Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

Q&A: In Kisii, Kenya, "Food Shortages, Because People Are Afraid To Buy Supplies"

Interview with Kwamboka Oyaro

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 4 2008 (IPS) - A few days ago, IPS East Africa Correspondent Kwamboka Oyaro was obliged to travel to Kisii in western Kenya on urgent family business. Coming just after the Dec. 27 general elections, the timing of the trip was unfortunate; but, we said to ourselves, she&#39d be back in Nairobi shortly afterwards.

A week – a dubious presidential vote count, and some 300 deaths – later, our writer remains stranded in Kisii, a town that is dominated by people from the ethnic group of the same name, and bordered by Luo, Kalenjin and Maasai communities. The violence that has riven Kenya since President Mwai Kibaki&#39s disputed re-election has made leaving Kisii dangerous; and, with the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) now demanding that the presidential ballot be reheld, there appears little chance of an immediate solution to the crisis.

ODM leader Raila Odinga accuses Kibaki of rigging the vote to give himself a second, five-year term in office. Various groups of election monitors have refused to give a stamp of approval to the presidential poll, with some also raising concerns about the turnout in certain areas known to favour the opposition. Against this background, ethnic rivalries have flared: the president is a member of the Kikuyu, Kenya&#39s largest tribe, while Odinga belongs to the Luo – the second-largest ethnic group.

IPS Regional Editor for Africa Jacklynne Hobbs managed to reach Oyaro by telephone in Kisii, Friday.

IPS: What is the situation like in the town?

Kwamboka Oyaro (KO): As soon as Kibaki was declared president on Sunday evening and immediately sworn in, youths took to the streets, chanting pro-ODM slogans and barricading the road between Kisii and Kisumu (another west Kenyan town). The police were forced to shoot in the air to disperse them, and you could see the town covered in smoke as a result of the tear gas canisters that were used. Eleven people were reported dead in Kisii on Sunday.

The following day was a market day in the town, but those who came to trade found themselves in the midst of riots between police and angry youths. Three more people were reported dead Monday.

Kisii is in Nyanza province, where the ODM presidential candidate was born – but Kibaki got about 200,000 votes from Kisii. The neighbouring Luo community then started blaming the Kisii for giving Kibaki such a high number of votes. People who have businesses in Luo towns reported that their businesses were set ablaze, so there are tensions between the Kisii and the Luo.

At present, there is no mobile phone air time, and people are often unable to communicate. Those who have air time are selling it to others at 20 to 50 percent more than its original price. There are food shortages, because people are afraid to go to town to buy supplies. There are also few vehicles on the road because of a lack of fuel, and fares for transport have doubled.

There have been no newspapers in Kisii for the last three days. Ordinarily, the town receives the &#39Daily Nation&#39, the &#39East African Standard&#39 and the &#39People Daily&#39.

IPS: The post-election violence has prevented you from leaving Kisii. Apart from problems with fuel supplies, how exactly has transport out of the town been affected?

KO: One can travel from Kisii to Nairobi by going by road to Kisumu, then taking a plane to the capital – or via the Kalenjin areas.

But, accessing Kisumu is almost impossible. A former colleague from the &#39Daily Nation&#39 who is the bureau chief in Kisumu traveled to Kisii yesterday and found that at some sections of the road, people had felled trees to block passage. He had a police escort from Kisumu. At one point when they alighted to remove a tree, they found themselves surrounded by angry youths; the police escort had to shoot in the air to disperse these people.

Another woman I spoke to was forced by youths to alight from a public vehicle along the Kisii-Kisumu road, and asked for her identification card. When they realised from her name that she was a Kisii, they beat her up and threatened to rape her; but she begged for mercy, and they let her escape into the bush.

There are unverified reports that more people were killed yesterday along the road between Kisii and Nairobi that passes east through Kalenjin areas, and also reports of people being taken from public transport vehicles and killed. It&#39s said that a trench has been dug across the road.

About 2,000 people were evacuated from Elodoret* to Kisii, apparently with the intention of taking them further east to Nakuru (along the Kisii-Nairobi road). But, they&#39re still at the Kisii police station and Catholic church, as police are afraid to escort them to Nakuru. Just before the evacuees came, two police officers escorting senior government officials were reportedly killed in the Kalenjin area, which lies along the road between Kisii and Nakuru.

IPS: Do people believe that the resistance campaign by Odinga has a chance of success, or that Kibaki is unlikely to be dislodged from office?

KO: They are divided. Among the elderly, the view is that those leading the resistance campaign, the youths who have been demonstrating, are just reckless, and that they will give up in due course. One of the women said nothing is going to change the fact that Kibaki is now in office, so Odinga should focus on leading the opposition.

But a young man I talked to said that if it came to taking up arms and going to the bush to fight, he was "ready to die for democracy". Another made the statement, "I will not stop protesting until we get back what&#39s rightfully ours," – meaning that Kibaki must surrender the presidency to Odinga.

A woman in her 20s told me that, "What Kibaki has done to Kenyans is like someone waiting for your cow to calve, stealing the cow and calf as you watch, then later telling you to accept the fact. Do you think that&#39s possible?"

IPS: Is international mediation seen as useful?

KO: No. People, young and old, are saying that Kibaki has taken a position, as has Odinga, and that this mediation is a waste of time. They don&#39t see it working. Speaking about Desmond Tutu&#39s visit, a businessman told me that "If we needed a Nobel laureate, we have our own."**

IPS: What of the power-sharing government that has been suggested in some quarters as a solution to the impasse? Does anyone believe this would have a chance of success?

KO: Those who support Kibaki say he can&#39t share government, that it won&#39t work. Odinga supporters just want Kibaki to step down for Odinga.

A retired teacher told me that Kibaki did not respect the memorandum of understanding*** he had with Odinga and others after 2002, and that he cannot be trusted to honour a new power-sharing agreement.

IPS: What is the general assessment of Kibaki&#39s record since he was first elected in 2002?

KO: Even those who are against him admit that during the past five years, there has been economic growth in the country, peace, and – above all – free primary education. An old man I talked to said, "Before Kibaki took over, primary school children were sent home every day because of school fees…For me, I need nothing more than free primary education, because I know once children are in school, they are there the whole day."

But, a teacher who supports Odinga told me that "What&#39s needed is economic empowerment for all, so that Kenyans can afford quality education for their children. Free primary education is just like dangling a carrot in front of the poor, while Kibaki and his cronies enjoy the national cake. They don&#39t take their children to these public schools."

Both sides also agree that Kibaki&#39s greatest undoing has been tribalism: that Kikuyu people got key government appointments and took many job opportunities compared to the rest of Kenyans while he was in office.

Generally, people say Kibaki is too slow, that he has talked about improving infrastructure, but that the road network remains in a very poor condition.

IPS: And, do people believe that Odinga is capable of introducing a fresh style of government?

KO: Opinion among youths who fanatically believe in Odinga is that he will bring real change. They expect employment, better houses and all the good things that come with money. To them, Kibaki&#39s re-election and his motto – &#39Kazi iendelee&#39 (&#39The work goes on&#39, in Swahili) – is seen as a continuation of the situation where riches are enjoyed just among a few, while the majority continue to suffer.

* Up to 50 people were reported killed in Eldoret Tuesday when the church they had taken refuge in was set alight; the victims were apparently Kikuyu.

** This is in reference to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, won the same award two decades earlier; he traveled to Kenya this week to mediate between Kibaki and Odinga.

*** The memorandum of understanding was signed ahead of the last polls, held at the end of 2002, between the National Alliance Party of Kenya (NAK) – then headed by Kibaki – and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), under Odinga; these parties formed part of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), which went on to win the elections. The memorandum guaranteed Odinga the post of prime minister in return for his support of NARC, even though no such post was provided for in the constitution at the time. The initial draft of a new constitution, issued in 2002, proposed that a prime minister&#39s post should be created, and presidential powers reduced.

The memorandum of understanding also provided for high-ranking government posts to be shared between NAK and the LDP.

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