In 2010, I visited Mt. Elgon region of Western Kenya, a place called Cheptais. I went to Nasala Primary school, where the head teacher informed me that because there were several children who were mentally affected by conflict and violence they had witnessed, they had a special needs classroom. The disturbing fact was that the classroom was full, with about 70 students out of a total 600 regular pupils in the entire school. “Those are the ones well enough to come to school every day.” He told me.
Mt. Elgon region has been the eye of the storm as concerns ethnic conflict broadly based on land rights issues. The Sabaot Land Defense Force, formed in 2006, is a militia group that took advantage of extreme marginalization by the Kenya government.
The formation of militia groups due to failure by the government of Kenya to either respond to serious concerns in ethnically diverse sections of the country, or the deliberate marginalization and oppression of entire ethnic communities is a consistent post-independence narrative.
When the mostly illiterate Sabaot youth led by Wycliffe Matakwei decided to form their small nation state, complete with taxation, kangaroo courts, judgments and executions, the rest of the country just ignored them. It is believed that Matakwei’s group consisted of about 25,000 young men and women, who were recruited at the behest of politicians, with the intent to influence and control the voting pattern in the region. As the recruiting process increasingly became brutal, the politicians lost control of the militia group, and the Sabaot Land Defense Force became the de facto authority in the region. The SLDF were known torturers, killers, and criminals and were the most feared militia group in Western Kenya. Throughout this, the Kenya government remained slow to respond if at all. The rest of the country simply ignored the harrowing reports in the media.
Over a period of 2 years, the SLDF employed the most extreme and gruesome tactics to instill fear in the people of Mt. Elgon. Tales of mass rape, mass graves, torture, beheadings and almost ritualistic killings indicate the level of atrocities that SLDF were committing.
In 2008, the Kenya government finally responded, and instituted military action through a unit deployed to Mt. Elgon region. Within a short span of weeks, the threat posed by the SLDF was wiped out.
What people forget, about the atrocities committed by the SLDF, is that these were crimes committed by a militant political group against members of their own ethnic community. It wasn’t strangers but neighbors who would rape, maim and kill. Survivors of these atrocities thus will naturally be very afraid to name their tormentors, because they live with them. So, in the fashion that is so Kenyan when it comes to such grave crimes, no investigation or prosecution of the perpetrators occurred. The leadership of the SLDF were executed by the Kenya Military unit, and those members that survived went back home to live among their victims in silence.
When we speak of justice for victims of violence, we so often forget that these victims may know their attackers. They live with the killers of their children, wives, and parents. The survivors of the conflict are forced to see those who murdered their families live in peace in their villages, with no fear of reprisal or prosecution.
In a country where the absence of justice means that victims live with murderers it is no wonder that every election we thus have ethnic cleansing in certain parts of the country. The events of the post election violence in 2008 are just a culmination of a consistent pattern of murder without reprisal for the sake of spreading fear and gaining the upper hand during an election.
The Kenya Judiciary and the Legislature have failed repeatedly to address these crimes and seek justice. Often times, members of the legislature are suspected to be behind the conflict themselves. This means that victims of atrocity are quite assured of facing the same atrocity every 5 years and, like in the case of the SLDF, they are assured of living under the rule of dangerous criminals even when there are no elections.
So whenever it suits the political class, they will orchestrate the formation of militant groups, that will attack and spread fear, even among their own neighbors with the sole intent of winning an election.
Whenever it suits the political class, they will then unite with their fellow politician from another ethnic community and claim that they have brokered peace between the two communities.
Whenever, it suits them, they will repeatedly claim that this “peace and unity” that they have between themselves as politicians is representative of the situation in every village.
Because it suits them, they will thus claim that the victims have moved on.
In Kenya, victims of violence can be assured of being silenced and intimidated in the name of politics by even their own ethnic community. This is not necessarily a phenomenon uniquely present in the cases at the International Criminal Court, but it is, for the first time in Kenya, being represented and expressed by the victims lawyer, Wilfred Nderitu, and in the 900 brave victims willing to speak up.
In Kenya, one does not identify ethnically, but politically. Thus, for example if you are Kikuyu, you identify with the Kikuyu leaders. If you are Kalenjin you will identify with the Kalenjin leaders, and so on. Your democratic right to vote is not determined by your own understanding of the political ideologies of candidates, because they have none. The long standing political ideology among the ruling class has always been to utilize one’s ethnic community to muster votes. So, the politicians will “unite” with a candidate from another ethnic community and declare that this is the person they will support and vote for. They will of course, expect the community to follow suit, failure to which they will organize gangs to spread threats, intimidate and harass dissenters.
So when the victims of these crimes which are politically motivated remind the country that they suffered, were maimed, killed, raped and displaced they are roundly hushed by their own people because they dare to speak up against those that instigated violence, especially when these politicians are now “united.”
Because Kenyans don’t actually identify ethnically but politically, it is no surprise thus, those victims of violence will face oppression from their own ethnic communities, their own neighbors and their own family and friends.
It is a psychologically devastating situation, to be so isolated, living in fear of reprisal, oppression, intimidation, and to expect no end to this. The absolute failure of the Kenya government to institute prosecution and legal proceedings in a swift and adequate manner so that people can live in peace is the reason why Kenya is a violent and primal society.