July 17, 2009

Kenya’s Bill for Bloodshed Nears Payment

Memo From Nairobi (New York Times)

NAIROBI, Kenya — The envelope, please — those are the words on many Kenyans’ lips.

Ever since last year’s eruption of post-election violence, which killed more than 1,000 people and threatened to drive this once promising country off a cliff, Kenyans have been waiting to hear who masterminded the bloodshed and who will pay the price.

A Kenyan commission investigated the violence in October and came up with a list of several top suspects, widely believed to include some of the nation’s most powerful men. The names were sealed in a square brown paper envelope (incongruously wrapped with a white ribbon) and handed over to Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations who took on the role of peacemaker.

Kenyan politicians had promised Mr. Annan that they would form a special tribunal to try the suspects here, ending a longstanding culture of impunity that feeds the ethnic-political bloodshed that convulses Kenya nearly every election.

But so far, nothing. Kenya’s leaders, paralyzed by competing agendas and the prospect of prosecuting their own, have refused to set up a tribunal. So last week, Mr. Annan upped the ante. He sent the envelope with the names to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which has now indicated that it will step in if Kenya fails to act.

“Kenya Cornered,” and “Annan Ambushed Us” blared the Daily Nation, Kenya’s biggest newspaper.

On Tuesday, the bloated Kenyan cabinet (which has more than 60 ministers and assistant ministers) called an emergency meeting to decide what to do, but once again, deadlock. The Kenyan government has essentially three options: coax a rebellious Parliament into approving a special tribunal; refer the case to the International Criminal Court, which has already been criticized for picking on Africa; or do an end run around Parliament and set up a special branch of Kenya’s judiciary, whose credibility is “below sea level,” according to one human rights official.

Human rights advocates are urging their government to do something, fast.

“If we don’t deal with the impunity from this last election, the next one will be horrible,” said Maina Kiai, a former government human rights official.

Mr. Kiai says that ethnic gangs are rearming themselves across the country, this time with guns, not machetes. He contends that unless the culprits are punished for the killings last year, which included hacking up old men and burning toddlers to death, the next time there is a disputed election, which he thinks there surely will be, people will be emboldened to wreak havoc again.

“It’s not peace,” he said, of the semblance of normality that has returned to Kenya since the election. “It’s a cease-fire.”

Kenya is still wrangling with problems that go back decades, and the tribunal crisis is wrapped up in a call for sweeping change, including land reform, electoral reform and constitutional reform. The so-called grand coalition government, cobbled together after the disputed election, was supposed to tackle these issues. So far, none of those boxes have been checked either.

Nothing, though, appears more sensitive than the tribunal. In February, Parliament shot down a bill to set up a special Kenyan court for perpetrators of the post-election violence, and in recent days, lawmakers have indicated that the votes are still not there. Human rights officials are not surprised.

“If we leave it to Parliament, and I say this as an individual and not on behalf of my organization, Parliament will not pass a tribunal unless they are sure the tribunal will be dysfunctional,” said Victor Kamau, a lawyer at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.


“Because many of the murderers are in the government,” he said.

The names in the envelope have not been made public. But Kenyans have their suspicions. Several Western diplomats and human rights officials have said that Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president, and Agriculture Minister William Ruto are on the list, suspected of organizing death squads. The two men are from different ethnic groups and opposite political camps, with Mr. Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, in the president’s party, and Mr. Ruto, a Kalenjin who quickly scaled the rungs of the leading opposition movement. One reason for the paralysis over the tribunal may be that both sides, for once, have the same vested interest: continuing the impunity.

But all the talk of organizers, masterminds and planners of the post-election violence raises a big question: how organized was it?

In the days following the election, in December 2007, in which the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner over Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who is now prime minister, rival gangs rampaged across Kenya’s slums, in the hillsides and throughout many towns. Initially, a lot of violence appeared to be spontaneous outrage, vented along ethnic lines, though upon closer inspection, some of it seemed to have been organized, at least by local leaders and village elders. But what remains murky, many political analysts here say, is the extent to which top politicians were directly involved.

“I think a very large part of the violence was spontaneous,” said Abdalla Bujra, a Kenyan sociologist. “When it started, it was spontaneous. Later, there was some level of organization.”

But, Mr. Bujra argued, “none of the top leaders expected this to have erupted on a massive scale.”

Further bloodshed is another serious fear. Some people worry that if Kenya’s big men are hauled off to court, they will tell their followers to kill again.

“We have a history of politicians mobilizing their ethnic constituencies when they feel threatened personally,” said George Wachira, a peace advocate in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

“But that’s a risk we have to take,” he said. “At some point, we have to take a stand, and re-establish the rule of law.”

Or, as many other Kenyans might say, establish the rule of law in the first place.


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