Can two men once charged with war crimes tame ethnic violence in Kenya?

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016
By Abigail Higgins


Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, center, at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Oct. 8, 2014. He faced charges of organizing ethnic violence after the 2007 Kenyan election. The charges were later withdrawn. (Bart Maat/European Pressphoto Agency)


NAIROBI — Kenya’s president and his deputy launched a new party last weekend that pulled together 12 political groups in a bid to lessen the ethnic divisions that have contributed to horrific violence at election time.

The formation of the Jubilee Party could be a significant step in a country where political groups are almost invariably drawn along ethnic lines.

But if the message of reconciliation was welcomed by many Kenyans, the messengers raised eyebrows. That’s because President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have been accused of fomenting the same kind of ethnic violence they now say they are fighting against.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court accused Kenyatta and Ruto of financing and instigating ethnic mobs that took part in violence that left 1,200 dead after the disputed 2007 presidential election.

Both men said they were innocent, and the prosecutors later withdrew the charges, blaming interference with witnesses. While the two men were in competing parties in 2007 and are from two ethnic groups pitted against each other during the violence — Kenyatta is Kikuyu and Ruto is Kalenjin — they joined forces on a ticket that won the 2013 election.

“Our journey has been defined by a fundamental choice: whether to unite in all of our diversity, whether to achieve greatness, or whether to walk the path of disunity which inevitably has led to tragic consequences,” Kenyatta said Saturday to a roaring crowd at a rally at Nairobi’s Kasarani stadium.

Kenya became a multi-party democracy in the 1990s after decades of what was effectively one-party rule since its independence from Britain in 1963.

In recent years, Kenya’s political landscape has featured dozens of parties jockeying for support. They are almost invariably constituted along ethnic identities. Kenya has 32 ethnic groups, but its party politics have been dominated by Kikuyus, Kenyatta’s ethnic group, with Luos generally forming the opposition.

President Obama’s father was Luo, and Kenyans are fond of saying that it is easier for a Luo to become president in the United States than in Kenya.

Memories of the 2007 electoral violence are fresh, and the remaining fault lines are worrisome as Kenya approaches another presidential election, to be held next year. Kenyans are eager for messages of reconciliation in whatever form.

“That has been our biggest problem since independence,” said Douglas Kivoi, a policy analyst at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, speaking of ethnically based politics and violence. “Parties that are nationally based advocates for the interests of the country, not their ethnic group,” are what he thinks Kenya needs.

Kenya is often described as a beacon of stability in a region suffering from conflict, particularly in Somalia and South Sudan. The United States and other governments consider Kenya a critical ally in the fight against the Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabab. Kenya is also the gateway to the region for international businesses.

Nairobi, the capital, has been plastered with billboards announcing the launch of the new party and featuring Kenyatta and Ruto grinning and joining hands. Their clasped hands, paired with the slogan Tuko Pamoja (“We are together,” in Swahili), flit across television screens.

The two men are often seen in public wearing matching suits, a sign of what the Kenyan media refer to as their “bromance.” The president’s own party, the National Alliance, was one of those dissolved to form the new party. While many of the other parties are smaller, regional groups, the fact that they won’t be splitting the vote means Kenyatta and Ruto will be a formidable force in the next election.

Kenyans said they hope the formation of the new party was a positive sign, even if the leaders’ past behavior has been questioned.

“You don’t reject something good because you don’t like the source,” Kivoi said. “If the outcome brings the country together, then we welcome the idea, we want to move together as a country that is united.”

But Adjoa Anyimadu, a research associate for the Africa program at London-based Chatham House, said it would take more than the launch of a new party to change the way the country’s politics works. “The issue of ethnicity in Kenya remains really potent,” he said.

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