Until he was circumcised with a machete in front of a jeering mob and then dragged off to be beheaded, Robert Ochieng had been a symbol of modern, post-tribal harmony in Kenya.
A member of the Luo ethnic group, 16-year-old Robert had played and studied with members of another ethnic group, the Kikuyu. They were friends. And then Kenya erupted in rioting after a rigged election, and suddenly Luos were chasing and killing Kikuyus, and a mob of Kikuyus was running down Robert.
He claimed that he was Kikuyu as well, but the suspicious mob stripped him naked and noted that he was not circumcised, meaning that he could not be Kikuyu. That’s when his attackers held him down — smashing his arm when he tried to protect himself — and performed the grotesque surgery in the street to loud cheers from a huge throng.
The crowd shouted war cries and was preparing to decapitate Robert with a machete when the police arrived and rescued him. Doctors did some repair work and say he will recover physically, but as he sat in a church shelter for the displaced here in Kisumu in western Kenya, he seethed with hostility that may never heal.
“When I see Kikuyu shops that have been burned down,” he told me, “I feel good inside.” Never again will Robert be friendly with Kikuyu or have anything to do with them; he is now a symbol of the primeval tribal tensions that threaten Kenya’s future.
The prime villain is President Mwai Kibaki, who would have been hailed as a hero if he had obeyed the will of the people in the December election. Instead, he — and a cast of thugs around him — appear to have stolen the election, starting a spiral of tribal violence that has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced 300,000. Mr. Kibaki’s intransigence risks the collapse of his country, possibly even civil war.
The man who probably had the election stolen from him, Raila Odinga, is a Luo, as was Barack Obama’s Kenyan father. Many Kenyans grimly note that a Luo may become president of the United States before being permitted to become president of Kenya.
Many Kenyans also say that the United States has been a part of the problem. In our desire for stability, we acquiesced in election irregularities in countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria, inadvertently signaling that Mr. Kibaki could get away with stealing re-election.
The United States cozied up to Mr. Kibaki and initially congratulated him on his “victory,” without being emphatic enough that election-rigging is intolerable.
Since then, the U.S. has come around and played a helpful role in nudging Mr. Kibaki to make concessions, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Kenya on Monday usefully added pressure.
More broadly, the U.S. has pursued policies in Africa that are akin to our policies in Pakistan, and Mr. Kibaki is one of our African Musharrafs. In the interest of short-term stability, we acquiesce in despotic behavior that eventually creates instability. Granted, these are tough balances to strike. But look at Kenya or Pakistan today, and it’s clear that we got the balance wrong.
Flying over northern Kenya to Eldoret, you see smoke still rising from some of the countless Kikuyu farms that have been burned to the ground in areas where many Kikuyu were murdered. And here in Kisumu, the arriving Luo tell horrific stories.
“My wife was burned to death with our two children, aged 5 and 1 ½,” said Nicholas Ochieng, speaking as if in a daze. “Now I have no wife, no children, no house, no job. I have nothing.”
Mary Odhiambo, an aid worker tending to the new arrivals, said one shell-shocked woman arrived on a bus still clutching her husband’s head, wrapped up in newspapers, after a mob had hacked it off and mockingly presented it to her. A man arrived with his own severed penis in a sock.
“We have people coming in from Kikuyu areas, and they swear that before they die, they have to kill a Kikuyu,” said Ms. Odhiambo.
If Mr. Kibaki does not back down, Kenya will completely blow up. Kofi Annan is working heroically to broker a compromise, and a power-sharing agreement is possible in which Mr. Kibaki remains president for a couple of years and Mr. Odinga serves as prime minister.
But so far, Mr. Kibaki hasn’t been willing to make necessary concessions.
“If the talks collapse, there will be an explosion countrywide,” Mr. Odinga said in an interview, adding: “It will be bloodier than before.”
Machetes and Elections – New York Times