(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • As risks rise in Burundi, refuge in Tanzania is no longer secure

    A political almanac, a miniature desk flag, a poster of presidents past and present: symbols of Tanzania, the country that has given her refuge since she fled violence in neighbouring Burundi in 1972, dot the home of Magreth Lameck Mtema in the town of Kigoma, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

     

    By rights, these symbols should now represent Mtema’s own nationality but, like tens of thousands of her compatriots, she’s still waiting for the promise of naturalisation – first issued to her more than a decade ago – to be made good, in the form of a certificate of citizenship.

     

    But even for the many former Burundian refugees who have received such documents, life in Tanzania remains full of uncertainty and restrictions, buffeted by the policy changes of the government and its uneasy relations with international partners.

     

    Increasingly violent political tensions in Burundi in the run-up to a controversial referendum due on 17 May, raising the possibility of a fresh exodus, only add to the anxiety.

     

    Read more: In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deep a neglected humanitarian crisis

     

    The Tanzanian government moved Mtema’s family to a house in Kigoma after they spent a few months of 1972 in one of several sprawling settlement centres that still house tens of thousands of refugees and newly naturalised citizens.

     

    “There's when our lives started again," Mtema recalled. In the 40 years since, her family have helped make ends meet with the tomatoes, maize, and cassava grown on the plot outside their house. But the recent hardening of the government’s attitude towards refugees has her concerned. Now, she said, her family feels “insecure, because the general mood around here is changing” and they are still waiting for official citizenship.

     

    “We're starting to get worried; we're unsure what's causing the delay, and this has left us in limbo,” she said.

     

    Open doors

     

    Tanzania has a long history of welcoming refugees. For decades, it has opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict in their countries, especially Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, going further than most host nations by allotting new arrivals plots of land to farm and encouraging local integration.

    There are now some 315,000 refugees in Tanzania, more than 230,000 of whom fled Burundi since the political crisis there erupted in 2015.

     

    In 2007, Tanzania offered the earlier 1972 Burundian caseload, numbering some 200,000 (many of whom were born in Tanzania), a choice of being helped to return to Burundi or of receiving Tanzanian citizenship, an option accepted by 80 percent of them.

     

    The international community hailed the move, which included plans to allow the refugees to move out of sprawling settlement camps to anywhere in Tanzania, as a model for the world’s protracted displacement crises.

     

    Although the process of naturalisation proceeded, it only did so in fits and starts. Some 170,000 Burundian former refugees have now been granted Tanzanian citizenship, but tens of thousands of others, including Mtema, are still waiting.

     

    Not only are an estimated 30,000 Burundian refugees yet to receive their certificates, but plans to allow hundreds of thousands of new citizens to move to other parts of the country have never fully come to fruition because of local resistance to such influxes and disagreements over who would foot the bills.

     

    Doors begin to close

     

    To make matter worse, the government of Tanzanian President John Magufuli has over the past year appeared to be toughening its stance on refugees.

     

    After a meeting with Burundian counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza in July 2017, Magufuli ordered yet another halt to the naturalisation process. He also sparked alarm by urging more recent Burundian refugees to return home, deeming their country safe enough to do so despite reports of widespread human rights abuses. A few months earlier, Tanzania stopped granting automatic refugee status for those arriving from Burundi.

     

    Between September 2017 and February 2018, more than 16,500 Burundian refugees were assisted to voluntarily repatriate to Burundi, according to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR. The government-led scheme starts a new round in April.

    Timeline: Tanzania's many twists and turns on refugee policy

    In another significant move, in January 2018, Tanzania pulled out of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, or CRRF, a supposedly game-changing new global compact aimed at easing pressure on host countries by helping refugees to become more self-reliant and supporting the communities in which they live. Tanzania, one of 13 pilot countries for the initiative, cited lack of donor funds and unspecified security concerns as reasons for withdrawing.

     

    This reference to security baffles Mussa Kiumbe Kunda, a Tanzanian resident of Kigoma who has witnessed the arrival of many waves of refugees over the years.

     

    “We've never had the sense that refugees cause us insecurity in the town here, because I have never once felt threatened by having them here,” he said. “They're not a threat at all to our community.”

     

    “The government has started interfering in refugees' lives and disturbing them; this was never the case before,” he said.

     

    Mtema’s experiences back this up.

     

    “Immigration officers come here often and disturb us; sometimes they ask for bribes, too,” she said.

     

    Mtema said her brother, the family breadwinner, was recently sacked from his job as a senior civil servant after 15 years, simply because of his nationality.

     

    "My grandchildren can't go to school at the moment because their parents aren't recognised as citizens and can't get a job. They can't have a good life in Tanzania without citizenship. My dream was not to see my children or grandchildren suffer any more, but without citizenship there are barriers,” she added.

     

    According to Lucy Hovil, a researcher with with the International Refugee Rights Initiative, an advocacy group, the naturalisation process has been counterproductive for many in Mtema’s situation.

     

    “A scheme which was supposed to sort out their legal status has actually made it much less clear,” she said. “This whole process has raised their level of visibility and they have become much more vulnerable as a result.”

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    Posters of Magufuli and the ruling CCM regime adorn Magreth Mtema’s living room
    Charlie Ensor/IRIN
    Posters of Magufuli and the ruling CCM regime adorn Magreth Mtema’s living room.

    Pressure to return

     

    Populist politics may play a part in Tanzania’s recent calls for Burundian refugees to return to their country of origin, but analysts also point to the government’s fraught relationship with the international donor community.

     

    “Tanzania has long felt that it has not been fully supported by the donor community in its response to refugee-hosting, which has historically been generous,” said James Milner, associate professor at Carleton University. "This narrative of Tanzania being abandoned, of Tanzania not receiving, of donors not delivering on the promises they made to Tanzania, is very important, and a very powerful narrative.”

     

    As of January this year, UNHCR had received only five percent of the $119 million it had sought from donors to meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania.

     

    While lack of clarity over how responsibilities for implementing the CRRF should be shared between the government, the UN, and donors was a key reason for Tanzania’s withdrawal from the scheme, it is refugees who are feeling the effects.

     

    “These projects were meant to build services for the host communities as well – primary schools, boreholes, hospitals, and so on,” said an aid worker who asked not to be named, while condemning a government that has been criticised as increasingly repressive and hostile to NGOs.

     

    Troubles at home

     

    Since September 2017, UNHCR has helped more than 20,000 Burundians to return from Tanzania. This year, according to a joint communiqué between both governments, as many as 72,000 Burundians “who wish to return” will be repatriated.

     

    "The governments of Burundi and Tanzania agree that, given the existence of peace, security and political stability in the Republic of Burundi, the two governments are in the position to move forward from providing assistance to voluntary repatriation… and promotion of returns,” the communiqué said.

     

    But, given its own assessment of the current conditions in Burundi, UNHCR has said it will only support, not “promote”, such returns.

     

    Last month, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein listed Burundi as among “the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times”, in the same breath as Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    “While Burundi isn't making the headlines that it was during the failed coup in 2015, we are still documenting serious human rights abuses being perpetrated mostly by state actors,” Lewis Mudge, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told IRIN, citing the “illegal and arbitrary detention of individuals who are suspected of being against the referendum” as common abuses.

     

    A Burundian refugee in Tanzania who only gave his name as Nathaniel described people in Burundi as “worried” and “terrorised”. He said that “to escape from being arrested and/or killed, they will vote ‘yes’” in the referendum, which could allow Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034.

     

    Another aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity, again for fear of reprisals, said that poor conditions in Tanzania’s refugee camps may drive refugees to return home on a “less than voluntary” basis.

     

    "Refugees reported to our staff that decreasing rations in the camps appear to be a driver for returns,” the worker said, explaining that they are not permitted to work and earn money to buy additional food.  

     

    People like Mtema find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

     

    “I have felt for a long time now that this is my home,” she said. “But these days I no longer feel welcome in Tanzania.”

     

    Timeline

    Back to reading

    (TOP PHOTO: A group of Burundian refugees received their citizenship certificates from President Kikwete. CREDIT: S.Mhando/UNHCR)

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    Once held up as a model for resettlement, Tanzanian government policy is hardening at just the wrong time
    As risks rise in Burundi, refuge in Tanzania is no longer secure
  • In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deepen a neglected humanitarian crisis

    Burundi isn’t at war, but it has all the humanitarian hallmarks of a country that is.

     

    Campaigning began this week ahead of a 17 May referendum that could allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034. A government clampdown and an uptick in political violence are raising fears that the humanitarian situation will deteriorate further as civil liberties and the rule of law are eroded, prompting more people to join some 400,000 already seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

     

    Lewis Mudge, senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, said Burundians will continue to flee unless the political crisis is resolved.

     

    “The current situation is worrying, as a lot of Burundi's problems are political at the root and at their base,” he said. “It's hard to put a timeline on it, but unless these political issues are resolved, I think it's very possible that we could see even more people fleeing the country, which would put an enormous strain on Burundi's neighbours.”

     

    More than 3.6 million Burundians – about a quarter of the population of what is the world’s fourth poorest country – now need aid to get by, an increase of almost 20 percent over 2017, according to the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan.

     

    Some 2.6 million people lack reliable access to food, up from 1.5 million a year ago and 700,000 in April 2016. One in six children under the age of five are affected by chronic malnutrition, a condition that stunts growth and impairs mental development.

     

     

    Aid agencies say they need some $142 million to meet needs this year. So far, only two percent of the appeal has been funded.

     

    Much of this money is required to fill the gap left by a cash-strapped and ineffective state in providing basic services – countering widespread malnutrition and food insecurity, boosting primary healthcare (six million Burundians got malaria in 2017), and helping 190,000 internally displaced people (mostly due to natural disasters such as floods and landslides in 2016) and 65,000 refugees from neighbouring states.

    Multiple causes

     

    Burundi’s inability to care for its citizens has several causes: the lingering effects of a civil war that broke out in 1993 and only formally ended in 2006; an economy overly dependent on an inefficient agriculture sector; the political crisis ignited in 2015 when Nkurunziza decided to run for re-election in apparent violation of constitutional term limits; and the drying-up of the foreign cash on which the government long depended.

    Such overseas assistance “is on a drip at the moment”, according to one aid worker, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of working in Burundi. Suspended donor support has led to a 72-percent cut in the government’s water and sanitation budget, increasing the risk of epidemics such as cholera, while funds for healthcare have been more than halved.

     

    Hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled the country in the early stages of the 2015 political crisis, and continue to leave at a rate of up to 70 a day, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

     

    Richard Moncrieff, Central Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, blamed government policy for the deteriorating humanitarian situation.

     

    “Some progress was being made before the crisis in 2015 in food security and malnutrition, but this is being reversed partly because donors are pulling out – for which government is to blame also – and partly because government incompetence is being exposed by uncertainty, violence, and flight of human capital,” he said.

    Government policies are also making it harder for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid in Burundi. The 2018 Response Plan pointed to numerous “legal and administrative restrictions [that] limit current and future operational efficiency” of aid agencies and their ability to travel into the interior of the country, except in extremely urgent cases. It added that legislation covering NGOs adopted in January 2017 undermined the independence of aid agencies.

     

    These constraints “remain a key issue for humanitarian actors” in Burundi, Philippe Adapoe, Save the Children’s country director in neighbouring Rwanda, said.

    Abuses rise as poll draws near

     

    Wide-ranging human rights abuses committed by security forces and affiliated groups over the past few years led the International Criminal Court to announce in November that it would conduct an investigation into Burundi, even though the country became the first in the world to withdraw from the tribunal the previous month.

     

    Alleged crimes against humanity cited by the ICC include: murder and attempted murder; imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty; torture; rape; enforced disappearance; and persecution. Depending on its findings, the ICC’s next step could be indictments and arrest warrants.

     

    The run-up to the 17 May poll has seen a spike in abuses and threats against those opposed to the amendments.

     

    Mediation efforts led by the East African Community have failed to reconcile the government and the opposition. “The mediation process still shows signs of being highly fractured and is yet to achieve tangible results,” the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies think tank said this week. “Nkurunziza’s government has shown an increasingly intransigent and uncooperative position towards resolving the crisis,” it added.

     

    Many of Nkurunziza’s leading opponents now live in exile, while those still in Burundi who favour a “No” vote in the referendum are being cast by officials as enemies and criminals.

     

    “Opponents, including elected officials, are constantly harassed. The [Imbonerakure] militia which protects government bigwigs commits abuses in deplorable indifference of a judiciary which is a mere shadow of itself,” Dieudonné Bashirahishize, the head of a group of lawyers representing victims of the 2015 crisis, told IRIN. “Leaders of the ruling party keep calling for those who dare to push for a ‘No’ vote to be lynched.”

     

    Read more: Who are the Imbonerakure and is Burundi unravelling?

     

    In one of several similar videos circulating on social media, a ruling party official says: “If you vote ‘No’, you know it will be death.”

     

    And in a rare case of hate speech prosecution, a ruling party official was handed a three-year jail term on 30 April, days after publicly warning that opponents of the referendum would be put into pirogues on Lake Tanganyika (widely understood to mean opponents would be fed to the lake’s fish).

     

    A group of “concerned citizens”, tweeting collectively as @iBurundi, described this trial as a “sideshow” designed to cover up incitement to violence by some of the most senior officials in the ruling party.

     

    Read more: Hate speech stirs trouble in Burundi

     

    Speaking out about abuses in Burundi carries great risks. On 26 April, human rights activist Germain Rukuki was handed a 32-year jail sentence after being convicted of taking part in an “insurrection movement” in 2015. Amnesty International said the charges were trumped up.

     

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    AU UN IST Photo
    President Pierre Nkurunziza
    In 2015, the country’s most prominent human rights defender, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. The monthly report for March 2018 prepared by the organisation Mbonimpa heads, APRODH, lists the most recent killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, beatings, and intimidation, and paints a picture of “growing” insecurity. Many abuses were allegedly carried out by the Imbonerakure - the ruling party’s powerful youth wing -, the police, and intelligence agents working for Nkurunziza’s government.

     

    Lamenting that the prevailing climate of fear was preventing citizens from freely expressing their opinions, Burundi’s bishops said on 2 May that “the time is not right to make profound changes to the constitution”.

    Night raids

     

    Earlier this month, legislators approved a draft law that would give police the power to conduct night-time raids on people’s homes.

     

    “The ruling party has just buried democracy in Burundi,” one opposition MP stated after the decision.

     

    Jérémie Minani, the spokesperson for humanitarian issues in the CNARED opposition coalition – which has called for a boycott of the referendum – said the vote would “create chaos and worsen the suffering and misery of the population”.

     

    He added that if the constitutional changes were adopted, it would spell the end of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement – signed in 2000 under the stewardship of Nelson Mandela to end the civil war and create a governance framework for sustainable peace.

     

    The death of the accord would “certainly take the country back to a new civil war,” he warned. “The humanitarian consequences will be extremely serious: a total collapse of the economy resulting in increased poverty.”

     

    The government, which denies there is a political crisis in Burundi and has contested the data in the latest humanitarian appeal as “fabricated figures”, turned Minani’s accusation on its head.

     

    The opposition were the ones who “took the path of violence”, Interior Ministry Spokesman Terence Ntahiraja told IRIN. “They showed that on 13 May 2015,” he added, referring to the day of a failed coup attempt. “So I would ask them to change their behaviour, to abandon their intentions to create trouble in the country and to accept democracy and compete on the ground, [in the referendum campaign] and to win if the people so decide.”

     

    Such an outcome is virtually impossible, said Bashirahishize, the victims’ lawyer. “It’s not a referendum, but a piece of theatre set up to enthrone the ‘Eternal Supreme Guide,’” he told IRIN, using the title the ruling party bestowed on the head of state in March.

    What next?

     

    Around 400,000 Burundians who fled since 2015 are still living in neighbouring states, but their welcome in two of them is wearing thin. Tanzania, which hosts some 60 percent of the caseload, no longer grants Burundians prima facie refugee status and is keen to step up the rate of repatriations.

     

    Relations between Burundi and Rwanda have soured, with the neighbours accusing one another of backing rebellions.

     

    Earlier this month, Bujumbura protested the deportation by Kigali of some 1,600 Burundian refugees, alleging they had been sent back for refusing to join an armed group formed to attack Burundi.

     

    Lucy Hovil, senior research associate at the International Refugee Rights Initiative, said the situation facing those fleeing Burundi’s political violence was deeply concerning.

     

    “Given [conditions in] the neighbouring countries to Burundi, this leaves them in a very difficult position because, as you know, many don't want to flee to Rwanda because it's not very safe… and neither is [the Democratic Republic of] Congo,” she said.

     

    Robert Rugurika, a Burundian living in Brussels, told IRIN that the political repression in his home country deters many refugees from going back.

     

    “There is nothing the regime can do to convince people to return if it does not stop oppressing Burundians. This won’t happen because the regime only survives by terrorising its own people and committing human rights violations,” he said. “People are still fleeing even now ahead of the referendum. Since assassinations and torture continues against opponents, people will continue to flee in large numbers.”

     

    Bashirahishize said the international community “needs to pay more attention to the Burundian crisis, which is getting worse with time, so as to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe which risks getting worse with this referendum.”

     

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    The president’s bid to stay in power until 2034 could further destabilise the country
    In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deepen a neglected humanitarian crisis
  • Ethiopian Oromo refugees face bribes, harassment in Kenya

    Ethiopian Oromo refugees fleeing to Kenya to escape persecution say they are finding life on the streets of Nairobi no better than the insecurity they left behind, as they are targeted by bribes and harassment and forced into vast camps with few prospects or protections.

    The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group but have long complained of political and economic marginalisation at the hands of the country’s ruling party, which is dominated by a minority ethnic group, the Tigrayans.

    Following 2016 protests demanding political reform, which resulted in a state of emergency and the deaths of more than 600 in the security crackdown, thousands of Oromo made their way to neighbouring Kenya seeking asylum and refuge.

    But they did not escape the Ethiopian authorities. Human Rights Watch has reported “numerous cases of harassment and threats” against Oromo asylum seekers in Kenya by Ethiopian government officials.

    The rights group has also documented “confessions” by Kenyan police officers in which they admit to being offered bribes by the Ethiopian embassy to detain and intimidate Oromo refugees.

    “When I came to Kenya I thought that I would be protected and would be able to start a new life,” said former Oromo politician “Tolessa”, who requested his identity be protected.

    “[But] what I’m facing here is no different from what I was facing at home,” he told IRIN. “My future here isn’t very bright.”

    Full of “spies”

    Oromo refugees also reported attempts by Ethiopian officials to recruit them as informants in Nairobi’s Oromo community, promising land, protection, money, and even resettlement to the United States or elsewhere, Human Rights Watch noted.

    “There are a lot of Ethiopian spies here in Nairobi,” one refugee, a former Ethiopian intelligence officer, alias “Demiksa”, told IRIN.

    Now a senior dissident, “Demiksa” related what had happened to him back in Ethiopia.

    He said that after refusing orders to torture prisoners held in Addis Ababa’s infamous Maekelawi prison, he was accused of being an opposition collaborator, detained, and then tortured himself.

    “They tied my hands up and hung me up on the wall with nails and beat me with electric cables around my ankles and on my back,” he told IRIN, fighting tears. “I couldn't walk for three months,” he added.

    “Demiksa” said he was spared capital punishment on one condition: kill or be killed. Handed photographs of two prominent Oromo activists, he was given a loaded gun and told to get into a car.

    He accepted the mission – “I had no choice,” he told IRIN – but was able to escape en route to the hit, and then fled Ethiopia.

    When he arrived in Nairobi, “Demiksa” was told to register at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya like all other Ethiopian exiles.

    The long arm of Ethiopian security

    But Oromo who fear being stalked by Ethiopian intelligence believe even Kakuma is not safe.

    “Threats from Ethiopian security officials – working together with local [Kenyan] police – also extend to the refugee camps [in Kenya],” Human Rights Watch researcher Felix Horne told IRIN.

    Horne said Oromo activists who have come from cities in Ethiopia fear camp life because of the lack of employment opportunities, the heat, and Kakuma’s physical proximity to Ethiopia.

    But they have darker fears too.

    Oromo refugees have reportedly been kidnapped from Kenya and taken back to Ethiopia, and there have been similar reports from Sudan, Djibouti, Uganda, and Somaliland.

    “This is not unique to Kenya,” Horne said. “The patterns of pervasive Ethiopian security presence utilising local security officials is similar in other countries where Ethiopians flee to.”

    Tariku Debela, a political refugee living in Kampala who fled Kenya in April 2016, still remains a target for Ethiopian security forces. He told IRIN that his scars bear witness both to the torture he received in Ethiopia and an attempt on his life in Uganda.

    “Some people came to my hotel room, drugged me, and then beat me up,” he explained to IRIN over the phone. “People living nearby heard what was happening and came to my rescue. One of [the attackers] was arrested.”

    A Ugandan police investigation revealed “that the men who attacked me were sent from Ethiopia to kill me,” he added.

    After imploring the UN refugee agency several times to offer him protection, Debela now stays in a UNHCR safe house, but doesn’t get much else in the way of assistance.

    “UNHCR haven't even tried to help me process my case for resettlement,” he told IRIN. “Since I am a political refugee, I shouldn't have to stay here for the rest of my life.”

    UNHCR has a mandate to provide protection to refugees, including political figures like “Demiksa” and Debela.

    “The documentation issued to them by the government and UNHCR gives them the right to reside legally in Kenya and protects them from deportation to their country of origin or expulsion from Kenya,” Yvonne Ndege, senior communications officer at UNHCR, told IRIN.

    “There are some high-profile cases, such as the Oromo; sometimes their cases are expedited through the registration process,” she added.

    But some say this policy exists only in theory.

    “In practice, there is very little protection afforded to Oromo refugees,” Horne told IRIN.  “Individuals with serious security issues – some of whom are high-profile individuals – often receive no practical protection whatsoever from these agencies.”

    Bribes, harassment, and detention

    Kenya has an encampment policy – refugees are supposed to stay in one of two vast refugee camps that house 489,000 people: Dadaab and Kakuma. That means those found in urban centres without proper documentation are vulnerable to extortion and intimidation by the police.

    Refugees IRIN spoke to in Nairobi mentioned regularly having to pay bribes to avoid harassment. The going rate is up to $200 for a permit to avoid being sent to Kakuma.

    Life for those who can’t afford to pay is bleak. "Because I don't have my papers I stay at home so that I can be safe from police,” teenager Fozia told IRIN.

    Fozia fled Ethiopia following a brutal crackdown on students in her hometown in Oromia. After student protesters dispersed, she says police followed her home, then raped and beat her. She decided to flee.

    Despite coming to Kenya as an unaccompanied minor, Fozia hasn’t been helped by the authorities. Without the ability to bribe registration officers at Nairobi’s government-run refugee registration centre, Shauri Moyo, she can’t officially register with UNHCR for refugee status determination.

    “I was given a movement pass to Kakuma, but I feared going there, especially as a young girl,” she explained.

    Neither can Fozia afford to bribe officials to gain an all-important exemption permit that would allow her to legally avoid going to Kakuma.

    “Without that, I’m told by UNHCR to either go to Kakuma or register for exemption at Shauri Moyo,” she said.

    Many other refugees face the same hurdles.

    “I still haven’t received exemption,” another former Oromo politician and victim of torture in Maekelawi who preferred to remain anonymous, told IRIN.

    “I’ve been ordered to bribe officers with $200 to gain exemption from camp,” the former politician said. “I don’t have that sort of money. I also stay indoors to avoid having to pay police officers that harass me.”

    Following registration with Shauri Moyo, refugees can then apply for a government of Kenya “alien card” for asylum recognition. But several refugees told IRIN that this process also entails under the table payments – ranging from $300 to $485.

    Such allegations of corruption and extortion are denied by Kenya’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat, known as RAS.

    UNHCR “concerned”

    Once refugees are able to access asylum, their cases are referred to UNHCR for refugee status determination, which is necessary for official recognition as a refugee.

    But many refugees are having to wait years to even get an interview.

    “I was supposed to have an appointment in March this year,” one woman complained. “You just turn up to their office [UNHCR], stand in line, and wait for your turn. Then they tell you that they can’t see you that day.”

    She went on to explain how they typically just give you another appointment letter with a different date and year and tell you to wait.

    “They didn’t even give me another appointment date last time – they just told me that they would call me,” she said. “I still haven’t heard anything yet [since her March appointment].”

    Recognising these concerns, the UN refugee agency insisted it is committed to improving the registration system.

    “UNHCR is concerned about the time being taken for asylum seekers and refugees to receive proper documentation,” UNHCR’s Ndege told IRIN, adding that it was working to streamline its registration processes.

    But Horne from Human Rights Watch said neither UNHCR nor RAS are doing enough right now to protect vulnerable Oromo.

    “Country guidelines on Ethiopia that officers use to assess asylum claims should be updated as they are over 10 years old and do not remotely reflect the current situation in Ethiopia,” he said.

    Oromo opposition to rulers in Addis Ababa stretches back centuries. The current ruling party, the EPRDF, has used federalism to dilute that dissent, but it has persisted.

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    Charlie Ensor/IRIN
    An Oromo activist in Nairobi, crosses his arms in an Oromo symbol of solidarity

    In the unrest in 2016 and 2017, the Oromo were joined by the second largest ethnic group, the Amharas, in the demand for political reform – posing a significant challenge to the government.

    Reform at last?

     

    In a surprise announcement at the beginning of the month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced that his government would close Maekelawi prison and release political prisoners in a move he said would advance political dialogue with opposition groups.

     

    “The regime realises that the political landscape is shifting rapidly and that they have to find a way forward to deal with ethnic tension and communal violence,” Ahmed Soliman, associate researcher at Chatham House, told IRIN.

    But this all depends on how sincere the government is on reforming and its willingness to admit the violations it has committed – including in neighbouring countries.

    As Amnesty International researcher Fisseha Tekele put it after Desalegn’s announcement: “A new chapter for human rights will only be possible if all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment are effectively investigated and those responsible brought to justice.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Eastleigh, Nairobi. Home to Nairobi’s refugees. CREDIT: Charlie Ensor/IRIN)

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    Ethiopian Oromo refugees face bribes, harassment in Kenya
  • Same old problems for Kenya’s newest refugee settlement

    Kalobeyei was supposed to be different. Refugees here would be self-reliant. They would be integrated with the local community in a mutually beneficial arrangement of shared services and bustling markets. And it would all cost a lot less for Western aid donors.

     

    But it hasn’t quite worked as planned.

     

    Kalobeyei, in Kenya’s remote northwest, was built to decongest nearby Kakuma camp and attract the more entrepreneurially-minded refugees who could take advantage of the tiny plots of land on offer and trade with the local community.

     

    The World Food Programme provides a $14 monthly cash allowance to each refugee*, which it says is enough to cover 80 percent of minimum needs. The 40,000 refugees are expected to supplement that stipend.

     

    The problem is that Kalobeyei was established just as South Sudan’s civil war intensified. With Kakuma full, people have been arriving in Kalobeyei with little more than the clothes on their backs – and without the resources to make a go of it.

     

    Jean-Marie Shamalima, who fled Burundi’s brutal civil war last year, is the kind of refugee Kalobeyei was designed to accommodate.

     

    Beside his shack, constructed out of tarpaulin and corrugated iron, are rows of okra, beans, and spinach growing in a small sunken bed. It’s an incongruous sight in the middle of the arid Turkana region.

     

    He arrived when the settlement opened, and his seeds were among the few possessions he brought with him.

     

    Integration

     

    Kalobeyei, built by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in conjunction with the local Turkana county government is an “integrated settlement”. That means it aims to provide economic benefits and services to host and refugee communities alike, including schools, hospitals, and marketplaces where Shamalima can sell his produce.

     

    "It was difficult when we first arrived. There wasn't a lot of water available. But now things are improving and I'm growing lots of different vegetables," Shamalima said, gesturing proudly to his five-by-six-metre plot.

     

    “I sell my spinach and okra in the market place,” he explained. “It provides me with an extra income so that I can buy clothes and seeds to grow more crops to sell.”

     

    But even he struggles to make ends meet.

     

    For other refugees it’s harder still. A 20-kilo bag of just maize flour, the staple carbohydrate – enough to last a family of five for a month – costs around $9 and one litre of oil is $2.50. Then there's all the other ingredients that go into a meal, plus the charcoal to cook the food, and the WFP allowance becomes increasingly stretched.

     

    “I buy maize, beans, onions and oil with the money I get and it's barely enough for us to eat," South Sudanese refugee Mary Naduru, a mother of four, told IRIN.

     

    Kalobeyei is a new model for Kenya. It is an acknowledgment that Kakuma, and the larger Dadaab camp in the northeast, are outmoded. They are in effect refugee islands sucking up dwindling donor aid.

     

    Although the new looser settlement model doesn’t go as far as neighbouring Uganda, where refugees have free movement, the right to work, and access social services anywhere in the county, Kalobeyei offers a part-solution in a country where the politics of asylum is highly charged.

     

    "The ultimate aim is to make Kalobeyei a self-serving, self-reliant settlement,” Neville Agoro of the Danish Refugee Council told IRIN. “The idea wasn't to make people rely on humanitarian agencies from the start.”

     

    But there is a large wrinkle. “So long as we keep on bringing people who've just arrived from South Sudan, bringing them to Kalobeyei and trying to [introduce] self-reliance is not possible,” he added.

     

    New arrivals get a patch of ground to grow food on, and that’s it – not even seeds and tools or training.

     

    “They just tell us 'this is your house, this is your garden', and then just leave us to get on with it," said Mary Naduru, who fled South Sudan two months ago.

    refugee_garden.jpg

    Charlie Ensor/IRIN

    "I would like to plant vegetables here, but I don't have the money or the resources to buy seeds or tools,” said Mary Tioko, from drought-hit northern Uganda. “I really look forward to doing that, but it’s not an option for me at the moment.”

     

    With no source of income other than WFP’s monthly cash transfer, Tioko often goes hungry, counting the days until the month is over.

     

    "The money we get isn't enough to stretch across the family,” she told IRIN. “Food prices are expensive here, which makes things difficult for us. There's no food for us right now.”

     

    Tension

     

    And that’s not all. Turkana is dry, inhospitable land. Additional boreholes drilled to cope with the settlement’s expanding population have failed, coming up with saline water unfit for human consumption.

     

    "Sometimes there's no water to irrigate the garden. Without water, the beans don't grow very well in these harsh conditions," said Ernest Nakiru, a South Sudanese refugee.

     

    Land allocated to build the settlement was agreed by the local county government, community committee groups, and UNHCR, but is becoming an increasingly sore point between the local Turkana community and new refugee arrivals.

     

    To make a success of Kalobeyei, the refugees – Shamalima included – need more land, otherwise it’s just hand to mouth.

     

    “I pray that I'm given more land so that I can grow more crops,” he told IRIN. “I'd like to try and grow other varieties of spinach as well as growing aubergines, but the land I have isn’t big enough.”

     

    The politics of land distribution in Kenya is already a highly contentious issue, so it's unlikely that local politicians will allow refugees to own land outside designated areas like Kalobeyei.

     

    The pastoralist Turkana have been historically marginalised, their region under-developed by successive governments in distant Nairobi. The Kalobeyei settlement has generated large expectations within the local community, who have seen their pastures and earnings shrink as a result of erratic rains.

     

    “The project was supposed to be on a 50:50 basis,” said Rukia Lotinga, a village elder involved in community negotiations over the settlement. “The agreements were that anything the refugees got, the host community will have to benefit in the same, equal manner.”

     

    That, she said, “is why we gave away our grazing land to the UN.”

     

    But, she insisted, that the promise has not been honoured. “So far what’s been delivered is not enough. Refugees are getting development, but the host community hasn’t seen much.”

     

    It’s a powerful perception of injustice, built up over the years of neglect by the authorities.

     

    Though Turkana trade firewood, charcoal and animals with the refugees, they also worry about the long-term impact on the already resource-stretched environment around them.

     

    “We won't stop cutting the trees because we need [money] to sustain our livelihoods,” said Lotinga. “[But] If the forest dies, so do our livestock, and we'll be finished ourselves unless we see support from aid agencies."

     

    Despite her concerns, Lotinga believes that ultimately the Kalobeyei project can benefit both communities.

     

    "We still want to benefit from having refugees around – that's not the issue,” she said. “If refugees were to leave Turkana, our people would really suffer."

     

    ce/oa/ag

    * CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the WFP allowance was paid per household. The $14 allowance is paid per refugee. 

    Same old problems for Kenya’s newest refugee settlement
  • Briefing: Inside Kenya’s troubled elections

    More than a week after Kenya’s general elections, the opposition continues to dispute the results, but rather than calling for further protest action on the streets, it’s taking its challenge to the Supreme Court.

     

    This briefing explores the key issues thrown up by the poll – in a country that is the region’s economic powerhouse but also one where electoral turmoil a decade ago spawned ethnic violence that left more than 1,200 people dead.

     

    The poll pitted Uhuru Kenyatta – one of the country’s wealthiest men, vying for a second term in office – against veteran opposition leader, Raila Odinga. At aged 72, it is perhaps Odinga’s last stab at the presidency.

     

    Kenya’s elections have historically been plagued by fraud and voter intimidation. Odinga and (many independent analysts) believe he was rigged out of the 2007 election, and possibly cheated again in 2013.

     

    Four years ago the electronic voting system had suspiciously failed. This time Odinga’s opposition National Super Alliance, NASA, had pushed hard for reforms in the electoral authority, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. The IEBC’s promised safeguards were in place for a free and fair poll.

     

    But after one of the world’s most expensive elections – an eye-watering $499 million – Odinga has again cried foul, and labelled the newly elected government as “computer-generated”.

     

    Why did the opposition protest?

     

    The murder and torture of Chris Msando, IEBC’s IT chief a week before the elections sent NASA concerns into overdrive. His killers have not been found.

     

    The assumption was that as the custodian of IEBC’s computer system, he had been forced to reveal the passwords to the servers.

     

    Most opinion polls had predicted a tight race. So as the initial electronic results came in putting Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party well in the lead, NASA claimed the fix was in. They alleged that an algorithm had been planted in IEBC’s servers to undercount Odinga’s votes.

     

    The IEBC moved fast to quash those claims. It acknowledged there had been an attempt to hack into the system, but that it had failed.

     

    “On the question about passwords: no passwords were given to anyone within the Commission until on the eve of the election as part of assuring the integrity of the system,” the head of the electoral commission, Ezra Chiloba, said.

     

    What undermined NASA’s argument was that it kept shifting the goal posts over the election malpractice it was exactly alleging. By its own tabulation Odinga had won handsomely, but it also unaccountably changed the numbers it claimed were his real votes.

     

    Jubilee fought the election on its economic record, despite accusations that it had bungled the response to a savage drought, and allegations – and anger – over widespread corruption.

     

    But it also campaigned hard and intelligently in key swing regions. NASA’s organisation by contrast was underfunded and shambolic, with reports of even polling agents – its key representatives inside the voting centres – having not been paid.

     

    According to the Elections Observation Group, an independent monitoring body, NASA had agents in only 84 percent of polling centres. ELOG’s parallel tallying in roughly four percent of polling stations matched IBEC’s official results.

     

    What should have settled the question quickly were the individual result forms from all the 40,000 polling stations, the so-called 34As, verified by the party agents. IEBC did not wait for all of them to come in and be validated before announcing Kenyatta and Jubilee’s victory.

     

    The 34As should have been transmitted electronically to the national tallying centre. But even allowing for connectivity problems, the IEBC’s failure to account for all the forms and publicly post them on its website, days after the polls had closed, was an embarrassment.

     

    "The absence of forms 34A, and the lack of clarity from the IEBC on this issue has bred mistrust and been very unhelpful," Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham, told IRIN.

     

    "To put this right, it is essential that all of the forms are put up online as soon as possible so that they can be checked and verified. Until this is done, rumours of rigging through the manipulation of these forms will continue to persist."

    election_celebrations.jpg

    Charlie Ensor/IRIN
    Election celebrations in Uashin Gishu

    Police brutality and civil society clampdown

     

    There were dire predictions of election violence before the poll – with lots of international journalists haring off to look for it. But what trouble did break out following the release of the provisional results was limited to Nairobi's Mathare and Kibera slums, and the western city of Kisumu – historical Odinga strongholds.

     

    So far the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights has reported 24 deaths – although the police initially denied that anyone had died as it quelled the demonstrations.

     

    President Kenyatta was moved to call for restraint from the police and security services, not usually noted for kid gloves when confronting the urban poor.

     

    But this week the government also moved to de-register the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and the African Centre for Open Governance, a leading anti-corruption NGO.

     

    The timing looks particularly bad as both organisations are likely to be involved in NASA’s legal challenge over the conduct of the election.

     

    “It's good that we've had a very democratic and peaceful election, but on the other hand we have to reflect because this government has muzzled civil society space," said Nick Omwiti at the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

     

    The devolution factor

     

    This election was far more than just a presidential contest. Kenya’s constitution, adopted in 2013, devolved power to the local level. County governorship elections were fiercely contested, and NASA again came off worst.

     

    Counties like Uashin Gishu in the northern part of the Great Rift Valley, where ethnic killings had erupted in 2007 between Kikuyus and Kalenjins, were relatively peaceful.

     

    Nevertheless, incumbent Governor Jackson Mandago had tried to mobilise his Kalenjin vote base against the Kikuyu community he believed was likely to vote for his rival, Zedekiah Bundotich.

     

    “This shows that the resilience of communities to stand up to such incitement is gaining ground,” said Maurice Amollo, head of the US development agency Mercy Corps' violence prevention programme. “Despite fierce words and provocation, no one went for his or her neighbour.”

     

    Many argue that devolution has helped Kenya overcome some of the deep, intractable, regional inequalities that are often the drivers of ethnic-based conflict. But the system has also channelled a great deal of power into the hands of the 47 governors.

     

    “Governors enjoy this extraordinary patronage power that can reward or punish communities in terms of development priorities or recruitment patterns,” said Murithi Mutiga, Kenya researcher at the International Crisis Group.

     

    Devolution “has brought divisions, but it’s better than where we were before,” Nick Omwiti of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy told IRIN.

     

    “People should not make our history static: we’re not standing still. It’s not that we were once a violent country and will always remain so.”

     

    What next?

     

    While international poll observers and many Kenyans feel the IEBC performed credibly, deeply held suspicions about Kenya’s political system of power and patronage prevail.

     

    NASA had at first refused to take its petition to court, which left it with few realistic options. It called for a work stayaway on 14 August, but that was weakly supported. Then it called for the UN to audit the election results, which was also rebuffed.

     

    "Our decision to go to court constitutes a second chance for the Supreme Court,” Odinga said in a statement this week, one littered with thinly veiled attacks on what he believes is a partisan judiciary.

     

    “The court can use this chance to redeem itself or, like in 2013, it can compound the problems we face as a country.”

     

    Kenya’s poll was noteworthy for the record number of women that were elected, and a new more youthful group of officials.

     

    There have now been calls for Kenyatta to usher in a more inclusive government, as a form of nation-building.

     

    “The Kenyatta administration was not really good at including everybody and making them feel that they have a stake in the Kenyan project,” said Mutiga of the ICG. “If they do that, it's symbolically very important.”

     

    ce/oa/ag

    TOP PHOTO: A voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Uashin Gishu

    Briefing: Inside Kenya’s troubled elections
  • Kenya’s nail-biter election could turn on the price of a bag of maize

    Food shortages and rising prices could be a decisive issue in Kenya’s cliff-hanger election in two weeks’ time, with the government accused by the opposition of mishandling a savage drought that has left millions hungry, and the two sides neck and neck in the polls.

     

    The drought has been one of the worst on record. As many as 2.6 million people are “acutely food insecure”, and aid agencies fear almost one million more could be at risk by August, with the remote regions of Marsabit and Turkana possibly sliding into "emergency levels of hunger... one step away from famine."

     

    The long rains, which usually start in April and end in June, were far below normal, with some counties recording 75 percent less rainfall than on average. Kenya’s food security is almost entirely reliant on rain-fed agriculture.

     

    This has had a disastrous impact on the harvest. A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report in April said production of maize, Kenya’s staple crop, was down by up to 70 percent on the average of the last five years.

     

    As a result, food prices have rocketed. Unga, or maize flour, was up by roughly 50 percent, milk 12 percent, and sugar 21 percent, affecting household consumption across the country.

     

    But some argue the problem is not the drought alone: The crisis has been exacerbated by poor decision-making by the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

     

    “Kenya doesn't have a famine or a food crisis but a governance challenge with multiple symptoms,” John Githongo, a well-known Kenyan anti-graft activist, told IRIN.

     

    ​“The food crisis, cost of living, rampant theft and pillage, and insecurity do pose a threat to Kenyatta's position at the election,” he said. “There is a generalised malaise and disgust with the lies Jubilee [the ruling party] has told.”

     

    Fumble

     

    Detractors claim this was a crisis Kenya, as a middle-income country, should have been prepared to handle.

     

    In January, Deputy President William Ruto predicted that maize stocks would last until June. But early warning systems were forecasting depressed rainfall, and the government was forced into an embarrassing U-turn a month later on its policy of not importing grain to meet the growing crisis.

     

    “In terms of the problem and preparation for the upcoming crisis, there wasn't any preparation,” said Kwame Owino, head of the the Institute of Economic Affairs, a Kenyan think tank.

     

    “That tells you, on that basis alone, it's not too unfair to say that this is incompetence.”

     

    The government responded only in May to consumer anger, introducing price controls and subsidies on maize flour, and lifting tariffs on maize imports. Voters will get to decide at the polls on 8 August whether it was too little too late.

     

    The opposition National Super Alliance, or NASA, led by Raila Odinga, has not been slow to politicise the issue, blaming the government for fumbling the crisis. The hashtag #ungarevolution is trending on Twitter – capitalising on the government’s discomfort.

     

    “The food inflation crisis works in NASA’s favour,” Kenneth Kambona, Odinga’s food security adviser told IRIN. “It is any government’s responsibility, first and foremost, to feed its people.”

     

    The government is trying to limit the damage. Agriculture cabinet secretary Willy Bett – who the opposition has called on to resign – has promised the maize shortage will be contained within the coming month.

     

    In the meantime, the introduction of subsidised price-controlled unga is bringing some relief for consumers. The  government stepped in after record retail prices in May, pegging the cost of a two-kilo bag at 90 shillings (around $0.86) – down by almost 50 percent.

     

    But some small shop owners like Edmund Wabwile are struggling. "Because of shortages, we’re forced to hike prices so that we as shop owners can get something,” he told IRIN. “Instead of selling at 90 shillings, we're selling at 95 or 100.”

     

    The risk is a $10,000 fine if caught.

     

    “Being in business was something you enjoyed, but they reduced prices; they reduced everything and they don't consider us retailers!” said Wabwile.

     

    In total, until the end of August, the government is expecting to spend up to $58 million on subsidising maize prices and waiving tariffs on sugar and milk.

    unga_1.jpg

    Charlie Ensor/IRIN
    Grim time for shoppers

    White elephants

     

    But some argue that Kenya’s food security problems are much more deep-seated, and the government has failed to make the country more drought resilient in its four years in power.

     

    Government mega-projects, such as its abandoned $200 million Galana-Kulalu irrigation scheme in the coastal county of Kilifi, have not led to the bumper yields promised.

     

    “A lot of public money and resources was spent on it to try and do that. It was intended to be a major plank of our food security policy, but it's failed,” Owino said.

     

    Kenya consumes around 288,000 tonnes of maize per month, according to the Cereal Millers Association. Around 135,000 tonnes of this is milled, packaged, and sold by millers, yet millers are buying maize at a 50 percent mark-up due to dwindling reserves and high-priced imports.

     

    Kenya is now relying on maize from both neighbouring countries like Ethiopia and Tanzania as well as Mexico. But the links between politicians and the milling industry means this tends to favour large-scale millers, argues NASA’s Kambona.

     

    “The distribution of the imported maize is not transparent and favours only some large millers, leaving out small- and medium-size millers who are the ones who serve rural populations,” he said.

     

    Conspiracies and corruption

     

    The government’s agricultural policy in general tends to work to the benefit of large-scale producers, noted Owino.

     

    "Government gives price support [for commercial farmers], which is basically much higher than regional prices and also international prices. In that way it protects them from competition,” he said.

     

    "Some politicians are actually maize farmers themselves and have big farms, especially those who come from the Rift Valley, like Ruto and all his colleagues.”

     

    Scandals are nothing new. In 2009, ministers were sacked after thousands of tonnes of maize was stolen from the country’s reserves. Then-agriculture minister Ruto was implicated, but avoided any legal action.

     

    Store owner Wabwile, like many Kenyans, feels that politicians and the well-connected are profiting from the current crisis.

     

    “It's easy for this situation to come to an end, and that's by tackling corruption,” he told IRIN. “That is the only solution. When you deal with corruption, that is when things will start to change.”

     

    With aid agencies fearing the drought could yet get worse, Owino points out that subsidies can’t last forever.

     

    "The government hasn't addressed how you fundamentally deal with this recurrent food crisis.”

     

    With just two weeks ahead until polling day, Jubilee faces an uphill battle to convince Kenyan voters that more of the same in terms of policies will end the shortages.

     

    ce/oa/ag

    TOP PHOTO: Protesters demand political reform. CREDIT: Katy Fentress

    Kenya’s nail-biter election could turn on the price of a bag of maize
  • Kenya reconciliation faces major election test

    Towns like Langwenda in Kenya’s central Nakuru County still bear the scars of the post-election violence that rocked the country a decade ago. With new polls just six weeks away, could history repeat itself or have the lessons been learnt?

    An estimated 1,200 people were killed and more than 600,000 displaced during the disputed 2007/08 presidential election, with most of the violence errupting in the central Rift Valley between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, the two largest ethnic groups in the region.

    The area has been the centre of bitter land disputes since independence in 1964, with Kikuyu “settlers” accused of appropriating Kalenjin ancestral land.

    As Kenya heads towards elections on 8 August, the derelict houses in Langwenda, a small community in Nakuru’s Mau Forest, are stark reminders of that troublesome past that still haunts the country.

    “When the violence started, people came to Langwenda and looted this house,” recalled Christopher Towett, a Kalenjin. “They stole the sofa, the television, and other household possessions, and [they] stole our cattle.”

    Towett escaped with his family and neighbours into the forest because it was too dangerous to stay put and risk Kikuyu violence. As Kalenjin retaliatory attacks on Kikuyu properties across the valley intensified, he returned to find his house reduced to rubble and his life shattered.

    Since then, as part of a government initiative to resettle those displaced by the violence, Kikuyu communities were bought plots of land in Langwenda. “Kikuyus were compensated and given land here, but we [the Kalenjins] haven’t seen anything,” protested Towett. “I had to rebuild my house with my own money.”

    Despite this, Towett believes the two communities can co-exist. His son has married a Kikuyu, and children from the two communities play together. “We learnt from the past and we’re very careful now,” he told IRIN. “The Kalenjins and Kikuyus are now at peace. We don’t want to spill blood again.”

    Mutual suspicion

    But is Towett’s confidence misplaced? After all, the differences between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin are long-standing, going right back to when European settlers forced the pastoralist Kalenjin from their land and brought in outside labourers, many of them Kikuyu, to work their estates.

    At independence, some of the land was redistributed, with Kikuyus the main beneficiaries. In the late 1980s, the Kalenjin-led, single-party government encouraged attacks on Kikuyu communities, seen as the bedrock of the opposition pro-democracy movement. Tensions have been stirred by politicians ever since.

    “The land issue, which is always [at the heart of] the structural violence in Kenya, has not been dealt with at all,” said Maurice Amollo, who heads the Kenyan Election Violence Prevention Programme for the international aid agency Mercy Corps.

    “There’s a lot of talk, but if you ask me what has concretely been done to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself, my honest answer is nothing.”

    The Kenyan government and civil society groups did undertake grassroots reconciliation efforts after the shock of the 2007/08 violence, but a political alliance between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin in the 2013 election papered over these cracks.

    That “lulled many into believing historic foes were on an ‘irreversible’ course to overcoming animosities,” said a recent report by the International Crisis Group. “Yet Rift Valley reconciliation remains superficial,” it noted.

    Amollo agrees. “This tension has been suppressed, but not eliminated,” he said. “I think that people are confusing a lack of violent confrontation between the two communities with peace.”

    Pastor Joseph Maritim, a church leader in Keringet, a majority Kalenjin town in Nakuru, told IRIN that mutual suspicion still runs deep.

    “Politicians stand for their own political mileage,” he said. “If they tell their people that the land was supposed to be theirs but ‘outsiders’ are settling there, they can set communities against one another. That’s why people fight.”

    Others from the Kikuyu community, including Julius Oyancha, a church elder in Molo – one of the worst-affected towns in 2007 – also feel the politicians have let them down.

    “The politicians and leaders that incited us and led us into violence left us behind with the problems,” Oyancha said. “We lost most of our belongings and our land, and we came to realise what we were told was not good for our community.”

    leaflets.png

    Charlie Ensor/IRIN
    Hate leaflets

    Familiar story

    Politicians are once again accused of stoking ethnic violence ahead of the August elections, especially at the county level in the contests for executive governors.

    According to the ICG report, seven of 19 counties listed by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission as among potential violence hotspots are in the Rift Valley.

    During party primaries in April, leaflets containing hate speech began to appear in Nakuru. They encouraged Kalenjins to cleanse Kikuyu-majority towns in the country should Kikuyu aspirant Kinuthia Mbugua win the Jubilee Party’s nomination to run as governor in August.

    In Uashin Gishu, a neighbouring county, Governor Jackson Mandago, a Kalenjin, has explicitly called for Kikuyus to be kicked out should he win in August. With his opponent, Bundotich Kiprop, ahead in the polls, a return to violence in the county remains a real threat.

    Though a power-sharing deal under the Jubilee Party is in place between President Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Deputy President William Ruto, a Kalenjin, it is fragile, argues Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst at the Rift Valley Institute.

    “The fundamental problem in the Rift Valley is that the government has relied too much on a political alliance between elites from the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities to maintain peace there. A fracture in that pact could obviously lead to instability.”

    The pivotal point in that deal will come in 2022, when the Kikuyu are supposed to swing their support behind Ruto. There is unease among some senior Kalenjin that they may not. Failure to do so “almost inevitably would trigger major instability in the Rift Valley”, said the ICG.

    Impunity

    Kenyatta and Ruto were both indicted by the International Criminal Court for their alleged roles in the 2007/08 electoral violence, but, courtesy of their political pact, they were able to whip up domestic opposition to the court in The Hague. The case was eventually dropped in 2014, a setback that has hurt the fight against impunity.

    Most Kenyan IDPs displaced by the many rounds of political violence remain forgotten – without compensation or resettlement. IDPs like Mark Kipkemboi Korir, a Kalenjin, wait in vain. “The Kikuyus went to camps [after the 2007/08 election] and were easily identified and resettled. Because we came to stay with our relatives, it was difficult for the authorities to identify and resettle us,” he explained.

    Korir is a member of a lobby group that has found and identified around 1,500 Kalenjin displaced throughout the 1990s who are yet to be resettled, much less win justice through the courts.

    “We have written letters for a very long time, but we’ve not heard anything back,” Korir said. Even his personal messages to Ruto have been ignored. “We’ve been left to fend for ourselves,” he added.

    The question of impunity, which remains a vexed issue in Kenya, was recently revived by a statement from the ICC that under a more favourable government, it could re-evaluate the dropped cases.

    Korir is opposed to such a move. “If the ICC cases are brought forward again, it would open old wounds when we already sat down among ourselves and forgave one another,” he said.

    But Mercy Corp’s Amollo, also a Kenyan, believes the perpetrators of ethnic violence must be brought to justice.

    “I found it very, very sad that all of the cases at the ICC collapsed. That was a sad scenario because if we had even a handful of people punished that would have changed the way we do our politics in Kenya, permanently.”

    He suggested that re-opening old wounds may be the only way to allow proper healing. Otherwise, he said, “it’s just a suppressed conflict that’s waiting for a spark.”

    ce/oa/ag

    TOP PHOTO:  Christopher Towett outside his home

     

    Kenya reconciliation faces major election test

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