pay more taxes to keep all of these government officials paid.

The civil war has taken a severe toll on both the people and the economy of Kenya. The violence led to the death of 1,200 people and 500,000 people were displaced. There are still many displaced people that don’t want to go home out of fear or because they have no real home left to go to. As of early May 200,000 people were in the UN sponsored displaced persons camps, many of whom are farmers.

“So much of the land will lie fallow and that will have a great impact on food security” said Catherine Gatundu, deputy coordinator of Kenya Land Alliance in a recent SF Chronicle article.

My aisle mate, echoed the fear that the war will soon lead to severe food shortages, prices of wheat and corn have risen by as much 40 percent according to the U.N. World Food Program.

The woman mentioned that a major part of the conflict is disputes over land. As she explained it, owning land is akin to investment in the United States, everyone wants good land. The conflict between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin dates back to the mid-20th century when the Kikuyu’s moved to the Rift Valley from their land in the Central to work on the farms of British settlers. With independence in 1963, some Kikuyu’s bought British lands from the government, something that many Kalenjin were not happy about.

In March the government announced that they are requesting $500 million from international donor agencies for resettlement and reintegration. President Kibaki has also been urging local leaders to hold community meetings to welcome home their displaced neighbors and assure them that there won’t be any more violence.

Even with these assurances, many Kenyans are still afraid of returning home. The combination of displaced people, lack of agricultural production and drop in tourism means that Kenya is going to have a hard year ahead.