“Ethnic cleansing in Luoland”, The Economist, 9 February 2008.
Peace talks get nowhere as western Kenya becomes ungovernable
AS THE road approaches Kisumu, Kenya’s third-biggest city and capital of the Luos, the country’s third-biggest but angriest ethnic group, it becomes littered with rubble and burnt vehicles. A man beats at a smouldering ambulance’s number-plate with his machete. “See,” he explains, “this belongs to the government of Kenya.” Mobs cry out for their fellow Luo, Raila Odinga, to be made president of Kenya. They plead for guns. An earnest man pushes to the front of one mob. “What we are saying is give violence a second chance.”
On a bridge outside Oyugis, a small town a couple of hours’ drive south of Kisumu, angry Luos have overturned a lorry, pulled down a telegraph pole and are waiting. When your (white) correspondent happens along, they take aim with stones, machetes and poles. But what they wanted was a Kikuyu to kill—any Kikuyu. All the main roads in the area are punctuated with road blocks. Some travellers do not get through. At least 25 have been hacked to death or killed with poisoned arrows in Nyanza in the past few days.
Across Luoland, from the unlettered to the university-educated, they tell the same tale of woe: that they have been politically and economically maltreated since independence. Provision of electricity and roads is far worse than in Kikuyuland. Many government projects in Nyanza, including cotton- and rice-growing, have failed. It irks Luos that the fish they catch in Lake Victoria are processed by Kikuyus in distant Central Province. A brain drain of able Luos into Kenya’s civil service has dried up. Luos say that a Luo name is sometimes a handicap in getting a job in business. Poverty among Luos has risen, even as Kenya’s economy has grown.
In the past few weeks, Kisumu has been ethnically cleansed. The Luos have driven out 20,000 or so Kikuyus from a population of 380,000; few will return. Every Kikuyu business and home has been looted and burned. The UN recently chose Kisumu as a “millennium city”, with plans to turn it into a kind of hub. Now many of its streets are gutted and charred. Thousands of jobs have been lost; nearly three-quarters of Kisumu’s people are out of work.
Luo bitterness has deep roots. Most Luos still believe that Mr Odinga’s populist father, Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president, was cheated and abused by Kenya’s ruling Kikuyu elite after independence in 1963. Many still hark back to the unexplained assassination in 1969 of Tom Mboya, another Luo they believe was destined for the presidency. In 1990 another Luo hero, Robert Ouko, then Kenya’s foreign minister, was also murdered.
A sense of economic desolation as well as political turmoil pervades the Luo fishing villages edging Lake Victoria. Since the election, insecurity has driven fish buyers away. Even if they come, the price is low. As there is no electricity and no refrigeration, the buyers drive hard bargains. Prices for basic foodstuffs have risen steeply, with sugar and maize meal costing double since the election.
In the past decade or so, Luoland has been particularly hard hit by AIDS; malaria has long been endemic. George Onyango, a 40-year-old fisherman in the village of Bao, west of Kisumu, reckons that a quarter of his childhood friends are already dead. The village nurse has no antibiotics, let alone good transport. Villagers rail against Kikuyus, though no one remembers a Kikuyu ever living there. “If we could be our own country it would be different,” says a wistful elder.
The longer-term effects of the ethnic cleansing are beginning to register. Professor Allan Ogot, a distinguished Luo historian who is chancellor of Moi University in Eldoret, says that Kenya’s research institutes have been ruined and that its universities may well follow suit. He has been confined to his house in Kisumu. A woman and child were shot dead outside his front gate. No amount of security, he says, will lure back the Kikuyu and Kamba students who made up half of Nyanza’s Maseno University. “Our universities will be worse than primary schools,” he says. “My question now is, is there a Kenya left to save?”
Kenya’s 4m or so Luos, most of them in Nyanza, voted overwhelmingly for Mr Odinga in the disputed election on December 27th. The Kikuyu-led party backing his rival, the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was most blatant in ensuring that his tally of votes in the Kikuyu heartland north of the capital, Nairobi, was inflated. But Mr Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement was not spotless; some ballot boxes in Nyanza were reportedly stuffed on his behalf. In any event, nearly all Luos still want Mr Kibaki forced from office. If he stays, they say, it will mean civil war. There is a risk that Luoland might peel off—and a further risk that Mr Kibaki may feel forced to send in troops to stop that happening. For the time being, the Luo areas look ungovernable by Mr Kibaki or by any Kikuyu-led administration.
In other parts of Kenya, not just in Luoland, the mood is so febrile that it is hard to see how the social fabric can be restored. Atrocities have been widespread. Most of the Luhya (the country’s second-biggest group, unrelated to the Luo), most of the ten or so Kalenjin-speaking peoples of the Rift Valley, most of Kenya’s Muslims and most of Kenya’s poor in the vast slums that ring Nairobi backed Mr Odinga. Many of them are angry. Some have vented their spleen against Kikuyus living among them, often chasing them away, burning their houses and shops and sometimes killing them.
The violence has been especially bad in parts of the Rift Valley where different groups had intermingled as a result of the redistribution of former white-owned land since independence. In other parts of the country, especially in the Kikuyu heartlands, Mr Kibaki’s backers have treated Luos with similar harshness.
But it is wrong to paint a picture simply of Kikuyus and the closely related Embu and Meru, who together make up about 28% of Kenyans, pitted against the rest. Many groups have mixed allegiances. Most of the Kamba, Kenya’s fifth group, which has been traditionally well-represented in the army, backed a 54-year-old former foreign minister, Kalonzo Musyoka, who won about 9% of the presidential poll and was promptly appointed vice-president by Mr Kibaki. As a result, many Kamba may rally to his cause—and perhaps even join a pro-Kibaki coalition in the (so far unlikely) event of a fresh election. Other tribes, such as the Kisii (6% of the total) have been divided, though most of them voted against Mr Kibaki.
Amid this messy ethnic mayhem, peace talks in Nairobi look unlikely to restore calm any time soon. A former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has managed to bring representatives of Mr Kibaki’s government and Mr Odinga’s movement to the negotiating table, which is progress of a kind. But the president has so far shown no sign of making serious concessions. Mr Annan has also gathered some of the country’s leading businessmen to stress the damage being done to the economy. Tourism and agriculture have been badly hit ()see page 73. Meanwhile, the human toll is rising. The local Red Cross says that more than 1,000 people have been killed in the past five weeks or so, and more than 300,000 displaced.
Mr Odinga has made no call for secession; he says he is still committed to a united Kenya. There is little evidence so far that he is organising an armed insurrection, though many Kikuyus believe he has been complicit in the attacks against them in Kisumu and elsewhere.
An immediate fear, across the country, is that criminal gangs may take advantage of the mayhem. The government has given orders to police to shoot to kill if chaos on the street begins to spread; many innocents have already been gunned down. So far the armed forces have generally stayed out of the proceedings. If Mr Kibaki were to call them in, the danger of national disintegration might increase.