Nairobi, Kenya – Police kicked in doors as Kibera slum residents fled. One officer shot and killed seven people in the span of two hours, including a 12-year-old child.
Two hours away, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, mobs took to the streets with machetes, clubs, and metal pipes, attacking anyone not in their ethnic tribe. In the weeks following Kenya’s disputed presidential election in December 2007, the country’s long simmering ethnic and social tensions boiled over. More than 1,000 people died.
“It wasn’t just the election, but the election was the trigger,” said Pauline Baker, president of the Fund for Peace. “Sometimes countries just reach a tipping point where people expect change, and elections are often the vehicle of that change. When those elections are rigged or stolen, people say, ‘That’s it. We have no other alternative,’ and violence breaks out.”
In Kenya, it was an election many voters presumed opposition leader Raila Odinga would win. But instead, after suspicious delays in the vote tally, incumbent President Mwai Kibaki declared victory. That ignited violence between the country’s two largest ethnic groups: Kibaki’s own Kikuyu tribe and Odinga’s Luo.
The near collapse of an African country rarely attracts the attention and quick international action that was eventually applied to Kenya, long considered the most stable and economically developed nation in volatile East Africa.
Pressure by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and African, European, and US leaders helped broker a power-sharing agreement in which Kibaki remained president but shared executive control with Odinga, who became prime minister.
Although the deal put an immediate end to the violence, tensions continue to linger more than a year later as issues of constitutional reform, land use, corruption, and extrajudicial killings remain unresolved due to political deadlock.
“You need to know that this country was at the precipice,” Odinga said in an interview with 12 US editors and producers who traveled to Kenya as part of the International Reporting Project. “The institution of the presidency has emasculated all other institutions of governance. It’s what we call the ‘imperial presidency.’ We want to dismantle that, and introduce checks and balances into the system.”
Government reforms won’t be easy in a country where politicians are more likely to use their positions to acquire personal wealth than serve their public. Kenya’s inability to root out corruption has created a dangerous “pattern of dissatisfaction” among its citizens, said Francois Grignon, director of the African Program for the International Crisis Group.
“They don’t believe that the state authority is serving everybody equally and fairly,” he said. “They don’t believe the electoral system is going to arbitrate or provide a legitimate, nonviolent modality to arbitrate between political disputes.”
There’s a “creeping level of fragility” in Kenya that wasn’t there before, said Stephen Ndegwa, a native Kenyan and lead public sector governance specialist at the World Bank. While Kenya has transformed from an authoritarian state to a more democratic model, a rise of ethnic violence and criminal gangs means the state is losing its monopoly on power. It serves to demonstrate that governments and the international community have not taken issues of state stability seriously enough.
“We have not thought through state fragility as a consequence of massive political change,” Ndegwa said. “These become tremendously important vulnerabilities for a place like Kenya where the entire edifice could unravel because of the pressures you have from the lack of fulfillment of people’s economic expectations: the grinding poverty, the inability of the state to fully control violence, and the inability of politicians to actually create compacts that hold and allow them to direct the state in ways that assure stability and economic growth. So it’s really problematic.”
A First for Responsibility to Protect?
The mediation Kofi Anan led to end the violence in Kenya has been, in retrospect, considered by many to be one of the first applications of the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, a UN declaration Annan helped craft to prevent genocides and other mass atrocities.
“Here we have the first proper illustration of what an R2P effort could deliver,” said Grignon. “In its implementation it did illustrate that, yes, political action can contribute successfully to contain a crisis, to save lives, and it was a successful illustration of what R2P really meant on the ground with both African and Western actors working together.”
Still, there were some failures in the Kenyan intervention, and some lessons to be learned, Grignon said. The power-sharing agreement was essentially a compromise between two personalities: Odinga and Kibaki. It never laid out any future benchmarks for reform. That has resulted in Kenya’s present political gridlock, a disaffected public, and little leverage for the international community to use in holding Odinga and Kibaki accountable for the reforms they promised.
Baker, of the Fund for Peace, doesn’t see the Kenya intervention as a true application of R2P.
“I think it was more traditional diplomacy that worked, at least temporarily,” she said. “R2P really has great potential in moving the international community forward in a way I think it needs to be moved, by creating a norm. The problem, however, is that it’s been negotiated to the point where there are prior conditions that have to be met before there’s real international intervention. That could be used by those who want to block action.”
The R2P declaration says nations have the primary “responsibility to protect” their populations from genocide, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity. And the international community has a responsibility to remind states of this responsibility and offer assistance as needed—all of which could delay a stronger intervention.
“The problem, of course, is the state is the problem in a lot of cases, not the solution,” Baker said.
International Reporting Project. View reports from 12 US editors and producers that traveled to Kenya in June 2009 as part of a fact-finding trip.