The ethnic violence that hit Kenya after the 2007 poll is haunting the run-up to the 2013 elections. Some say flaws in the political system are impeding reconciliation.
For Peter Njechia every step through Ndefo is difficult. He points to a burnt-down shell where a house once stood. The rusty iron door is still on its hinges, but there is no roof. Grass and other vegetation grow in the open air. "This used to be my shop. All my things were here," he said. The attackers threw burning torches through the window. "I couldn't save anything," the once prosperous shopkeeper recalled. The small shop, along with other ruins, is situated on Ndefo's main thoroughfare. Ndefo lies in the center of Rift Valley, 180 kilometers (112 miles) northwest of Nairobi. It may be far away from the corridors of power, but it symbolises poignantly the problems overshadowing Kenya in this election year.
The only road in Ndefo with a tarred surface cuts through the village like some frontier or border. Members of the Kikuyu, Kenyan's biggest ethnic group, live on one side of the road, the Kalenjin, who are one of Kenya's five big tribes, live on the other side.
Five years ago, after the last elections, the two sides turned on each other. The Kalenjin were exacting revenge for alleged ballot rigging by the Kikuyu. The Kikuyu's retaliation was equally brutal.
Symbolizing the whole of Kenya
On the Kikuyu side maize has been laid out to dry in the sun among what is left of the foundations of the now ruined buildings. Children are playing and life in this two tribe village follows its customary routine. At least that is the impression that the head of the village, Grace Wanjiru, seeks to convey. "At first we couldn't even talk to one another, but now we can," she said. There were numerous meetings after the violence and Kikuyu and Kalenjin took it in turns to visit one another. "Everything is now back to normal," said Wanjiru.
Peter Njechia gives a rather different response when asked about reconciliation with the Kalenjin. "Who are we supposed to have started reconciling with. You can't have reconciliation if no one asks for forgiveness," he said bitterly, pointing at the other side of the road where the Kalenjin live. The ethnic demarcation line found here in Ndefo exists right across Kenya. It also determines Kenyans' voting patterns.
In the 2007 elections, the Kalenjin voted for the opposition coalition led by Raila Odinga. A few weeks before polling day, Odinga with his alliance of Kalenjin, Luo, Kisii and other ethnic groups appeared to be ahead by comfortable margin. They were therefore furious when the governing coalition led by Kikuyu president Mwai Kibaki was pronounced the winner of the elections by a narrow margin, three days after polling day. The Kalenjin vented their anger against all members of the tribes whose representatives had supported Kibaki. A few weeks later, Kibaki supporters took their revenge. They also attacked their neighbors and their neigbors' wives and children.
Philemon Mkesia's daughter still has the injuries to her arm she incurred when neighbors burnt down the family home. She was four years old and was able to escape to safety, but her three-year-old brother was burnt to death. Philemon Mkesia does not wish to return to his old job as manager of a flower farm in Naivasha which he held before the violence. "The atmosphere is too hostile, only Kikuyu live there nowadays," he said. Mkesia is now without a job and lives with his family in a slum in Nakuru, the provincial capital.
Martin Brown works in Nakuru. He's a young Kenyan involved in peace projects for young people and knows of many personal tragedies caused by the post-election violence. He says the way in which Kenya is trying to cope with the legacy of the unrest is wrong. "We have started repairing buildings and creating institutions, instead of attending to the needs and feelings of the people" he said.
Brown was referring to the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya, which the government set up after the two sides in the disputed election signed a National Accord in March 2008. The deal came after mediation by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Peace talks were to be conducted at local level under the accord and this did happen in Ndefo. There was dialogue between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin. However the talks did not come about through any initiative of the Kenyan government, but were launched by a foreign organization linked to the Catholic church. Ezekia Tarer represented the Kalenjin at the meeting. Asked about the present state of reconciliation in Ndefo, he makes sure that none of his Kikuyu neighbors are in earshot before replying."The peace here has been forced on the people. If your nieghbor gets a new house and you don't, can you really be at peace with yourself," he said.
Displaced persons dissatisfied with compensation
As elsewhere in Kenya, the Ministry for Special Programs has ordered the construction of new dwellings for the displaced in Ndefo. But the Kalenjin complained that they were only being built on the Kikuyu side of the village and they knew why. The minister herself was Kikuyu.
On the Kikuyu side, they, too, are unhappy with the government's aid program. To build just 39 new houses when 1,500 were burnt down, that is being seen as far too few. Large families which once occupied several houses now have to make do with just one. Their complaints don't end there. "Our possessions, our furniture were all destroyed," said Virginia Wangari. "We have had to replace everything ourselves. We didn't even get a single chair replaced. Our children are still sleeping on the floor," she added.
This is unlikely to arouse much sympathy among the Kalenjin. When they compare themselves with the Kikuyu, they feel they have been at a disadvantage for a long time. Many of the other 40 ethnic groups in Kenya are also troubled by a deep sense of injustice. The reasons date back to the time when Kenya was a British colony.
The Kikuyu lost the most land to British settlers in Central Kenya. The only Kikuyu who benefitted were a few collaborators. After independence, the Kenyan government bought back tracts of land, much of which ended up in the hands of the Kikuyu elite. Small holders from the Kikuyu and ethnic groups from West Kenya began to move into Central Kenya - and into Rift Valley. Until that time the area was more or less the preserve of the Kalenjin. They still regard the Kikuyu as occupiers.
Non-Kikuyu ethnic groups also complain of discrimination on the labor market. Philemon Mkesia, a member of the Luo, told of his unsuccessful attempts to find a job. "If you're looking for work here, the first question they ask is which tribe you belong to. If it is not the right one, you don't get the job. Kikuyu are always given preferential treatment, because the political leaders are Kikuyu." he said.
Trying to change attitudes
The habit of bestowing favors in return for political backing is one of Kenya's major problems. It reinforces the prevailing opinion that you have to vote for candidates from your own ethnic group if you are going to get your slice of the pie.
Brown believes that Kenya will never be a peaceful democracy as long as this system persists. "We will never solve this problem unless we change our ideas. At the moment we do not define ourselves through our own personal identity, but through ethnicity and that has mostly negative connotations," he said.
He is convinced that any change in attitudes must come from the country's youth. With the help of international organizations, he arranges seminars which encourage young people to free themselves from ethnic prejudice.
Not all Kenyans will feel like voting on March 4. According to the Network for Internally Displaced Persons, some 50,000 people are living in displacement camps unfit for human habitation. Many Kikuyu are among them. A further 350,000 have sought refuge with friends or relatives and have not received any official assistance at all. They are unlikely to be queueing up at the polling booths to vote for a new government likely to display as little interest in their concerns as the present one.