The WIP The global source for women's perspectives

Kenya: Name the Violence Correctly

by Shailja Patel

A February 7th article in The Economist, “Ethnic Cleansing in Luoland,” dangerously presents the crisis in Kenya as an issue of inter-communal violence. It focuses on the violent attacks on Kikuyu Kenyans in Western Kenya, by their Luo neighbors, following the December 27th election.

The term “ethnic cleansing” is both inaccurate and unhelpful to Kenya’s current crisis. It fuels the buildup by the Kibaki (Party of National Unity) camp to the declaration of a state of emergency, the deployment of the military or, worse, the usurpation of civilian governance by military governance.

Unquestionably, victims of the current violence experience the violence as being directed at their ethnicity. But the violence is politically instigated. It finds ethnic expression or manifests itself ethnically because Kenyan politics are organized ethnically.

The first wave of violence in Western Kenya took the form of spontaneous, disorganized protest, against the announcement of a presidential result that both domestic and international observers have judged to be deeply flawed and questionable. It was met with a second form of violence – extraordinary force by the police and General Service United (GSU) paramilitary forces. Data collected by civil society and human rights organizations show the majority of deaths in Nyanza and Western provinces to be the result of extra-judicial killings by police and GSU, not civilian attacks on other civilians.

The third form of violence in Western Kenya is organized militia activity, directly traceable to specific leaders, in both the PNU and Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). The Economist neglects to mention that in the week preceding this article, two parliamentarians of the ODM party were murdered, in suspicious circumstances that carried all the hallmarks of political assassination. And that 25 Kikuyu civil society leaders, who have spoken out against human rights abuses and electoral malpractices, have received death threats.

Much of the destruction to businesses and property in Kisumu could have been averted by the speedy deployment of security forces to Western Kenya in the immediate aftermath of the election, to restore law and order. Instead, the majority of Kenya’s police force and GSU security force were diverted to surround Uhuru Park, the City Mortuary, and the slum areas of Nairobi, to prevent civilian assembly and peaceful protest. The “government” clearly made a decision to let Kisumu burn, and to leave its overwhelmed, outnumbered, and exhausted police force to resort to bullets in the absence of support or relief.

Kenya’s hope now lies in the ongoing mediation process, led by Kofi Annan. All forms of international pressure that keep the PNU leaders at the negotiating table – such as the recent US travel ban on hardliners – should be encouraged. The responsibility of journalists, and publications like the Economist, is to name the violence correctly, hold the initiators accountable, and present the conflict in Kenya for what it is – a politically instigated catastrophe, with a political solution.

About the Author
Kenyan poet, playwright and theatre artist, Shailja Patel, is a member of Kenyans for Peace With Truth and Justice, a coalition of over 40 Kenyan legal, human rights, and governance organizations, with Kenyan citizens, working for a just solution to the Kenya Crisis. Visit her at

Back to top