Issue 40 - Article 12

Kenya's displacement crisis

October 9, 2008
Lucy Hannan, journalist and filmmaker, Voxcom Ltd, Kenya

Kenya’s post-election violence in January and February displaced at least 300,000 people. When President Mwai Kibaki made resettlement a priority, after appointing the coalition cabinet in March, a resolution to the crisis seemed to be in sight. No one wanted the displaced camps to become institutionalised. Lessons from the region show that long-term camps are killers – incubating HIV/AIDS, deepening impoverishment and promoting dependency – as well as a political blight on the nation. Better to push for resettlement than leave the displaced vulnerable to rain, disease and political manipulation.

However, instead of seizing the political initiative and properly resettling the displaced, Operation Return Home – Rudi Nyumbani– was in fact a good example of why uneasy fears about post-crisis Kenya should be taken very seriously. In its haste to empty the camps, the government failed to first establish a reconciliation process between hostile communities, and instead sent people home with no adequate safety net in place on the ground.

The politics of displacement

The Grand Coalition – an agreement which saved Kenya from all-out conflict when it was established on 28 February – is effectively based on ethnic representation, but is an imperfect compromise. The issue of the displaced immediately became a source of political division. Displacement during the conflict is almost exclusively associated with Kikuyu populations, the ethnic majority, even though other ethnic and economic groups have suffered. Displacement in the Nairobi slums and among migrant workers from Western Kenya has not yet been addressed – and is unlikely to be addressed soon, because the repercussions of ethnic conflict in the capital and balkanisation in Western Kenya will require long-term economic and political solutions. These displaced groups have never really been acknowledged by Kibaki; humanitarian workers and mediation actors say that the president’s obsession with resettlement has, from the start, focused on his own Kikuyu community. Issues of resettlement – or return to historically disputed land – have been concentrated in the Rift Valley. Odinga, now prime minister, and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), have fallen silent as far as displaced non-Kikuyu groups are concerned – even though they constitute the ODM’s support base. This ‘invisible displacement’ bodes ill for Kenya. Affected migrant and slum populations are the poorest of the poor and, disenfranchised and dispossessed, among the most likely to turn to violence again in their frustration.

Local and international aid workers have emphasised that the 300,000 displaced during the post-election crisis did not constitute a humanitarian disaster – the situation was adequately handled by the local Kenya Red Cross society as lead agency without major international intervention – but there could be one if no political solution is found, or at least genuinely attempted. Conflict and displacement has always been an issue around every Kenyan election in flashpoints like the Rift Valley – it was only the magnitude of the violence this time that was unexpected. The primary humanitarian challenges during the crisis were insecurity, access and the problems posed by multiple displaced sites, rather than the enormity of need. The major issue now is political resolution and the security of resettlement – meaning a government commitment to community reconciliation, resolving historical land issues and addressing criminal and political justice.

The politics of resettlement

Since its launch in May, Rudi Nyumbanihas been carried out more like a security operation than a resettlement strategy. It was executed immediately, on announcement, through the President’s Office, with trucks turning up at the camps the following day with armed guards. The displaced were promised protection, building materials and basic assistance. Some humanitarian agencies, among them Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), complained of ‘forced resettlement’, with the security forces going from tent to tent and compelling people to get on trucks against their will. More typical, though, are people dismantling their tents and moving off on the basis of empty promises, or because they feel they have no choice in the matter.

Humanitarian agencies, while reiterating the principle of voluntary resettlement, are trying to provide continued support for the displaced. In some of the worst-affected places, like North Rift and Molo, displaced people, without any food or basic supplies, have optimistically pitched their tents next to their charred and destroyed homes. There is little confidence that the security forces will be able to protect them – despite much being made by the government of 40 newly built police posts. Again, numbers are not the issue. Without a political solution to the underlying causes of the crisis, the security forces will not be able to provide protection. There has been no attempt by the government to face up to the failure to provide protection during the crisis – or to examine the political and ethnic divisions that continue to undermine the security forces. It is a common lament among the displaced that the police either took no action or actively participated in the post-election violence – the ultimate civilian disillusionment with a force that has always been perceived as corrupt, weak and brutal. Even the much-heralded professionalism of the Kenyan army has been called into question this year, with the military facing accusations of torture in a counter-insurgency operation in Mount Elgon, launched just after the post-election violence receded in March.

So far, the reception offered by host communities has varied. In a few heart-warming cases, people who had attacked their neighbours with machetes and paraffin came to meet the displaced and welcome them home. Others, however, have simply refused to allow the displaced back. Many of those coming from the camps – still traumatised by the violence they experienced – can only hope that the silence that greets their arrival constitutes acceptance. This is not always the case. When the first truckload of hopeful returnees left Nakuru Showground Camp for Timborora in the Rift Valley they turned round and came back the same day. The camp manager explained that there was ‘an issue’ – the local Kalenjin community sent a message to the displaced that they were not welcome. Movement fluctuation and unease mean numbers are unclear, and we do not know how many have really been returned under Rudi Nyumbani. Some have chosen to remain in the camps. Some went back to their homes, then returned to the camps. Others are becoming increasingly impatient as they wait in destitution for the government to follow through on promises of compensation, building materials and food. A second round of Rudi Nyumbaniin August was meant to compel anyone remaining in camps to return home Many of the displaced are under the impression that this is their ‘last chance’ to be transported home, even though no significant reconciliation efforts have been made to date.

There are other serious practical obstacles to resettlement. During the conflict, there was massive theft as well as destruction and reclamation. Businesses were looted and thousands of maize bags seized, along with farm tools, stocks and agricultural inputs. Some families have returned to find cattle being grazed on their crops. It is generally acknowledged that an entire planting season has been missed in some of Kenya’s most productive areas, and there is no predicting the impact of this resettlement exercise on the rest of the farming year.

Reconciliation talks between communities have so far mainly depended on individual initiatives, of the local administration and elders, encouraged by humanitarian workers in the camps. Community reconciliation and justice for the displaced has not been given any obvious priority by the cumbersome, bickering Grand Coalition. Calls for an amnesty for post-election crimes to encourage receptive and constructive relations between communities have only demonstrated the absence of a policy. Simply put, the political class shows no genuine intention of addressing the causes of Kenya’s greatest crisis since independence, and is focusing instead on the leadership battle in 2012. Kenya, it seems, is heading at an extraordinary pace back to square one: with the dangerous evasion of basic justice and accountability; the breathtaking opportunism, corruption and disengagement of the political class, across party lines; and the demise of the security forces, from the local policeman to the professional soldier. The displaced and the resettled alike are now squarely back on the frontline of Kenya’s unresolved conflict.


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