David Anderson: How violence infected Kenya's democracy

The nation's struggles are not rooted in any deep-seated ethnic hatred

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Amid Kenya's dreadful carnage, the murder yesterday morning of the ODM MP Mugabe Were may help us to understand the true character of the political violence we are witnessing. It was the death of one politician, the first to be killed in this crisis, but the act of his murder revealed how violence has permeated to the very heart of Kenya's failing democracy.

Kenya's struggles are not rooted in any deep-seated ethnic hatred, although no one would deny that, as this crisis has mounted, growing fear and, latterly, a lust for vengeance has driven a wedge between communities. But there is no doubt at all that the violence has been purposefully fostered by those whose political interests it serves.

No event has revealed this more starkly than Mr Were's callous murder. This was an old-fashioned political assassination. He was gunned down by two armed men as he drove his car up to his Nairobi home.

Mr Were was victorious in the December elections in the hotly contested Nairobi seat of Embakasi. As well as being the largest constituency in the country, with 250,000 registered voters, Embakasi is renowned for a rough and violent politics in which the gangsters and thugs known as Mungiki have long played a prominent role.

Mungiki are criminal gangsters who take an ethno-centric view of Kenyan society. They have lingered in the shadows of Kenya politics for more than a decade, becoming increasingly important, and increasingly dangerous, as Kikuyu political solidarities have been undermined by the strengthening of democracy.

Mungiki make their money from the extortion and protection rackets they run against the city's businesses. Shops and transport are their principal targets. They prefer to prey upon their own Kikuyu people, seeking to chase away those of other ethnicities so as to bring in their own "compliant" Kikuyu traders who are prepared to pay for the "protection" that is offered.

And in Kenya's politics, it has become the norm for politicians to hire thugs to do their dirty work, especially at election time. On its grandest scale, this was seen in the elections of 1992 and 1997, when government ministers employed vast armies of hired thugs to attack the homes of voters in opposition strongholds. On a smaller, and more mundane scale, every serious political contender arranges to be "protected" by a group of so-called "youth-wingers". In this way, since the early 1990s, violence has become a normalised part of Kenyan politics.

When violence exploded in the Rift Valley towns of Nakuru and Naivasha last weekend, Mungiki supporters were in the thick of it. Their criminal fraternity has long been strong in both towns, and early last week Mungiki leaders from Nairobi visited the area to speak with local followers.

Some have portrayed Mungiki as the agents of Kikuyu interest, and therefore the supporters of Mwai Kibaki and the PNU. This is far too simple an assumption. During 2007, one of Mr Kibaki's senior ministers, John Michuki, led a crackdown against Mungiki. On the other hand, in the 2002 election, Uhuru Kenyatta, now Mr Kibaki's new vice-president, curried the support of Mungiki.

And this brings us back to the murder of Mr Were. Mungiki violence has flared up in Embakasi in previous elections, and on this occasion there were again accusations of intimidation of voters and rigging in which the gangsters were again implicated. Crime in Embakasi is the highest of any part of Nairobi, and at election time it always worsens.

It was not surprising, then, that when the local police commented on Mr Were's murder, they dismissed it as just another criminal act. As crowds gathered at Mr Were's home later in the day to mourn the dead politician, police harassed them and eventually fired tear gas canisters to disperse them.

To those who know Nairobi's politics, none of this was surprising. Embakasi's police have long been in the pockets of the local gangs, notably Mungiki. The criminal gangsters could not flourish as they do without a degree of collusion with the security forces, and Mungiki have been very successful in achieving this in Embakasi. The previous MP, the populist rabble-rouser David Mwenje, has been linked with the gangs that prey upon Embakasi.

He was one of three prominent Kikuyu candidates who stood against Mr Were in Embakasi. Between them, they polled 53,000 votes, but in splitting the Kikuyu vote three ways their divisions allowed Mr Were to stride to an unlikely victory. Yesterday morning, he paid for that victory with his life. And as Mr Were died, another slice of Kenya's precious democracy was lost to the men of violence.

The writer is Professor of African Politics and Director of the African Studies Centre, Oxford

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