Historical injustices threaten another violent Kenya vote

(iStock)
(iStock)

Nairobi - Jane keeps the well-worn sarong wrap neatly folded in her home in a Nairobi slum, a memento of a life-altering event a decade ago.

She was draped with it after two policemen raped her and left her to rioters the officers had been deployed to stop during deadly post-election violence.

"I lost consciousness after the first two civilians raped me. After that, I don't know how many people did it," she said. "All this while my 5-year-old daughter was hiding in an empty water container. She hid there when the policemen started breaking into houses and looting."

The 38-year-old tailor says she regained consciousness, with a broken hip and knee, when an elderly neighbor gently dressed her in the sarong. The neighbor "had also been raped by the police as her grown-up son watched and then they ordered him to clean his mother," Jane said. "I can never forget her compassion." The Associated Press generally doesn't identify victims of sexual crimes.

Kenyans again face the threat of violence as the highly competitive August 8 presidential election approaches, even as many who survived the deadliest period in the East African country's history 10 years ago say they still haven't found justice.

Experts have warned that the government's failure to address old wounds risks passing them along for generations with the potential for cycles of violence.

More than 1 000 people died and 600 000 were evicted from their homes after what international observers called a flawed presidential election in 2007.

Both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto faced charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court after being accused or orchestrating the violence, but the court dropped the charges and cited unprecedented witness interference and bribery.

A government commission of inquiry found that deep-seated hatred over unresolved injustices and the belief that the court system was biased led to the explosion of violence - a pattern triggered by each election cycle.

In response, the government committed to reforming the police and judiciary and adopting a new constitution to check the president's powers. It also established a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to deal with historical injustices.

Though some changes have been made, Kenya has not reformed the police force, whose officers were found by the government to have killed more than 400 people in the 2007 unrest.

The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission's report in 2013 named Kenyatta as a suspected orchestrator of the post-election violence. Kenyatta promised action once the report was handed over to parliament, but lawmakers have never debated it.

If Kenya's injustices are not addressed it's just a matter of when, not if, violence will occur again, experts say.

"If we don't have a national conversation then we will always be walking on eggshells whenever we have elections," said Njonjo Mue, a senior adviser for rights group Kenyans for Peace With Truth and Justice. Mue said the report by the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission has been "gathering dust in parliament" because it named powerful families, including Kenyatta's, as perpetrators.

Jane and seven other victims of sexual violence in the 2007 chaos have been in court since 2013 accusing the government of failing to protect them. Jane says the attack left her destitute, as her tailoring equipment was stolen. She also became the sole support for her two children when her husband left, saying he could not be married to someone "who has slept with whole world."

Very few of the perpetrators of post-election violence have been successfully prosecuted, Mue said.

Ensuring justice for past violations and addressing their root causes is imperative in establishing a society that abides by the rule of law, said Tina Alai, the head of the US-based Physicians for Human Rights, which is assisting Jane and other Kenyan victims of post-election sexual violence seek justice.

The lack of justice could lead victims to feel marginalised and resentful, Alai said.

Already there is violence ahead of Kenya's election. In the Rift Valley at least 60 people have died this year due to land clashes as semi-nomadic herdsmen invade ranches that often are owned by Europeans.

The herdsmen claim the land was theirs before the British colonisation. Government officials have said politicians are inciting the herders in the hope of gaining votes.

The longer such historical injustices are left unaddressed the more likely it is there will be a repeat of the violence seen around many of Kenya's elections, said international law expert Ronald Slye of Seattle University, one of the international members of Kenya's Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission.

"In the short run it may make sense to ignore such tensions in order to achieve short-term political gains," he said. "In the long run it risks, at best, a situation of stasis in terms of development and, at worst, a repeat of some of the worst violence the country has seen."

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