(A lot about the Land).
“Uhuru will remain as president-elect,” says Betty, placing a basin of hot water on the floor. Her next client is badly in need of a pedicure. “The Court is having a recount for ‘the stupid voters’,” she says. “But we people know nothing will change.”
Betty is a Giriama, a tribe from down the coast. She runs a beauty saloon and restaurant in Lamu, a tourist destination offering a plethora of upscale villa rentals, a few good hotels and, for better or for worse, the luxury of empty beaches. Her husband is a cook with a European embassy in south Sudan. Together they make a pretty good living for themselves and to educate their three kids.
The couple is among the majority on the coast who feel the recount is a sham. The High Court is placating the masses to prevent the kind of bloodshed in 2007 after Raila Odinga, a Luo, ran against current incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu – and lost.
The Kikuyu may be the most populous of the nation’s 52 tribes. But in 2007, the majority of registered voters supported Raila Odinga. So when Kibaki was announced winner, all hell broke loose. Odinga’s constituents reacted with violence targeting Kikuyus. In some instances attackers blocked roads, pulled them out of matatus (ad hoc mini-vans) and hacked them to death.
The counter-narrative alleges that even before the results were tallied, Uhuru Kenyatta and friends were already planning to mobilize the Mungiki, a latter day Mau Mau cult, to murder anyone challenging Kibaki’s victory. The International Criminal Court (ICC), has indicted Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity, claiming it has evidence linking the president-elect to the sect’s leader.
That election dispute left over 1,500 dead. Over 500, 000 remain displaced in the Rift Valley today.
So, on the days immediately following March 9th, when Uhuru Kenyatta was pronounced winner, Kenyans and diplomats with international community breathed a collective sigh of relief. The election process proved a relatively peaceful one.
~ ~ ~
Betty’s relatively comfortable lifestyle does little to ease the pain of recalling how her father fought, suffered and eventually lost their ancestral plot in the town of Malindi. As she tells it, when she was small a group of Kikuyu arrived at their house with a bulldozer and told them they had 24 hours to leave. Betty’s father was luckier than most since he had other – albeit less desirable – plots to move the family to.
Jomo Kenyatta had created settlement schemes on behalf of landless Kenyans. The blueprint allowed Kenyatta and friends to buy land from the British Colonials on the cheap. Betty’s father didn’t have a legal leg to stand on; to this day the Kenyan government insists the title transfer from to British to Kikuyu hands was, if not wholly moral, perfectly legal.
“My father died of a heart attack trying to get his land back,” says Betty. “He was only 56.”
Resentment toward the Kikuyu is nothing new. Since the installation of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, in 1963, the tribe has enjoyed a dominant role in the nation’s power structure. A 2011 Forbes article ranked Uhuru among Africa’s richest men partly thanks to his father, who acquired vast swatches of prime acreage the county in the 60s and 70s.
The coast’s mainly Swahili residents fear a turbulent future if Kenyatta become president, especially if the proposed Lamu Port gets a green light. Locals claim that “heavies from Harambi House” (Nairobi’s equivalent of Washington’s Capitol Hill) have been in turn-style fashion grabbing land around the port site.
Seemingly endless human rights violations of coastal residents perpetrated by the ruling elite has led the separate organization, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) to call for Mombasa to secede from the rest of Kenya. Even before authorities blamed the MRC for some violent incidents in Mombasa, the government had already declared the organization illegal.
If the needs and concerns of the locals are not addressed by whoever becomes president, warns a spokesman for Save Lamu, a grass roots environmental organization, the area may eventually become East Africa’s version of the Gaza strip.
Raila Odinga and his Cord party once again alleged “electoral manipulation.” Nairobi‘s High Court accepted a petition filed by Odinga challenging Uhuru’s victory. So far, so good.
On Saturday, the Court will announce whether Kenyans must return to the polls for a run-off election or Uhuru officially becomes Kenya’s fourth president. A Kikuyu friend of mine said if Uhuru stays, Odinga’s more “politically immature” supporters may react violently again. But not for long. Enough police with tear gas and other weapons are on standby to make sure that won’t happen.
Betty is convinced that should Raila win, the Kikuyu will not quietly into the night. “They cannot; they’ve been in power since day one.”
In the end, she says, it really won’t matter who wins anyway.
“Uhuru and Raila are two elites fighting each other for government money. We know they are not fighting for our benefit. The people on the coast will never see any money or title deeds. So, we just want peace and for the tourists to return.”
CORRECTION — I originally reported Kenya as having 142 tribes. I lived in Tanzania for years and confused it with its 124 tribes. Kenya has 52 tribes (and according to a reader 10 are unregistered)
Categories: Conflict In Context - Field Notes