MATHARE SETTLEMENTS, NAIROBI — On Monday, March 4, Kenya will elect a new president, its first in a decade. The last time it held a presidential election, five years ago, the country tore itself apart with an atavistic ferocity that still shocks and embarrasses people here. When discussing the episode with outsiders, Kenyans, normally unafraid to meet a gaze, will look off to the side. "Other countries in Africa act like that," one hears a lot. "Not us." They don't try to deflect blame (no one mentions the CIA), but they do disagree about the causes of the violence. Tribalism is a given. Landlordism, too, some insist. Or corruption. Or inequality, alcoholism, and idleness (the local euphemism for unemployment, which has hovered stubbornly near 40 percent for years; nearly half the country lives at or below the poverty line).
Whatever their convictions on that score, and regardless of which candidate they supported last time around -- President Mwai Kibaki, who won a second term (at least officially) and will step down this year, or the challenger Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is running again-- one point Kenyans agree on is this: in those two hideous months between election day, on Dec. 27, 2007, and the signing of a peace accord between Kibaki and Odinga on Feb. 28, 2008, their government failed them on every level.
Police executed civilians; courts were ignored; the incumbent almost certainly cheated and so, probably, did his principled opposition. As Odinga and Kibaki stood by in their Nairobi mansions, refusing to instruct their murderous loyalists to stand down, poor looters went from store to store chanting: "Let's go shopping! Let's go shopping!" In many places, the only instrument of authority in force was the panga, the machete-like blade that one usually sees in the hands of street vendors skinning stalks of sugar cane, but which adapts quickly to the severing of limbs. Over 1,000 people died and a half-million were left homeless. But the numbers don't capture the horror. As local ward bosses and radio D.J.'s urged their followers to attack rival tribe-members, shouting "kuondoa madoadoa" ("remove the stains"), men were dragged from buses and forcibly circumcised. Women were gang-raped and burned alive in homes and churches. In the countryside, mobs took to each other with bows and arrows.
As embarrassing to many Kenyans, though not surprising, is that in the half-decade since almost no one has been held to account. Of the 219 officials, politicians, police, businessmen, and others recommended by the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights for prosecution, only a handful have even been investigated. The Kenyan legislature couldn't agree to set up a tribunal, so the International Criminal Court had to. It's trying four people. That Kibaki and Odinga aren't among them is, many feel, just another example of impunity at the highest levels. And if violence flares up again this year -- and it will, on some scale -- impunity will bear the gravest blame.
"I'm scared to even think about it," said Willy Mutunga, the chief justice of Kenya's Supreme Court, when I asked what will happen if Kenyan's political class, increasingly indistinguishable from its scofflaw class, acts like it did five years ago. "We won't have a nation to speak of. This election has to be free and fair, and nonviolent. If we see a repetition of what happened last time, this country will be taken over by warlords and drug-dealers."
"The whole country became like here, like Mathare," was the way a friend described it to me a few weeks ago, as Kenya nervously moved towards the election. He would know: he lives in Mathare, one of Nairobi's biggest informal settlements -- or, as it's more commonly known, a slum -- and a place run in large part by warlords and drug-dealers. Mathare is home to about 150,000 people, most of whom inhabit shanties made from eucalyptus branches and metal sheeting, or mud and wood slats. They live without plumbing or regular power, to say nothing of medical care or adequate schools, and in constant fear of crime, though crime is so constant in Mathare as to barely require the name. When it's redressed at all, it's redressed by criminals. Mathare is divided roughly into halves, one dominated by the Kikuyu ethnic group, Kenya's largest, and a politically powerful Kikuyu gang network known as the Mungiki; the other by the Luo, and the Mungiki's Luo-dominated rival gangs. As my friend and I walked through Mathare, I saw the desperation and fury in his neighbors' eyes, the fetid open-air butcheries, and smelled the urine-soaked clothing of drunks, paralyzed by chang'aa, a lethal local moonshine, as they lay face down in the dirt, and it was only too obvious what he meant. "Basic," he said. "Things got very basic during the last election."
If Kenya became like Mathare, then Mathare became hell itself. The stories are almost too much to bear. I met a group of residents who lived through the worst of it. As we sat in a dirt lot, a woman named Pauline described what happened to her on New Year's Eve, 2007. The election had taken place four days before, but for three days no result was announced. Then, on Dec. 30, amid rumors of vote-rigging, the government hastily declared Kibaki the victor. Odinga cried fraud, and said he had won. A mob of Kikuyu men (Kibaki's ethnic group) began storming through Hurum Kona, the Mathare enclave where Pauline and her family live, demanding that Luos leave. Pauline, like Odinga, is Luo. "They came into our home and pushed us out," she said. "They said ‘We don't want to see any Luos around here.'"