Outside a modest house in Kenya’s lakeside town of Naivasha fresh washing is pegged neatly on the line. The blue door of house number 6 offers little suggestion that this was a crime scene. Yet behind this blue door, huddled together, lay the bodies of 19 victims who had sought refuge from a mob outside. Men with machetes and matches locked them in, then set the place alight in brutal inter-ethnic attacks.
This is what happened the last time Kenya went to the polls and Bernard Ndege, whose nine children were killed there that day, shuddered because it is election time again. “I escaped with just my breath,” he said, making his first pilgrimage back.
On March 4 Kenyans face what is probably the toughest political choice of their lives: whether to choose a leader who felt robbed of the presidency last time around and whose supporters expressed their grievances in violent protests rather than through the courts, or his rival, who faces trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, accused of crimes against humanity.
Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta are the frontrunners in a presidential race where the stakes are higher than ever before. Both presidential hopefuls are scions of Kenya’s two political dynasties, who recruit tribal allies to sustain them in power. Kenya has been ruled by a small privileged elite for half a century.
Although a new Constitution and devolution are designed to temper the excesses of the recent past, how much control Kenya’s leaders are prepared to relinquish is yet to be put to the test. Kenyans will have to select six different candidates in these marathon general elections next month, yet the post of president will continue to trump them all.
If they win, Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, face the prospect of running the country from abroad while they seek to clear their names at The Hague.
Masterminding the ethnic violence
Both are due to stand trial, one month after Kenya goes to the polls, for crimes against humanity. They deny those charges. But if the presidential contest runs to a second round, they could be campaigning from the dock. Kenyatta and Ruto stand accused with two others of masterminding the ethnic violence in 2008 that brought Kenya to the brink of civil war. More than 1300 people died. Half a million lost their homes.
Ironically, their respective ethnic communities were seen as “rivals” in 2007-2008, but they formed an alliance for the “sake of peace”, they said. Parselelo Kantai, a political commentator, described it in much blunter terms: “They have a great need to be together ... their candidacy appears to be a last gasp measure to stave off prosecution.”
So, is it really in the best interests of Kenya for Kenyatta to stand for president rather than clear his name at The Hague first? That’s for Kenyans to decide.
“Of course, that’s what democracy is all about,” smiled a confident Kenyatta, who was on the campaign trail in the coastal constituencies near Mombasa. “The two are not related at all.”
It’s as though the violence last time round never happened. Political amnesia would appear to be a hard habit to break in Kenya.
Kenyatta’s main rival for the presidency is Odinga. During the last disputed elections his supporters went on a violent killing spree, alongside those of his former ally Ruto (who has joined Kenyatta’s side and faces trial at the ICC). Many fear Odinga has sold out his former allies to the ICC. But Odinga denies this: “Nothing could be further from the truth … we had a commission of enquiry that came up with an envelope of names which was handed over to [former United Nations Secretary General] Kofi Annan and the recommendations were that there should be a local tribunal. That was resisted by the very forces that are now accusing me of having sold them to the ICC.”
Kenya’s elections are being seen as a referendum on the ICC. On whether Kenya’s leadership is accountable to its own people and the world, or whether narrow vested interests of a small but wealthy clique continue to dominate. Kenya’s leaders failed to set up a local tribunal to try those accused of the worst atrocities of 2008, so the ICC launched its own investigations.
Horrible to envisage
Some Kenyans view this as an intrusion into Kenyan sovereignty but “it is not a foreign court”, said Willy Mutunga, Kenya’s reformist chief justice. For him the bigger issue is whether Kenyans embrace the wider freedoms contained in their new Constitution. “Kenyans will emerge out of this election more united,” he said, prepared to settle election disputes through the courts not on the streets, which happened back in 2008. Mutunga admitted that he is a committed optimist, given his human rights background, but “any other option”, he said, is “horrible to envisage”.
Yet there are already signs that the old political ways haven’t changed. Ethnicity is suspected to be behind recent violence in the southeast and arid north of the country in which more than 100 people died. Party primaries were shambolic in several parts of Kenya and the reappointment of senior police figures accused of being complicit in some of the violence last time around is being challenged.
But perhaps more worrying is that people with vital information for the ICC trial have disappeared – presumed dead. Among them are members of a private militia, allegedly hired by senior figures in the government to carry out brutal counter attacks, and human rights activists who sought to blow the whistle on those who allegedly funded and organised the violence on all sides.
Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor at The Hague, has expressed mounting frustration as the trial date approaches. “It has been quite a challenge in Kenya,” he said. “We know that there are elements who are actively working to find out who our witnesses are and it is irresponsible because those who are prepared to tell us their stories deserve to be protected.” At least 50 ICC witnesses are now in witness protection, but sources reveal that others who are in hiding at home are “terrified”.
The Kenyan government disputes claims that it is “dragging its feet” in response to requests from the ICC prosecutor for information. Muthui Kariuki, the spokesperson for the government, said: “The only requests pending are those that either go against the Kenyan laws or information that is not in the government’s possession.”
Back in Naivasha Ndege doesn’t harbour thoughts of revenge. He just wants justice for the killing of his young family. He won’t commit to whether this election will deliver that demand, but not a single person has yet been held accountable for the crimes committed at his home.
Powerful figures appear to be “thumbing their noses” at the ICC, despite the threat that sanctions could be imposed if there are attempts to delay the trial. The intervention of the ICC is seen by many as the first serious attempt to tackle impunity in Kenya – which has shaped the country’s politics since independence half a century ago. But Ndege is not celebrating yet.
Dec 27 2007: Kenyans go to the polls. Voting is largely peaceful.
Dec 30 2007: Incumbent Mwai Kibaki is declared the winner and is inaugurated immediately. Violence follows quickly. More than 1300 people are killed and 500000 are displaced in inter-ethnic bloodshed.
Feb 2008: A peace deal is brokered by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. Kibaki becomes president. Raila Odinga is given the new post of prime minister in a fragile power- sharing deal.
April 2008: Cabinet announced.
Sept 2008: A commission of inquiry led by retired South African judge Johann Kriegler calls for voting reform in Kenya.
Oct 2008: Waki Commission investigates the violence and calls for a “special tribunal” to be established to prosecute those behind the post-election bloodshed.
July 2009: No progress on a local tribunal. Annan gives a sealed envelope with the names of those alleged to be responsible for the violence to the International Criminal Court.
October 2009: Kenyan government says it will co-operate with the court.
August 2010: A new Constitution is approved after a referendum.
January 2012: The criminal court announces that four prominent Kenyans are due to stand trial.
March 4 2013: Kenyan elections.
Karen Allen is the BBC’s Africa correspondent. Kenya Elections: A Family Affair will be broadcast on BBC World this weekend.