Letter from Kenya

I’m standing at the window of my apartment in Karen, a middle-class suburb in Nairobi. The window overlooks Kibera, a densely populated sprawling low-income settlement hyped as the biggest in Africa. The view gives me a perfect window into the interactions of people living in Kibera, especially in the evening, which is the buzz time for markets as the sun sinks lower in the sky as day’s light fades.

People who come to Kibera are from different tribal backgrounds, natives of different regions in the country. They are working hard to eke out a living, and perhaps spare some to send to their families in the countryside. Just before I came to the window to ponder and unwind after a long day working from home and Zoom meetings, I had been shuffling through my social media pages to get a glimpse of the ongoing public conversations. On this evening, Twitter was alight with accusations and counteraccusations, insults from politicians and their supporters regarding who will be the fifth president in 2022, when the country goes to elections as per the current constitution.

The rhetoric hugely relies on tribal stereotyping. For context, the current political news in the country pits the incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta—who is serving his last term—against his deputy William Ruto, who is aiming to succeed him. The two are going through bitter political fallout after teaming up to win elections in 2013 and 2017. Ruto’s Kalenjin tribe in Rift Valley believes that Kenyatta’s Kikuyu community betrayed them, reneging on his promise to endorse and help his deputy clinch the top office.

Other tribes are also caught in the fallout. The country’s opposition leader, Raila Odinga, sealed a political deal with Kenyatta in 2018, putting an end to a bitter political rivalry that existed since 2010. However, the details of the deal remain shrouded in secrecy, so much so that even Ruto, Kenyatta’s deputy, does not know what the ceasefire was all about. Consequently, there is a broad schism in the country’s tribes alongside the “handshake” between Odinga and Kenyatta. Those against it are supporting Ruto or appear to be sympathetic to his political cause, believing that the Kenyatta-Odinga group is out to curtail his ambition (and primarily that of his tribe), while those for it are generally hostile to Ruto and his sympathizers. 

Now back to my window. In my meditation, I am trying to reconcile the unity of the people in daily life motivated by the challenging economy, but who then become easily balkanized when it comes to politics. Tribal tensions get inflamed easily whenever a political subject comes up, and people get reminded of their roots. Earlier today I visited the market center in the neighborhood. I struck a conversation with Ronny Njogu, who comes from Nyeri, one of the counties with a majority Kikuyu population. “So, about our DP (the Deputy President Ruto), what do you think of him as our next President?” I asked to provoke a conversation.

“No, at least for me. The guy is really hungry for power and aggressive. I can’t vote for him. He will be very vengeful,” Njogu said. “But did you vote for their ticket in the last elections?” I fired back. “Sure, but the calculus then was different. I understand that Kenyatta promised to endorse him but he has changed his mind. As long as Ruto continues to antagonize him (Kenyatta), let him forget the Kikuyu vote,” Njogu asserted. The difference is sharp and emotional, and political leaders from the Ruto Kalenjin tribe have personally attacked Kenyatta and his family, giving a thinly veiled warning to Kikuyu’s living in the Kalenjin dominated Rift Valley over the reeling fallout.

“You Kikuyus in our land (Rift Valley), we either get your vote or you leave our land,” said a member of Kenya’s National Assembly from the Rift Valley region, the political backyard of the Deputy President, William Ruto. The member is a staunch supporter of the deputy president.  In the recent past, members of parliament supporting the deputy president have been arrested and arraigned in multiple cases of hate speech and inflaming ethnic tensions. The widening political fallout and speeches from renowned tribal leaders gives a scary foreshadowing of what awaits the country in 2022 if the current trend towards unrest continues.

The sharp tribal schism and bitter political fallout bring to memory the occurrences of the 2005–06 period, with its prolonged build-up to the 2007 clashes after the general elections. The election results were disputed, and a civil war-like post-election conflict erupted based on tribal affiliations. Just as in 2005–2006 era, the public estrangement with the government and politicians was profound, but for political survival, leaders excited their tribal bases and inflamed the tensions.

With only two years to elections, amid calls from the “handshake” supporters to amend the constitution, the situation feels dangerously similar. The public dissatisfaction is sky-high due to corruption scandals revolving around the pillage of public funds meant to contain and mitigate the Coronavirus pandemic and its effects. Ruto, who has been reportedly implicated in countless corruption scandals in the past, has turned an anti-graft crusader, with messaging tailored to incite the public against the government he serves as the deputy president. He and his political lieutenants, especially those from his tribe, are also on overdrive in messaging, trying to consolidate their tribe and cajole sympathetic followers into believing they are victims of betrayal and malicious state assault. 

Many experts are alarmed by the rising tensions and the ugly tone of the debates. George Kegoro, an executive director at Kenya Human Rights Commission, has warned in one of his public commentaries through op-eds that the current happenings are right from the pages of political violence playbooks so familiar from the nation’s history. “Kenya’s ethnic clashes after elections are easy to predict. It starts with politicians reneging on their private selfish arrangements, then one of them comes out playing victim and whips up the emotion of his tribe and unsuspecting public and then sell the message that they are his warriors. The violence becomes automatic,” he said. Clearly, Kenya’s lights are flashing red regarding political stability, but who is keen to note, and act?

Donald Ngonyo