Acumen Blog

News from Nairobi

First up, we’re safe. I’m sitting in our flat in Nairobi looking out of the window at a very calm and serene day. Traffic is flowing and people are walking past the window, nearby shops are open and the sun is shining. The only signs that anything unusual is afoot is the fact that there is far less traffic than normal – many Nairobians are staying at home – and that the shops have less food than normal – food supply lines are somewhat disrupted by the troubles.

Troubles feels like the right word – this is not a civil war, nor is it ‘ethnic cleansing’ as I read on the BBC website. At present, what we are seeing is very localized violence in certain areas of Kenya (mostly the cities) and Nairobi (mostly the slums).

The violence is also relatively targeted (well, as targeted as an angry mob of young men can be). It is aimed pretty squarely at members of the Kikuyu tribe, who provided the majority of the support for the ‘winner’ of the election – Mwai Kibaki.

A little history may help to explain what you are seeing on your TV screens. The Kikuyu are the largest tribe in Kenya. As a result, they have held many of the key positions of power since independence. Unsurprisingly, many non-Kikuyu resent this and saw this election – the first for ten years with a non-Kikuyu candidate – as a chance to redress the balance. Predictably, they rallied behind the opposition leader – Raila Odinga (while most Kikuyu rallied behind Kibaki). In the run-up to the election, despite polls to the contrary, many non-Kikuyu became convinced that Raila was miles ahead and that the only way he would lose would be through fraud. In this historical backdrop, the election needed to be cleaner than clean. Unfortunately the government seem to have been reading ‘How not to run an election’. (http://jonyates.blogspot.com/2008/01/how-not-to-run-election-7-handy-hints.html)

The violence that has followed is a mixture of the immediate outpouring of frustration and anger, an attempt at violent revenge against Kikuyu, an attempt by non-Kikuyu to force a recount and opportunistic looting. In many ways the puzzle the media back in the UK should be trying to explain is not ‘why so much violence’ but ‘why so little’ (http://jonyates.blogspot.com/2008/01/why-so-much-violence-and-why-so-little.html).

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