‘No one has come to help me’: The unheard anger in Kenya’s slums
Surrounded by thousands of cheering supporters, opposition leader Raila Odinga took an oath on 30 January to become the “people’s president”. The mock swearing-in ceremony immediately drew parodies on social media, with people posting photos of their own oath-taking.
But the laughter died down quickly in the Mathare slum, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country. Wedged between the 82 Air Force Base and the prestigious Muthaiga Golf and Country Club, Mathare has been the site of some of the worst violence in Kenya’s history, and, more recently, the most egregious cases of police brutality in the 2017 elections.
In February of this year, street demonstrations erupted in the slum after police arrested TJ Kajwang, a member of parliament for the Ruaraka constituency in which Mathare sits, for his role in Odinga’s ceremony. Kajwang had held the Bible, and police arrested him under a colonial-era law designed to punish Africans for pledging allegiance to entities other than the British monarch.
After detaining several opposition figures, confiscating their passports and even deporting Miguna Miguna, an opposition lawyer, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government went after the media. Some of the country’s biggest television broadcasters – NTV, KTN and Citizen TV – were taken off the air for attempting to broadcast the oath. Together, the stations represent 70% of the country’s TV broadcasting. In spite of an order by the High Court to resume transmission, some airwaves were silent for nine days.
“In the space of just one week, a Kenyan government that proclaims itself a rule-of-law government has repeatedly defied nearly a dozen court orders in an alarming descent toward authoritarianism,” wrote Larry Madowo, one of Kenya’s most recognisable on-air journalists, in an article that appeared in The Washington Post.
In an eerie warning, a fake death notice was published in a Nairobi daily for Jimi Wanjigi, the main financier of the National Super Alliance (Nasa) opposition coalition. In another worrying move, on 30 January the government banned Nasa’s National Resistance Movement, the civil disobedience arm of the coalition, deeming it an “organised criminal group”.
Critics now say that Kenya should no longer be hailed as a beacon of democracy and free speech in a troubled region. “Uhuru is taking a stab at the heart of democracy that we’ve fought and died for over the last 20 years,” says Michael Chege, a professor of politics at the University of Nairobi.
After a year of high-stakes political drama, which included a Supreme Court annulment of the 8 August election and the opposition’s boycotting of the repeat poll, there is an ongoing political impasse. Adding to the opposition’s concerns, some of Kenyatta’s advisers are singing the praises of the leadership styles of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. “It seems part of a long-term strategy to help economic development without politics – which is naive in the extreme because the more they take this hard line, the more belligerent the public gets,” says Chege.
Meanwhile, there are signs that Nasa is fractured beyond repair. The absence of Nasa co-principals at Odinga’s mock swearing-in ceremony signaled the end of the coalition for many observers.
“Nasa is gone, gone, gone,” says Chege. “What’s left now is Raila Odinga, who is starting to realise the danger of being a lone ranger. He’s maintaining the fiction, knowing very well there’s nothing there.”
Praise where none is due
Some of Odinga’s most ardent supporters live in Nairobi’s slums, and many are no strangers to confrontations with the police, which have been a hallmark of Kenya’s elections ever since multiparty democracy was established in 1991.
But instead of speaking out against the evidence of police brutality, Kenyatta praised the conduct of the police during the election period, commending their “high degree of professionalism and dedication to duty”. While Nasa has accused the police of using excessive force in dealing with opposition supporters, the coalition has failed to turn that into a core pillar of its political message. But that does not mean it has not tried.
On 24 November, Nasa launched a fundraiser for the families of those killed during the election period and published a full-page advertisement in a local daily with pictures of people who died in the clashes. Since then nothing has been said about the fundraising, which has been obscured by the high-level chess game. Meanwhile, residents of Mathare remain unseen and unheard by national politicians. And because politics in Kenya is increasingly difficult to separate from violence, the election’s impact continues to take its toll.
The experience of Mathare during the 2017 election cycle hints at the origins and challenges of Kenya’s current national political crisis. Given its easy access to the city’s central business district, Mathare attracts many new arrivals from rural areas. And residents of the densely packed cluster of iron-sheet houses are mostly young and very politically active.
Because Mathare is routinely neglected by the government, it is historically a reservoir of votes for the opposition. But the ruling Jubilee Party claims a sizeable constituency there too. Cramming so many people with varied backgrounds into such a small place in a country where politics and ethnicity are intertwined inevitably heightens electoral tensions.
Despite its political currency, Mathare’s struggle with cycles of election violence remains at the periphery of political discourse. “Folks who discuss politics do it from the point of privilege,” says Abdullahi Boru, Amnesty International’s Kenya researcher. “People in informal settlements are problems to be solved and not individuals or groups with agency. Even when they are engaged, the relationship is purely extractive.”
This is symbolic of the wider phenomenon where politicians can focus their energy on undermining their opponents rather than facing voters and acting on their concerns. The ongoing clash between Kenyatta and Odinga is crowding out important conversations on the real effects of the election cycle. These include a significant number of civilian deaths and the systematic sidelining of important institutions, such as the judiciary, which was the victim of a campaign of intimidation after the Supreme Court annulled the 8 August election.
Arguably the most significant issue in Mathare arising from the election is the extrajudicial executions of young people. Nineteen young men and women were killed in Mathare by the police between 8 August and 29 October 2017 according to the Mathare Social Justice Centre. Many killings were recorded on smartphones, and the videos and photos went viral. Yet in the three weeks between the August vote and its annulment, local media declined to give substantive coverage to the violence. Only when the social media cacophony became too loud to ignore did they finally pay attention.
Victor Okoth was one such case. On 8 August, while much of the country quietly awaited the first trickle of election results, residents of Mathare hardly slept. The police had branded the settlement a “hotspot” for electoral violence and maintained a visible, intimidating presence. All polling stations in the country were to be closed by 5pm and results released immediately, but because results were slow to come in, some frustrated youth in Mathare protested. The police responded with gunshots and teargas that rattled the mabati (corrugated iron) shacks throughout the night.
The following day, Okoth was in his house with his wife, Faith Mueni, and their young daughter. Sensing the significance of the moment, Okoth headed out to the main street. “He was near the protests, but he wasn’t in them,” says Mueni before she becomes too emotional to continue the interview.
Okoth, like the majority of the victims of police violence during the election, was unarmed and killed by a police bullet while trying to get away. He was one of the estimated 100 people killed by the police between 8 August and 29 October. As the high-level political drama intensified, police responded to any incidents of unrest in the country with alarming brutality – firing tear gas into homes and shooting live rounds into crowds. Door-to-door searches in places like Mathare were typical.
“[Okoth] didn’t die immediately,” says Collins Obondo, his older brother. “So they wrapped him in a blanket, put him in the back of a police truck and drove him around for some time before they took him to the [nearby hospital]. That’s where he died”.
Like many Kenyans who protested during the elections, Collins says that he has not received any support or help from the government, and he feels disillusioned and disconnected.
Former chief justice Willy Mutunga says the government’s heavy-handed response to protests amounts to a serious threat to Kenya’s democracy. “The things that happen to public figures like Miguna Miguna get lots of airtime,” he says, referring to the lawyer who was deported for his role in Odinga’s oath. “But no one really talks about what happens to ordinary Kenyans in places like Mathare.”
Rounded up and shot
Layers of generational trauma are stacked on top of each other and paired with a lack of faith in institutions. In 2008, Mathare dominated headlines with violent ethnic attacks triggered by the uncertain December 2007 election. The Waki Commission, convened to investigate post-election violence, found that most of the 111 killings in Nairobi in this period were in informal settlements like Mathare, and that the police killed many of victims while responding to the clashes with alarming brutality. In one incident, Human Rights Watch reported that police surrounded the settlement, shot 34 young men at point-blank range and forced residents to collect the bodies. Because of Mathare’s small size, residents heard every bullet.
For locals like Nancy Wanjiru, trauma is a part of everyday life (see box). Institutions like the judiciary have failed to hold politicians accountable for their role in human rights abuses. So far in 2018, the executive has ignored at least three court orders pertaining to the election, including the exiling of former gubernatorial candidate Miguna.
“The judiciary is at a crossroads,” says former chief justice Mutunga. “They will have to decide if they are on the side of the people or on the side of the regime. Are they on the side of the constitution or on the side of those who violate it?”
This question was foretold by the government’s repeated inability to give closure to survivors of electoral violence. Once again history is in danger of repeating itself. Kenya’s failure to address the 2007 post-election crisis lingers on today in bitter memories and unanswered pleas. “I have submitted evidence and documents, even to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA),” says Wanjiru. “But no one has come down here to help me.”
The consequences of Kenya’s election cycles keep playing out in places like Mathare, and on the minds and bodies of people like Wanjiru and Okoth. They are also playing out on institutions that are supposed to be staunchly independent due to the widely praised 2010 constitution, which enshrined human rights in law in an attempt to move on from the 2008 violence.
The lessons from experiences like Wanjiru’s are clear and urgent – unless Kenya deals directly with the injustices that come with troubled elections, the disillusionment will be compounded until eventually voters lose faith in the political process altogether.
This article first appeared in the March 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine