By the benighted standards of East Africa the spectacle in this crowded, squalid refugee camp is all too grimly familiar: tents and shacks, children in rags, adults hanging their heads in endless solemn discussion. The talk is of ethnic cleansing, private militias, the prospect of war. "We don't want any revenge," one of them is saying. "We are not harboring any hatred. But as a human being, if you are pushed to the wall, you can be provoked." The scene could be anywhere in a vast arc of despair that has blighted this part of the world for a generation: Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. But it takes place in none of those exhausted battlegrounds. This is Kenya.
East Africa's richest country by far, familiar to safari lovers and Isak Dinesen readers, Kenya is supposed to be an exception to the regional rule of interminable wars and economic ruin. Its game parks lure nearly a million tourists each year. Telephones work, electricity flows, children go to school in shorts and knee socks. Kenya has long been a haven for other countries' refugees. The sight of Kenyan refugees is cause for alarm.
It is a brilliant Saturday morning in the lush green hills of the Rift Valley, Kenya's most fertile farming region. In the days of British colonial rule these hills were called the White Highlands, and formed a gorgeous and exotic backdrop for the khaki-clad protagonists of Dinesen, Elspeth Huxley, and Beryl Markham. But the story unfolding today is of a different kind.
"Twelve members of my family were displaced," a man I'll call James tells me. He is forty-four years old, a bewildered-looking man with tired eyes and a beard of white stubble. The interview is conducted furtively in a shack--a friend minds the door, wary of informers. This is an officially declared "security zone," barred to journalists.
James says that a band of perhaps 200 arsonists attacked his farm, wielding bows and arrows. They looted and torched his house, and drove its panicked occupants into the bush. "We don't return home because we fear we will be beaten again," he explains. "The attackers are still there." He adds, "They were organized." By whom? "We don't want to say, really."
What James won't say is by now well documented: the mob that attacked his home was organized by agents of the Kenyan government. James is Kikuyu--a member of one of Kenya's largest ethnic groups. The attackers were Kalenjin--members of the small pastoral group to which Kenya's longtime President, Daniel arap Moi, belongs. Since 1991 more than 1,500 Kenyans have been killed--mostly Kikuyus like James, but also Luos and Luhyas--and 300,000 have been displaced in ethnic clashes, mostly with Kalenjin, that have shaken Kenya's precarious unity.
President Moi and members of his ruling clique have sought to deflect responsibility for the violence by blaming age-old hatreds--stirred up, they claim, by the advent of multi-party democracy. But the evidence of state complicity is strong, and it fits a pattern that has become striking in post-Cold War Africa. Daniel arap Moi, who is seventy-one years old and widely loathed, presided for years over a predatory single-party regime that was made possible by the patronage of the West. No longer a Cold War asset, and pressured to democratize, Moi has clung to power by playing dirty. Skillfully manipulating the levers of coercion and bribery, he has sabotaged Kenya's monetary system, emasculated the rule of law, and stoked the destructive fires of ethnicity.
Is Kenya to become yet another African nightmare? Many fear so. The miracle is that it has not already done so. For years Kenya has been viewed as the proverbial powder keg. There were epochal assassinations in the 1960s and 1970s. A failed coup in 1982 exposed sharp divisions of group and class. Now the clashes have inflamed those divisions. Yet somehow Kenya confounds perennial predictions of an imminent inferno. Though tensions remain high, thousands remain homeless, and almost no one has been held accountable, the Rift Valley clashes appear to have subsided for now; the lust for revenge has been held in check. Kenyans who look at their broken neighbors and ask, "Could it happen here?" now also ask, "Why hasn't it happened here?"
I lived in Kenya for eight months recently, and traveled to all its battered neighbors in turn. I came to appreciate why Kenya is not just another African horror story:it has strengths that its neighbors never had. The country is both tearing itself apart and struggling mightily to hold itself together. Kenya is an all too typical study in the use of ethnicity as an instrument of tyranny. But it may also demonstrate the limits of ethnicity in the face of countervailing forces. The country is in the midst of a powerful emancipation drama. The United States was once a key player in that drama. No longer. Having spurred the movement toward multi-party democracy, it has, as one Kenyan says, gone "under the carpet."
"IT is a miracle that we have come this far without disintegrating," says Gitobu Imanyara, a lawyer in Nairobi who has been at the forefront of Kenya's fitful years-long struggle to break free of corrupt and oppressive single-party rule. Like many others, Imanyara has paid a price. The magazine he published, the Nairobi Law Monthly, was repeatedly raided and ransacked, and harassed out of business for a time. Imanyara has been detained four times, including once for two months in a psychiatric ward after he accused President Moi of filling government jobs according to ethnic affiliation rather than competence.