Today I was going to downtown Nairobi to make a routine delivery of our products. I arrived at a roundabout that I normally pass and found several policeman encircling it. With christmas approaching and police all over town looking for some extra spending money, I didn’t think much of it. I continued on and when I got closer to my destination, found some pretty nasty traffic. Although traffic is nothing new for Nairobi, I began hearing gunshot noises from the cross street behind me. I couldn’t see anything happening, but as I sat in traffic, the noise and frequency of the shots increased. Inching along, I began to see people a hundred yards behind me running onto the street and throwing rocks at policemen. The police were firing tear gas at the protesters, but steadily losing ground. While I watched helplessly, the riot moved closer and closer to my trapped car. The police continued to back off, eventually coming parallel to my car. Soon rocks were landing all around, breaking the windows of the cars next to and in front of me. Rocks even hit my bumper, antenna and roof, narrowly missing my windows by the grace of God. Panicked, I was honking and yelling at everything and everyone, desperately trying to get away from the oncoming mob. Finally, traffic opened enough for me to pull onto a side street. I inched along and could still hear the noises behind me, but the riot turned in another direction and the danger passed. Who knows how long the entire episode took. 5 minutes – maybe 10? All I know is that it seemed like an eternity, and for the ride home I felt like I had just survived a war.
Although much milder, my experiences today remind me of my frequent discussions on Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007. In the wake of the disputed presidential election, over 1,500 people were killed and 200,000 displaced in the worst violence since Kenya’s independence. Check out the link to the wikipedia article for more information. With the first elections since the post-election violence taking place in March of 2013, the question on everyone’s mind is ‘what will happen this time’? Almost every person I’ve talked to has assured me wholeheartedly that this time everything will be peaceful. “Kenya has learned from it’s mistakes” they say and will not return to the brutality of 2007.
While I have no doubt that 99.9% of Kenyans genuinely desire a peaceful election, it only takes a few hundred unemployed adolescent idiots on each side to turn the election violent. These people are just waiting for something to protest, and losing the election is a perfect excuse to blow off some steam. Further, the losing politicians in the last election paid these people to demonstrate and riot for them. With Kenyan politicians rated even more corrupt than 5 years ago and Kenya ranked 139th out of 174 countries in terms of worst corruption levels, I don’t see why it wouldn’t happen again. Ironically, the presidential candidates at the forefront of this election are the ones charged at the ICC for inciting ethnic violence in the previous one. Even in the event of a peaceful election, Kenya’s corrupt leadership is failing this country in serious ways.
Having spoken out agains violence, I don’t necessarily blame protestors or claim that I would do otherwise in their shoes. In the absence of functional systems to voice their opinions and protests, what else can they do? Police only listen to money and politicians actively steal from the nation. They are unemployed, without serious job prospects and angry at the people who made it that way. What do they have to lose?
Without something serious happening, I don’t see Kenya changing in the near future. Aid money will continue pouring in, GDP growth will look great on paper and “corruption is evil” jackets will make the international community believe that Kenya is on the path to success. But underneath it all, corrupt leadership remains, eating away at what this country could be and satisfying the voracious appetite of those at the top. That’s a little depressing because Kenya has amazing people and is a great place to live, but something has to change. I’m not certain of the solution and I think it will take a long time, but this country has to unite and tackle the issues, no matter what the cost. Solutions have to come from locals and “we” as Westerners have to realize that sometimes not helping is the most helpful thing we can do. It’s going to be a long, painful process, but with the right leadership and dedication, I believe this country can succeed marvelously.