An Encore for Chaos?

The embattled despot Daniel arap Moi, of Kenya, has sought to preserve his regime by exploiting ethnic divisions. So why is Kenya still intact?

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.

"We have a President who is determined to fulfill his prophesy that the country is not cohesive enough for multi-party democracy," Imanyara says. "His desire is to prove he was right, even if it means destroying Kenya as a country." Kenya includes more than forty ethnic groups, Imanyara explains. "The President has consistently pursued policies that encourage the various ethnic groups to think of themselves as different, not as one nation."

Imanyara's office overlooks Moi Avenue, the bustling main thoroughfare in downtown Nairobi. The Kenyan capital boasts glass office towers, luxurious safari hotels, art galleries, and first-class restaurants. But beyond this cosmopolitan core is a teeming, crumbling Third World city. A handful of Kenyan fat cats and tourists with their cameras and tony safari outfits are stared at with palpable envy by the impoverished hordes of "wananchi"--"the masses." Most wananchi live in huge, foul, densely packed shantytowns where glue-sniffing street kids prowl for garbage, and illegally distilled "chang'aa" is the primary source of income.

Unemployment approaches 50 percent in Nairobi, and crime is rampant. The Kenyan papers are filled with hair-raising tales of gangsterism, and of the crude, largely futile police war to suppress it. While I was there, the Nairobi police shot dead twenty criminal suspects in just ten days. Meanwhile, after a gang armed with Uzis and AK-47 assault rifles robbed a downtown bank in broad daylight, the fourth major bank robbery in a month, a witness told the Daily Nation, "When you see seven armed policemen running away, then things are hot."

Kenya's politics is every bit as volatile. During the time I was based in Kenya, not only were thousands of clash victims living as "internally displaced" refugees, but two journalists were arrested, beaten, and jailed for months after questioning the independence of the judiciary; a prominent former member of Parliament was put on trial for his life on charges widely condemned as fraudulent; the nation's doctors and university lecturers went on strike; opposition rallies were regularly banned; an opposition candidate died in a mysterious automobile accident; an opposition MP was attacked in his home with a petrol bomb; and the President's closest political confidant--"total man" Nicholas Biwott, a former Minister of Energy--remained a principal suspect in the 1990 murder of the Foreign Minister.

FROM behind every counter and every desk in every store and office the dour image of "His Excellency Daniel T. arap Moi, C.G.H., M.P., President of the Republic of Kenya and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces," stares impassively into the middle distance. The portrait is a mandatory totem of loyalty. President Moi, who succeeded Kenya's first President, Jomo Kenyatta, in 1978, personifies the rottenness of the Kenyan state. Surrounded by parasites and sycophants, Moi long ago proved himself a shrewd master of Big Man politics: tough enough to crack heads when necessary, he more often adroitly manipulates the flow of cash as the conduit of power.

Politics in Kenya has always been a means of securing "access to the meat." Rampant corruption has sapped the economy and widened the gap between a rapacious few and the sullen wananchi. Companies with links to Moi have skimmed monumental sums off government contracts in wheat, oil, and land, and particularly off foreign aid. Budget allocations are sold to the highest bidder. One series of scams in the early 1990s cost Kenya the equivalent of 10 percent of its annual gross domestic product.

In the 1992 election campaign Moi's cronies established a network of "political banks" that siphoned money out of the Central Bank and pumped it into the ruling party's campaign. This brazen abuse of the monetary system to finance the bribes and blandishments of an election campaign almost doubled the money supply in six months, creating 100 percent inflation.

The idea of the state as a cash cow did not originate with Moi. The British milked Kenya for the benefit of their empire and a handful of white settlers. The British also perfected in Kenya the administrative apparatus of "indirect rule," whereby a network of appointed tribal chiefs exercised unaccountable power on behalf of an unelected sovereign. The system survived independence in 1963 and remains the basis for virtually unlimited executive power at the local level to declare emergencies, arrest and punish, and issue licenses. Elected members of Parliament cannot even address their constituents without the permission of chiefs who are accountable only to the President.

Jomo Kenyatta and members of his family amassed a huge fortune in land, precious stones, ivory, and casinos during his fifteen-year rule after independence. Kenyatta's crimes were small compared with the systematic looting of Moi's gang, but they sowed the seeds of the current malaise. Kenyatta also established the Kenyan tradition of ethnic chauvinism, bestowing the fruits of power primarily on his own people, the Kikuyu, who enjoyed privileged access to land, jobs, and education.

To no one's surprise, the Kikuyu emerged as leading opponents of Moi's regime, and they predominate in the movement toward multi-party democracy. Moi and his ruling party were returned to power in 1992 with barely a third of the total vote, their victory owing largely to ethnic and personal divisions among the opposition parties. There was also substantial evidence of fraud and intimidation, not least in the Rift Valley, where elaborate gerrymandering left a hugely disproportionate number of parliamentary seats in a province from which nearly all non-Kalenjins had been violently expelled.

THE clashes have roots in genuine competition over land--always a sensitive issue in a largely rural country with one of the highest population-growth rates in the world. The Rift Valley was traditionally the home of pastoral groups, including the Kalenjin and the Masai. During the colonial period white settlers expropriated this fertile land. They staked out vast farms and recruited native cultivators, notably Kikuyus, Luos, and Luhyas, to work their fields. After independence, in 1963, British settlers began to sell off their lands. President Kenyatta ensured that his own people, the Kikuyu, were the primary beneficiaries.

So there has long been a reservoir of resentment and mistrust of the Kikuyu. The challenge for a beleaguered despot like Moi is to exploit that resentment--stoke it, harness it, even arm it, in order to destabilize opponents and discredit multi-partyism.

Moi and his associates have repeatedly portrayed calls for political pluralism as anti-Kalenjin. Officials refer to the Kikuyu as "aliens" and "foreigners," and to the Kalenjin and other pastoral groups as "natives" and "original inhabitants." At rallies and on the state radio they warn that the opposition is arming itself to eliminate indigenous residents from the Rift Valley.

Moi's government sought to bolster these accusations at a nineteen-month-long show trial in which a former MP, Koigi wa Wamwere, a militant Kikuyu, was convicted of raiding a police station to acquire arms. The state's case was repeatedly discredited in court, and trial observers unanimously decried what Amnesty International called the "abusive use of the law" in Koigi's trial. Clearly, the government's aim was to cultivate a fear that Kikuyus were arming themselves. Koigi was sentenced to four years in prison and six lashes with a cane.

The Rift Valley violence coincided with calls from officials in Moi's inner circle for "majimboism," a federal system based on ethnicity. Proponents of majimboism have urged the routing of all other ethnic groups from lands occupied before the colonial era by the Kalenjin and other pastoral groups. They use the term "madoadoa"--"black spots," a chilling echo of South African terminology in the era of forced removals--to refer to land occupied by non-Kalenjins. Many Kenyans regard majimboism as nothing less than ethnic cleansing.

To be sure, some opposition parties are identified with ethnic groups, and they, too, engage in exclusivity. The difference is that Moi suffocates and divides his countrymen using the institutions of the state: the police, the courts, the powers of arrest and detention.

A Luhya farmer I'll call Charles, sixty-four, whose family was driven off their land by a marauding gang of Kalenjin warriors, expresses little doubt about who is responsible for his predicament. Huddled with a half dozen other embittered Luhyas in a refugee settlement near the Uganda border, Charles snorts "Bubeyi!" --"Lies!"--when I float Moi's argument that multi-partyism leads to tribalism. "The Kalenjin who pierce their ears--these are the people who did this to us. But it's their leaders who began this violence. If it were just a question of tribes fighting each other, then the government would have intervened."

The Kenyan government has hardly intervened. For the most part it has turned a blind eye on the attackers and has shown outright hostility toward those who have sought to investigate incidents or help the victims. The government declared clash areas "security zones" and barred journalists from entering them. Kenya's Attorney General, Amos Wako, told me that murder charges had been brought only seventeen times in connection with the clashes (roughly one charge for every 100 murders) and had resulted in only eight convictions. "The problem is evidence," he said.

More likely, the problem is the steady erosion of the rule of law which has been one of Moi's most destructive--and ominous--legacies. Kenya has never been a full-fledged police state, but Moi has systematically eviscerated the system of law and accountability.

ONE of the most prominent political bruisers in Moi's "Rift Valley mafia" is William ole Ntimama, a flamboyant demagogue who, as Minister of Local Government, is the country's most outspoken advocate of majimboism. Ntimama is renowned for his fiery speeches. At the height of the clashes he warned Kikuyus that they would be "cut down to size like the Ibo" of Nigeria, who perished by the hundreds of thousands in the disastrous Biafran war. Ntimama is widely accused of inciting members of his own tiny pastoral group, the Masai, who have formed an alliance with the Kalenjin to drive thousands of Kikuyus off their land.

Ntimama, sixty-five, is a gregarious man with an affable laugh and a huge gap-toothed smile. He greeted me warmly in his gigantic office at the Ministry of Local Government. "The British have messed up our people," he declared. "They have actually made us part of a zoo, part of the animal kingdom. So there is a lot of bitterness."

The Masai were, in fact, marginalized by British and Kikuyu alike. They are one of Africa's last truly traditional groups, the subject of countless Western picture books that romanticize these tall, thin, nomadic cattle herders in their distinctive red blankets and bead necklaces, their earlobes pierced and stretched and their hair caked with ocher. Anyone who has been on safari in Kenya will have seen vans full of gawking tourists aiming their cameras at the Masai as if they were creatures from the wild.

"For all the marginalized people, when there is a flare or some uprising, or certain ethnic differences, it is very easy to write it off and say it is ethnic cleansing, or stirring ethnic conflict," Ntimama told me. Fair enough. But of course Ntimama is not himself among Kenya's marginalized. During three decades in politics he has proved to be a shrewd and ruthless operator. Mostly self-educated, he was born and raised in the town of Narok, on the majestic savanna that runs across much of southern Kenya. In 1974 Ntimama became the chairman of the Narok County Council, responsible for managing the Masai Mara, Kenya's most famous--and lucrative--game reserve. Thousands of tourists bearing huge quantities of hard currency visit the Mara each year to observe its breathtaking array of wildlife. Ntimama and his fellow council members have skimmed off the bulk of the Mara's gate receipts. They have granted concessions to safari-lodge builders in exchange for generous kickbacks. Ntimama has a substantial stake in Governor's Camp, one of the most expensive lodges in the reserve.

I asked Ntimama about the rule of law in the Rift Valley. If the Masai have a just cause, is there no legal remedy? "The law applied is a discriminatory law," he replied. Should the Masai then just take the law into their own hands? "I have never told anybody to fight," Ntimama protested. Laughing, he added, "We never really cleansed anywhere other than Enoosupukia"--a village from which 10,000 Kikuyus were displaced. So, then, they did cleanse in Enoosupukia? Ntimama roared with laughter. "I deny ethnic cleansing," he declared. Did he have any idea what would happen to the refugees from Enoosupukia? "I can't say," he replied, shrugging. "Maybe the United Nations is trying to find a solution."

Later I asked Attorney General Wako why he didn't arrest Ntimama for incitement. "If you arrest Ntimama, there would be riots," Wako replied. So much for the rule of law.

WHY, then, has Kenya not disintegrated? What happened in Rwanda scared Kenya. The fact that civil war has not already occurred is an indication of how dreaded the prospect of war is. Kenyans are no strangers to war. They fought the Mau Mau insurgency against the British in the 1950s. More than 11,000 guerrillas were killed in that war, and thousands more were detained and tortured, or displaced to horrific concentration camps, where many died. (The Mau Mau, for their part, killed only ninety-five whites, including thirty-two civilians.) Nearly all those involved in the Mau Mau struggle were Kikuyu, and Kikuyu elders have been counseling restraint.

"The memories of Mau Mau are still with us," says a man I'll call Peter, fifty-eight, another embittered Kikuyu who was driven from his farm by Kalenjin warriors. In 1953, when Peter was sixteen, his family was displaced from the Equator Ranch of the settler leader Lord Delamere. Three of his cousins, suspected Mau Mau guerrillas, were killed by Kikuyu "home guards"--natives employed by the British. "We do not favor any war or conflict, because they only bring misery," Peter says. "The most important thing we want is peace."

Kenyans generally are much better educated and better informed than their neighbors. A generation of Kenyans has grown up with the benefits of relative stability, which have resulted in a substantial middle class. Elsewhere in Africa the vertical ties of ethnicity represent both the only source of identity and the only channel for economic and political power. Kenya's middle class cuts horizontally across ethnic lines. Urban Kenyans have as much in common with other urbanites as with the rural members of their groups. And the Kenyans who have been most provoked by the clashes--the Kikuyu and the Luo --are also among the best educated.

Gibson Kamau Kuria, a Kikuyu lawyer who is the dean of Kenya's human-rights movement, and who once spent ten months in prison for his advocacy, puts it this way:"The Kikuyus and the Luos are most involved in the market economy, and they were in the forefront of the struggle for independence, as well as in the move toward democracy. They understand that the problem is one of bad government and corrupt economics, not bad tribes. Once you conceptualize the problem as dealing with bad governance, then you know the solution lies in good government, human rights, and sound economic management, not tribal warfare."

Rural Kenyans tend to follow the lead of their better-educated brethren. Even among the Kalenjin, many recognize that their interests don't necessarily coincide with those of Moi's tiny clique. "The Kalenjin are not a united front," says Bethwell Kipligat, a diplomat from the Nandi clan of the Kalenjin. "The Nandi leadership was aggrieved by the clashes and helped the victims. And they spoke out. This is a sign of hope."

Kenya has developed a vigorous civil society that likewise cuts across ethnic lines. This is an essential point. The Catholic and Protestant churches, the Law Society, human-rights groups, the independent press--all have proved remarkably resilient despite years of harassment. After the Cold War the institutions of civil society blossomed with newfound support from Western donor countries. They have been prodigiously exposing, documenting, analyzing, protesting, mediating--and reducing the capacity of the state to manipulate truth. "Before, the West had supported the regime," Kipligat says. "Now the West was echoing what the civil society was saying. The civil society became stronger than the regime. There was no choice but for the President to change course."

Finally, President Moi is a shrewd survivor. He seems to realize that he cannot simply crack heads on a huge scale without paying a price. He harasses but does not crush. "Moi makes tactical retreats when he thinks he is pushing people too far," explains Kiruri Kamau, the managing editor of the embattled independent weekly The People. "Moi is very cunning. He is calculating." When asked why the clashes haven't escalated, Kamau replies, "Moi realized these things had gone too far. If there is a war, Moi would stand to lose so much."

DURING the Cold War the United States poured billions of dollars into Kenya, helping to sustain Moi's patronage-based government and enrich his clique. In 1990, however, the United States suspended its aid and played a key role in inducing Moi to lift his ten-year ban on opposition parties. The U.S. ambassador at the time was Smith Hempstone, a flamboyant, outspoken right-wing newspaperman who had been appointed to this diplomatic post, his first, by his friend George Bush. Hempstone was a vociferous critic of Moi's regime. He denounced the arrests of dissidents and the shutting down of newspapers, assailed election irregularities, and went out of his way to be seen with opposition leaders. Hempstone was embraced as a hero by Kenya's fledgling democracy movement. That a major world power shared the goals of this small circle of idealists altered the psychology of all the players.

Hempstone returned home in 1993 and was replaced by Aurelia Brazeal, a career diplomat who, in contrast, projects an image of studied ambiguity. "Quiet diplomacy" is the term favored by those who believe that the differences between Brazeal and Hempstone are more of style than of substance. Kenyans call Brazeal's approach "appeasement," and they make no secret of their disappointment. Brazeal, for her part, has evidently grown tired of being compared with her predecessor. She granted me an off-the-record interview on the condition that there be no questions about Hempstone.

Brazeal has been particularly elusive on the core issue of the rule of law. At a time when the President is deploying state power to harass and intimidate opposition voices almost daily, the U.S. response has been notably muted. Publicly, at least, Brazeal has espoused a "pox on all your houses" view. In a speech she made while I was there, which was covered as the lead story in the Sunday Nation, she bemoaned what she called a "lack of understanding" between government and opposition. "There are not many people seeking to build a middle ground," Brazeal said. "Kenya's political atmosphere sometimes resembles the siege of a medieval European castle, with the government refusing the opposition entry and the opposition armies catapulting missiles over the walls. What Kenya needs is the flag of truce, a ceasefire in this incessant conflict."

A nice metaphor, but in fact there is no organized violent resistance to Moi. Opposition figures, however, have been clubbed, firebombed, jailed, and tortured, and nearly all have repeatedly been barred from addressing their constituencies. In such an atmosphere the ambassador's evenhanded appeal for a "middle ground" understandably grates on Kenyan ears.

It may just be that Ambassador Brazeal lacks political intuition. The United States has pressed for economic reforms the purpose of which is to close off conduits for corruption. Evidently pleased with the results, Western donors last January pledged $800 million in renewed assistance to Kenya. They thereby sent a signal that economic reforms need not be matched by political reforms--and repression has escalated ever since.

The question is not just whether Kenya will self-destruct but whether it will be blocked from achieving its enormous potential. Like South Africa, Kenya could be an economic locomotive for its long-suffering region--and a much-needed symbol of success. Its emancipation process needs support. An election looms in 1997. The West need not take sides in the struggle for political power, but Kenyans deserve a clear stand in favor of the institutions without which their country cannot hope to be genuinely stable: a free press, free assembly, above all the rule of law. The United States has too often operated in Africa on the assumption that lawlessness and ethnic turmoil simply go with the territory. But Africans themselves have always objected strenuously to this view.

"In Kenya we have internal refugees," says Martha Karua, a bright young lawyer in Nairobi and an opposition MP. "Just because they are small numbers compared with Rwanda or Somalia or Sudan--if you compare us with those countries, of course we are better. The international community is judging us as an African country. They look around us and say, `Kenya is a shining light'--and that is where they are wrong." Her advice to the West: "Hold us up to the same standard, not an African standard."

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1996; An Encore for Chaos?; Volume 277, No. 2; pages 30-36.