Sunday, January 13, 2008
Hopes raised by John Kufuor’s visit dwindle as the Ghanaian president and African Union boss leaves Kenya after a failed attempt to find a solution to the political gridlock.
MOMBASA, Kenya, Jan. 11 – “Nyeusi ya wananchi, Kijani ni ya ardhi, Nyekundu ni ya damu na Nyeupe ya amani. Ni hakika ya bendera, daima mimi mKenya….Mzalendo halisi…” (Black for the citizens, Green for our land, Red for the blood and White for peace. The purpose of our flag, Forever I am Kenyan….A patriotic citizen…)
These are the words of Eric Wainaina’s song “Kenya Only,” which reverberate across various homes, as Kenyans ethnic violence eats the country away.
Adopted as the unofficial song of mourning soon after the August 1998 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Wainaina’s song, which many in Kenya now consider an alternative national anthem, is back on air. This time it’s calling for peace, after the ethnic clashes that erupted across the country in protest to President Mwai Kibaki’s supposed Dec. 27 vote rigging.
As I leave our house in the morning I encounter just outside our gate on a path that leads to Bangladesh, a sprawling slum in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa, lorries and truckloads of the dreaded paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU). They have in the past few days been restoring calm and imposing an unofficial curfew on paths leading from the informal settlement area into the middle class estates. Gunshots in the night have become the norm rather than the exception. In the evenings and nights the police have kept vigil and formed a man wall surrounding and ringing in the slum dwellers, who can’t leave their shanties to access medical care and emergency relief.
Spent cartridges, wasted lives
As I stoop severally to pick up spent cartridges, I ask myself why Alfred Mutua, the government spokesman, has reiterated time and again that the police are not using live bullets. The reports released by the government showing that only ten people have died in Mombasa due to the skirmishes is amazingly low, given that every night for the past two weeks one or more persons has been shot dead in our neighborhood.
Mutua fiddles while Kenya burns terming what was happening as “isolated” cases of violence. Around the county, things are not different. There are aerial views being broadcasted of burnt homesteads from Mt. Elgon, Eldoret, Kericho, Kisumu, Nairobi and Mombasa. More than 500 people have died and an estimated 250,000 Kenyans displaced. Thousands more continue to flee as refugees into Uganda.
I fear for my daughter and other children who play outside and we can’t wait for them to go to school on Monday, already a week late.
My neighborhood Mikindani situated in Mombasa West is a shell of its former glory.
Supermarkets were looted, completely destroyed as marauding youths broke down concrete walls and iron burglar proof grills, stole electronics some of which were fixtures and selectively torched shops known to belong to Kikuyus and Merus, the two ethnic groups deemed to have voted enmasse for Kibaki.
We were virtually under House Arrest for all of two weeks – woe to people who had not stocked the refrigerators and pantries!
Many neighborhoods have been affected by the skirmishes and looting, which have left residents without food. Those who are able to make it to corner markets and supermarkets find prices up one 100 percent. The tourism sector, which has been an integral part of Mombasa’s economy continues to decline, as tourists vacate beach hotels enmasse due to the negative travel advisories given out by their countries and consuls.
The calm that was slowly returning to the coastal area following reports that African Union Chairman and Ghanaian President John Kufuor had arrived in the country to mediate talks between Kibaki and opposition leader, Raila Amolo Odinga, appears to be in jeopardy after Kufuor’s efforts failed.
Several Mombasa residents I have talked to believe Kibaki acted in bad faith by naming half of his cabinet when President Kufuor had just arrived for mediation talks.
It is believed that the majority who voted for Odinga are the poor and low-income earners who are not feeling the effect of the more than 6 percent economic growth that the Kibaki government is flaunting.
The masses’ salaries have been near stagnant for the past five years and 50 percent if the county is still jobless.
Yet the prices of basic commodities have shot up. For example, between August and November 2007, the price of a dozen eggs shot up to 100 shillings (about $1.50), an increment 66 percent. There were also tremendous increases in the prices of wheat flour, bread and maize, Kenya’s staple.
Curses, black magic, poison
On lighter note, looting seems to have declined. Looters in Kisauni and Mwandoni in the northern coast of Mombasa returned property after one businessman engaged a Muslim elder to invoke an Islamic prayer called Al Badiri. The prayer is said to be invoked by people who were wronged in order to seek justice from God. It is one of the most feared curses here in Mombasa, for it is believed to bring calamities to those it is directed at.
Fears of bewitchment have also helped reduce looting. Among Kenyan cities, Mombasa is often rumored to be a city of black magic. There has been gossip about business owners summoning the powers of magicians to help return their looted goods. The most intriguing tale was of a man who carried a large flat screen on his back, but couldn’t unload it because it got stuck to his body. Not even family members could take the TV off his back, the tale goes. The man roamed around with the TV for days like a mad person, sleeping at night while standing, and he eventually keeled over and died.
Local many residents believe that such prayers and curses, already resorted to by many others, actually do work. The fears of severe consequences, including in ability to pass urine and have bowel movements, have prompted many looters to return goods to original owners.
No end in sight
It doesn’t seem to help matters that as I file this article several dailies are reporting that Electoral Commission Chair Samuel Kivuitu disowned the elections results that declared Kibaki the winner.
As I write this, primetime news reports indicate that the opposition, Orange Democratic Movement, have promised a showdown in Parliament, come Tuesday, when the August House officially opens. Because they claim that ODM is the legal government, they have said they are going to sit on the right-hand side of the National Assembly Speaker, the area normally reserved for the government.
Odinga has also said that the opposition rally postponed last week will back on at Uhuru Wednesday.
In the run-up campaigns of the just concluded elections, the slogan and rallying call of Kibaki’s Party of National Unity was, “Kazi Iendelee” (Let the work continue), and ODM’s was, “Pamoja Tusonge Mbele” (Together, let us move forward). Clearly, their mottos have both come to naught, as Kenya has been set back economically, just like it happened during the 1992 Molo ethnic clashes, and the 1997 Likoni upheaval.