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Human Rights Watch Kenya Report Tracks Warning Signs Leading Up to December Violence

Human Rights Watch Senior Africa Researcher Chris Abin-Lackey authored the Kenya portion of the group’s World Report for 2007, which was released in Washington on Thursday. In it, he wrote that “a new pluralism, though flawed and very fractious, has helped stabilize the country” since President Mwai Kibaki’s first term began in 2002. Noting that the run-up to last December’s elections was far less violent than those of the 1980’s and 1990’s, he admits that a lot has changed in the past month. Albin-Lackey has just returned from a post-election trip to Kenya. He says he surveyed an extensive range of post-election ethnic clashes across the country and what he says was a brutal response by authorities, resulting in extrajudicial killings and the displacement of many innocent citizens.

“We were looking at the response of the police to attempts to protest in the wake of the election. In Kisumu, we documented dozens of extrajudicial killings by the police. We interviewed people, including children as young as 15 years-old that were shot in the back by police officers without any justification, in some cases, left bleeding by the side of the road, and those stories fit into a very widespread pattern of police misconduct that has to be investigated,” he said.

In the Mount Elgon region of the Rift Valley, clashes among clans of the Kalenjin ethnic group that killed around 200 during the year and displaced thousands more were exacerbated in the wake of the post-election frenzy. Chris Albin-Lackey also says that despite a notable decline in pre-election violence in the period leading up to the December 27 vote, the election aftermath opened up deep wounds and reignited underlying tensions in Kenyan society that still need to be addressed.

“In the Rift Valley we visited a number of communities that have been badly affected by violence in a number of communities, where every last Kikuyu resident has been driven out and had their house burned down from underneath them. We interviewed people who were displaced by the violence, many of whom feel they will never be able to return home because the violence is so severe,” he said.

Albin-Lackey says his team also interviewed residents who committed acts of violence that drove their neighbors out of the country’s central region. He says two things were evident.

“The two things I think were most shocking and most important there are the degree to which that violence was organized, especially by village elders, by community leaders, in some cases by local party officials of the ODM (the opposition Orange Democratic Movement). And it’s very important to highlight that this violence was not spontaneous. It was to a very large degree incited and organized. And those responsible for that must be held to account for what they have done,” he said.

Although the Kenya portion of the Human Rights Watch report notes a freeing up of the country’s political climate since the years of former President Daniel Arap Moi, Mr. Kibaki’s predecessor, it examines longstanding problems of corruption and a lingering intolerance of media criticism by the government. Acknowledging the widespread claims that last December’s elections were rigged, Chris Albin-Lackey says it is essential that President Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga sit down and iron out an acceptable solution that will hopefully enable Kenyans to begin a long process of calming the bitter tensions that he says continue to simmer in the country.

“The challenge for both sides of the political dispute now is to find a compromise that ultimately ensures that the wishes of Kenya’s voters are respected. And that might have to mean a new election down the road when that’s possible and when peace has been restored. But whatever solution emerges from this conflict, it cannot simply legitimize what is by all appearances the theft of the mandate of Kenya’s voters. And to talk about how Kibaki can govern is the wrong question. The question is how should a way forward be found that ensures a principled compromise and one that brings about peace, but at the same time brings justice and reflects the rights of Kenya’s voters,” he said.