This time last year Kenya was still in chaos after the flawed December 27th 2007 election. Kofi Annan had arrived by now to mediate in the crisis (much awaited - almost a month after the actual election took place) and it would take yet another month for an agreement to be reached - 28th Feb 2008).
In the run up to the 2007 election, we all got swept up with enthusiasm – it would be Kenya’s truly democratic election with a record turnout of voters – people believed that Kenya would be blazing a trail for other troubled African nations. The crowd were in an ebullient mood with voters who were dressed in blue (PNU) t-shirts standing amicably alongside those in orange (ODM) t-shirts, patiently waiting to cast their votes for three to six hours in mile long queues. As in the recent United States election, many were voting for ‘change’.
Three days later when the vote tallying was delayed there was some unrest – pockets of violence, a few demonstrators causing problems. Those days between Christmas and New Year are strange wherever you are in the world, a hiatus between the old and New Year. There is a sense that time is standing still. Many had extended Christmas leave to encompass the vote and they planned to return to work in January. There was a lot of hanging about and pent up emotion over these days. Shops and offices were closed. It was windy, dusty and hot.
The TV and radio networks were broadcasting live results as and when they came in. Raila Odinga’s opposition party, ODM, had a clear lead with only a few more constituencies left to report results – then overnight the incumbent President’s party, PNU, somehow magically overtook the opposition by a wide margin. There was outrage and disbelief followed by street riots and looting. The Opposition party appealed to ECK (Electoral Commission Kenya) to recount. Two days later The ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu announced that PNU were the overall winners – President Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in at State House one hour later, at about 6pm. Behind him you could see journalists carrying equipment running past to catch the action, it was all happening too fast.
After this point all hell broke loose.
The middle classes hunkered down in their apartments to wait it out. In the ensuing days, very few were able to get back to work even if they wanted to. The poor were trapped in the slums with police forming a ring around, preventing them to leave in order to prevent violent demonstrations spilling onto the city streets. The television crews headed down there to shoot footage of burning tyres and frustrated youth. Atrocities were being committed inside. Raila and his ODM party called for peaceful demonstration but no one was really in the mood for peace. People were furious. Murders took place. The terrible story that more than 30 men, women and children who were sheltering in a church outside Eldoret were brutally burned alive because they were outsiders in the area, came to us via Nation Media text message. Three weeks later others were burned in a house in Naivasha in revenge attacks. Law and order broke down. Thugs created roadblocks and demanded to see the identity cards of travellers because then they would have proof of tribe. Many were brutally murdered for being outside their ancestral lands, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The country ground to a terrifying standstill while international mediators did their best to intervene.
In my opinion, the tragedy was that the Kenyan politicians, for a year or more in the run up to the election chose a cheap, low down way to win easy votes and that was to use ‘tribe’. In truth, Kenya’s people have largely become one large melting pot with tribes mixing together, intertribal marriages and free movement around the country, but having said that, stirring up tribal sentiment was not difficult. The existence of poverty made it easy to manipulate many. Rallying cries of; ‘it is our time to eat!’ gave many a campaign wings. As the leaders in the race gained momentum, so did the level of vitriol poured on their opposition. Slurs became personal and increasingly tribal. Vernacular radio stations were used to stoke the flames. Many Kenyan voters were whipped up into fervour; money was splashed around by political parties. The reaction when the vote was ‘robbed’ from the Kenyan people was probably inevitable but in addition a lot of it was masterminded by powerful men (as has been attested to in the Waki Report). Two ODM MPs were murdered at around that time. Further revenge attacks took place. There was an air of mistrust and conspiracy. Kenya’s reputation as a peace loving, friendly nation was destroyed with CNN pictures of machete wielding demonstrators. Western media used the expression 'fiercely tribal' to describe Kenya, but this was not the Kenya that anyone living here really recognised.
A year later, Kenya is clawing its way back onto the international map by making much of her ties with Barack Obama. His election to President in the USA has brought Kenyans together again and given a lot of hope. Kenya is once again the cohesive, friendly nation ready to celebrate when a countryman or 'son' has made it into the White House.
Since last January, the people in Kenya seem to have reacted in a way that people in shock react. For the most part post election atrocities have been swept under the carpet as people try to move on with their lives. The coalition government is dogged by as many corruption scandals as any Kenyan government before it, but to expose the guilty parties would be dangerous. Everyone is wary of rocking the boat. Past events are not dwelt upon much but the remotest possibility of a return to violence is universally feared.