Councillor Joseph Chelelgo said no one should call it ethnic cleansing just because his town’s Kikuyu population had been burned out of their homes. For a start, he claimed, houses were razed only after hundreds of Kikuyu left Mogotio, in the heart of Kenya’s strife-torn Rift Valley, for reasons he could not fathom. ”If they have already quit and the house is empty then what does it matter if it is burned? They are not coming back,” he said. ”I think they were afraid but it was nothing to do with people in this town.”
That is not how Nancy Magure sees it. She was born in Mogotio 45 years ago. Her parents, children and grandchildren all lived in the town but the mob armed with machetes, bows and arrows and Molotov cocktails that kicked in her front door at about 2am last Tuesday told her that as a Kikuyu she did not belong there.
”We were told ‘get out, get out’. When they saw we were resisting, refusing to go, they started burning the house,” she said. ”We knew this was coming. They knew this was coming because they planned it. Now they want to pretend they didn’t know.”
Magure was one of about 500 Kikuyu forced out of Mogotio, many of them fleeing as flames engulfed their homes.
At the weekend some of the houses were still smouldering. They included the home of Walter Njuguna, a prominent Kikuyu businessman who fled days earlier. Fire was still eating through the thick roof beams. What was not destroyed was plundered as people swarmed over the wrecked house.
Next door, a butchery and house belonging to a Kikuyu woman called Wanjiru were being torn apart by people ripping off the corrugated metal roof and pulling out wooden pillars and window frames.
Some of Mogotio’s political leaders said the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to the stealing of the election six weeks ago by President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu. The vote count turned against the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, a Luo who also has broad support among the Kalenjin majority in the Rift Valley, in suspicious circumstances.
But Magure and other Kikuyu from the town who are now refugees in a stadium in Nakuru, the area’s major town about 40km to the south, said the election dispute was a pretext and that the assault on them was a planned move driven by long-standing enmity from the Kalenjin that amounts to ethnic cleansing. She named Chelelgo and another councillor, Charles Koskei, as among those responsible.
”We got the threats that we have to leave that place even during the election campaign. They said we are Kikuyu, we don’t belong there. It was the Kalenjin youths but it was also the politicians, these councillors and chiefs. They were playing a big role in this during their rallies. Koskei was promising they would remove ‘the decorations’, and the decorations were the Kikuyu.
”They said those who do not belong here must go back to where they belong. They said if we win or if we lose, it is the same, you must go. This was something organised,” said Magure.
It is a claim made by many Kikuyu who have fled towns and villages in the Rift Valley and who are now crammed into Nakuru. They reeled off their former homes — Eldoret, Molo, Burnt Forest and places beyond — and then named chiefs and political leaders they said incited people against the Kikuyu.
No one was killed in Mogotio but about 10 Kikuyu were murdered in outlying areas, just a fraction of the nearly 1 000 official death toll in violence across Kenya since December’s disputed presidential election.
The killing in western Kenya continued at the weekend with scores more murdered and thousands of people — Kikuyu, Luo, Kalenjin — on the move to escape the violence.
Most of Mogotio’s Kikuyu fled to Nakuru but a few sought shelter in the police compound to guard the last of their possessions. Among them was Ibrahim Madedi (69) who was sitting in front of a pile of old beds, plastic water tanks, milk crates and a wheelbarrow. His seven children, 15 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren — all born in Mogotio — had fled the town.
”They came at night banging on the door and told us to get out even if you are naked from your bed and then they poured paraffin on the house and burned it,” he said.
Madedi said the attitude towards the Kikuyu soured during the election campaign and long before the contested result was announced. ”These guys didn’t want anyone to vote for Kibaki. They said they don’t want to see any different flowers here. The message was that if you vote for Kibaki you are not part of the community. They were saying when we win, you will go,” he said.
Charles Koskei, the councillor, runs a general store in the centre of the town. As he talked, people stopped to greet him and shake his hand. He disputed Magure’s claim that he said the Kikuyu would have to leave. ”That’s lies. Nobody said that,” he said.
But Koskei paused and then added: ”During campaigns people here had different techniques of acquiring votes so you use any language to get votes. Some other candidate was telling people that if he was voted out they would have to leave. But that was not me.”
Asked who it was, Koskei said only that it was ”an opponent”.
The election was the immediate cause of the violence across Kenya but in the Rift Valley it is underpinned by longstanding ethnic rivalries over land distribution after British colonisation.
No group suffered more under British rule than the Kikuyu, who were robbed of the best of their land in the region north of Nairobi by white settlers and forced into a subservient existence.
But the British also took land in the Rift Valley that was once the home of the Kalenjin. At independence, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, turned over large areas of the valley to his fellow Kikuyu. The Kalenjin believed they had been robbed twice, particularly as the Kikuyu finally began to prosper.
Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin, exploited that resentment to divide and rule before elections and to gerrymander the vote. Fifteen years ago several thousand Kenyans died in fighting stirred by Moi to target Kikuyu calling for multi-party democracy.
Those divisions can still be heard in the language of the councillors and other Kalenjin in Mogotio, who talk about themselves as the ”locals” and Kikuyu as outsiders.
Koskei lumps all the town’s Kikuyu into the same category: as Kibaki supporters collectively responsible for the Kenyan president’s actions in the disputed election. ”It was clear Kibaki represented the Kikuyu and Odinga was for the other tribes. It was 41 tribes against the Kikuyu. That meant tensions were so high,” he said. ”Nobody chased them. They just feared and they left. Their houses were empty so they were burned. I think the language during that time made them run away,” he said.
The government sent in paramilitary police after the local force failed to stop the burnings and attacks. One of its senior officers in Mogotio, who did not want to be named, said it looked to him as if there was an organised and systematic move to rid the town of its Kikuyu population. Koskei said the Kikuyu were welcome to return to Mogotio — provided they recognised that Odinga had won the election.
”If they don’t come back then the tribal rift will remain. If the election is resolved everything will be over but so long as Kibaki is president they should not come here,” he said.
There seems little prospect of an early return. The attacks on the Kikuyu has prompted an equally violent response against the Kalenjin and their Luo allies in other parts of the Rift Valley.
Communities are separating. At the weekend thousands were in the move; Kikuyu headed east in lorries piled high with battered furniture, plastic water tanks and bicycles.
Ibrahim Madedi said he did not think he or his family would ever return to the only place they called home.
”These people don’t want Kikuyu in their town. When they burn you out of your house there is only one message there,” he said. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008